The overwhelming inclination among the delegations at the Durban World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to discuss caste as a form of discrimination is not surprising.
Officialdom in India is, however, apt to see in this a setback to its campaign against the inclusion of caste and untouchability in the WCAR agenda. It has reason to be disappointed since even South African President Thabo Mbeki has chosen to list caste as a form of intolerance like those based on race and colour which need to be discussed. What is more,WCAR secretary general Mary Robinson has identified the "Dalits of India" as among the "world's voiceless" victims of discrimination.
Even so, there is no reason to be alarmed by or upset at the fact that caste-based discrimination is threatening to feature prominently in the WCAR proceedings even though there is no likelihood of the subjects as such getting inscribed on the official agenda. In any case, it is perhaps a mitigating factor that caste and untouchability are being viewed at the WCAR as a global phenomenon common to many Asian and African countries and not peculiar to India alone. Whatever the gloss the government of India may like to put on the issue in order to avoid an accusing finger raised at the country, caste is a fact of life in India.
After all, if the government and the people of India are to remain true to themselves and their conscience, there is no escape from recognising caste (and casteism) as a form of human rights violation and as one of the many societal weaknesses totally inconsistent with the spirit of the times as also with the principles enshrined in the Constitution.
Indeed, although the government is committed (and never loses the opportunity to proclaim this commitment publicly) to deal firmly with atrocities against the depressed classes, and casteism is being condemned as a social evil acting as a constraint on the attainment of full social justice, both official and non-official action to fight and eradicate it have remained tardy.
As National Human Rights Commission chairman J S Verma has appropriately pointed out, the Constitution expressly prohibits all forms of discrimination, whether on grounds of race, caste, descent, sex etc.
The official Indian stand opposing the discussion of caste as a form of discrimination at the WCAR is premised on the fact that casteism cannot be equated with racism, a formulation with which there can be no quarrel. India is also opposed to equating Zionism with racism, a position which is consistent with the current UN stipulation.
If a considerable volume of disagreement has developed over the official position, and is being manifested at the Durban meet, it is because the dissenters feel that the anti-casteism movement can only benefit through exposure of this social evil in international forums, which in turn will generate pressure on the Central and State governments in India to safeguard Dalit rights and interests.
The argument that it is illogical to contest in international gatherings, a truth widely accepted at home, has much merit. The reality that the conditions of the Dalits and other weaker segments of the society need drastic and radical improvement cannot be wished away by running away from a discussion of the evil.
Having said this, it only remains to add that WCAR is concerned with a great many issues stemming from various forms of intolerance other than caste and untouchability, a candid discussion which India will find useful in implementing its own national agenda of ridding the system of some of its oppressive features.