Caste-based discrimination stokes up controversy

The Times of India News Service

GANDHINAGAR: The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights' latest effort to internationalise caste-based discrimination as a major issue needing focused attention at the upcoming UN Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to be held in August-September 2001 in Durban, South Africa, has thrown up a fresh round of controversy over a subject that has so far attracted little attention.

After the top-level preparatory committee meeting (prepcomm) at Geneva for the conference (May 21 to June 1), the campaign leadership and the Indian officialdom seem all set to confront each other over the issue.

Led by two Ahmedabad-based Dalit leaders, Pravin Rashtrapal, a Congress MP, and NCDHR convenor Martin Macwan, who runs Dalit NGO Navsarjan Trust, if the issue has already led the government of India to be on the defensive, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has strongly suggested the intention to challenge and fight back. The Centre's position was spelt out by Indian ambassador to the UN at Geneva (permanent mission) Savitri Kunadi, who told the prepcomm meeting that caste cannot be equated with apartheid. But she agreed to include "discrimination on the basis of work and descent" in the UN covenant on human rights.

Back from Geneva, Rashtrapal has sought Congress president Sonia Gandhi's intervention with Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. "The Opposition has not been consulted while taking up the matter at an international forum and also why none of the Dalit MPs from any party has been included in the commission that is to represent India at the Geneva conference", he told TOI.

In a letter to foreign minister Jaswant Singh, who chairs the Indian commission for Durban, he said, he was "shocked to find that the official Indian delegation prevailed upon the UN secretariat to ensure the removal of the phrase 'discrimination based on caste'."

Meanwhile, the VHP has strongly opposed the NCDHR's stand. Acharya Giriraj Kishore, in a statement, widely in circulation among Dalit NGOs, has said the "UN has no business to consider caste discrimination as form of human rights violation".

Calling caste as denoting "what profession man has adopted" and a part of "ancient customs and system" which "should not be and cannot be abolished by any court". The Acharya believes "it is a violation of human rights to abolish caste" because caste "does not say to anybody to discriminate against each other".

If Macwan has called the Acharya's statement a "slap to 50 years of constitutional guarantee to the Dalits in India", as convenor of the NCDHR, he has written an open letter to all members of the official commission set up by the Central government, saying, "The issue of caste-based discrimination cannot be considered as the sole concern of one section of the Indian population." It should in fact be made into a "national concern".

Addressed, among others, to foreign minister Jaswant Singh and Indian ambassador to the US Abid Husain, who is a member of the Indian commission for Durban, the letter says, "We believe that by blocking any mention of the problem of occupation and descent-based discrimination as caste discrimination, the Indian government is making itself vulnerable to increased criticism by the world community that it is refusing to do anything about a widely known and unacceptable phenomenon."

The letter emphasises, "We do not agree with the Indian position that caste is an internal matter of Indian society, and therefore should not be internationalised. In keeping with its constitution the nation has committed itself to the international human rights regime. We are concerned that eminent diplomat Abid Husein, in his capacity as special papporteur on freedom of speech and expression, has publicly expressed the view that by equating caste with race the Campaign will harm national interests."

Rashtrapal told the Geneva meet, "The Indian government does not enjoy consensus support within the country to deny the inclusion of such a major issue at this conference... A single government should not be able to stand in the way of addressing an issue that affects so many people in so many parts of the world."

Dalits of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Burakumins of Japan, Osus of Nigeria, Rodiyas of Sri Lanka and certain oppressed communities in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Madagascar fall under the category.

Rashtrapal said, "There little reason for the government to be so perturbed about an issue when no one is criticising it. The matter should be national concern. We just want to include caste based discrimination in the UN covenant on human rights."

Top world NGOs, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Max Romana, Lutheran World Federation, DanChurchAid, International Movement Against All forms of Radial Discrimination, Minority Rights Group International, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, Asian Legal Resource Centre, Bakuru Liberation League of Japan and Human Development Organisation of Sri Lanka have backed the NCDHR stand.

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: June 11, 2001
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