Caste Crusaders Lobby for U.N. Scrutiny

By Rama Lakshmi
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 11, 2001; Page A15

KHEECHA, India -- For generations, the untouchables of Kheecha took extreme care not to get in the way of the upper-caste Hindus in the village. They toiled as rope makers and farm workers for very low wages but accepted their fate in silence.

Their code for survival was reflected in an ancient village saying: The upper castes are like an elephant's foot. If you come in their way, they will crush you.

Things looked as if they might improve a little last year, when a regional group of activists arrived with the promise of land. After a fierce court battle, the untouchables won rights to land that the upper castes were occupying illegally. They sowed wheat and cumin seeds and waited for their dreams to bloom.

But the upper castes fought back this February, bringing in diesel engines and draining all the water from the village pond. As a result, the untouchables' first crop failed.

"They wanted to teach us a lesson for daring to possess land," said Babu Pasabhai, an elderly villager, as he sat in the temple courtyard on a hot and dusty afternoon.

The untouchables -- or dalits, as they are now called in India -- may not know it, but they now have another ally fighting for them, one with more clout than the regional group, capable of pleading their case in far-flung cities. It is a coalition of dalit groups and activists, lobbying for inclusion of India's caste system on the agenda of a U.N. conference on racism to be held in August in Durban, South Africa.

But the dalits have a new, powerful adversary, as well: their own government. India officially regards the issue of caste to be an internal matter and does not want it to be made into an international cause. The government will oppose inclusion of caste on the U.N. conference agenda on the grounds that caste and race are not synonymous.

"This is a conference about racism. We believe that by bringing caste we would end up diluting the real thrust of the conference," said Soli Sorabjee, India's attorney general and a member of the U.N. Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination. "Of course, despite laws and constitutional provisions, caste discrimination still exists in India. But social habits die hard."

The 3,000-year-old caste system is sanctioned by Hindu theology, in which every person is assigned a rigid role at birth. Since achieving independence in 1947, India has sought to overcome the inequities of caste, outlawing untouchability and discrimination. A progressive constitution mandates affirmative action programs for dalits in education, and quotas in government jobs and political representation. Today, the country's largely ceremonial presidency is held by a dalit, K.R. Narayanan.

But the caste system has proved as unshakable as it is oppressive. Attempts by dalits to disturb the traditional social hegemony in rural India are still met with large-scale violence, destruction of property and sexual violence against women.

"Untouchability may be outlawed on paper but the practice of social exclusion carries on in many forms," remarked Chandrabhan Prasad, one of the country's leading dalit columnists. Today, about two-thirds of the dalit population is illiterate, and about half are landless agricultural laborers. Only 7 percent have access to safe drinking water, electricity and toilets.

While the Indian government acknowledges the problems, it insists they are not racial. The government wants to avoid the international visibility that the Durban conference would give to the caste issue. At one of the preparatory meetings for the conference, an Indian diplomat unofficially pleaded with the dalit coalition not to wash India's "dirty linen in public."

But the pro-dalit lobbyists would like to avoid "technical hairsplitting" and insist that caste discrimination in India urgently needs international attention.

"Caste is India's hidden apartheid," said Martin Macwan, 41, a dalit leader who heads the group that fought for land in Kheecha. He also leads the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights that is fighting the U.N. battle.

"It concerns 160 million people in India who face a daily dose of discrimination and exploitation. It is worse than the one against Jews in the Nazi era or the black slavery," Macwan declared.

Dalit activists acknowledge that a victory at the U.N. conference would mean more in symbolism than in substance. It may not end deprivation and discrimination, but they hope that such a move would bring India under direct U.N. scrutiny.

But back in the shaded village of Kheecha, Pasabhai said he has lived long enough to know that laws and policies will do little to change the situation for his community of 600 dalits.

"There can be no solution for this on paper. The only solution is to change people's minds," he said.

2001 The Washington Post Company

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Published on: June 12, 2001
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