Caste is a variety of race

EVER SINCE Dalit groups have started mobilising themselves to fight their centuries old discrimination, the ruling elite have begun to hit back. In recent days, there have been articles in major newspapers on how caste discrimination is very different from race discrimination and that is why it is outside the purview of the U.N. Conference on Racial Discrimination. And all those who have articulated themselves including Andre Beteille, social anthropologist of repute, (in TheHindu of March 10, 2001) have backed the irrational position of the present government and other forces of vested interest.

What is however forgotten in the whole course of the arguments by the ruling elite is their own location in the social hierarchy. Our relationship to other human beings and society depends on our own social location and subjectivity. One can quote from authors and scholars to legitimise one's position and strengthen one's case. Unfortunately, the ground realities are experiential. To be fair to discriminated groups none of the elites who have been part of the oppressive structure should have any business to talk on their behalf since they have not experienced the reality of discrimination. The language and ideas of the ruling elite have been one of subjugation and exploitation since it is purely centred on concepts evolved in ivory towers. The objective of such knowledge is to preserve one's class interests. More than theory, knowledge must be constructed from experience. This position is unlikely to be acceptable to our noble theoreticians, academicians, the politicians and the bureaucrats since this class has benefited through subjugation of certain social groups in the name of caste.

The principle of equality is a fundamental component to the U.N. mechanism of promotion and protection of human rights. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ``All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.'' As we step into 21st century we need to ask ourselves as a nation whether our social and institutional structures are based on discrimination or not. And if there is discrimination what is it based on?


Whether it is caste or race, the status is entirely ascribed, the status one obtains at birth. Segregation exists in both the systems. Outcasts still remain outcastes. Even in the midst of the recent worst human tragedy that hit the country in the form of an earthquake in Gujarat, the whole institutional mechanism of the state did not move into the Dalit areas and belts while the benefits of relief went to the upper castes as fast as possible. This is no concoction. Papers have reported it. Parliament has discussed it. The Congress party has highlighted it and NGOs have testified to it. In both caste and race those in the lowest rung are not only discriminated against but cursed to do menial jobs. Endogamy is another feature of both. Marriages are rare and few both among different racial and caste groups. Both are stratifications, a hierarchical ordering of social categories, supported by social institutions. Inequality is intergenerationally transmitted in caste and race. Prejudice and discrimination are both a part of race and caste. And what is worse is that such prejudice and discrimination are not merely personal but institutional, a part of the structure and processes of whole society.

In both caste and race theories, there is an attitude of the so- called higher or superior groups that their culture is superior to all other cultures and all the other groups should be judged according to their culture. What is the difference in the claims made by the white race in Europe and the upper castes in India? In any racial or caste society the access to the society's resources including power is proportionately larger to the pure in comparison to the impure or polluted. Take the example of the Dalits in India. The Constitution has made caste illegal and abolished it in 1950. Affirmative action programme was introduced to bring the unequals to the level of equality. Regardless of official policy, the system still permeates Indian life and culture. ``When we are working, they ask us not to come near them. At canteens, we have separate tea tumblers and they make us clean them ourselves and make us put the dishes away. We cannot enter temples. We cannot use upper caste water taps. Our children in schools are not treated as children of the others. We live in colonies of our own'' - is a testimony of a scavenger in Ahamedabad. Caste has still limited social advancement, job and marriage choices. In spite of 50 years of Independence can one still believe that the SC/ST representation in teaching jobs at the level of higher education is a mere 2 per cent at the all India level, when the affirmative action has provided them with 22 per cent. How do those who oppose the linkage of caste with race explain this? Though skin colour or physical differences may not all the time play a significant part in distinguishing caste as in race, social descent and occupation does. Apartheid exists in both.

On several counts Dalit oppression is worse than racial discrimination. Over 240 million people of this country have been shunned as outcastes. In fact, the Government of India's 1996 state report on the Committee on Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) clearly notes though caste may not be equivalent to race, it falls within the purview of Article 1 of the Convention due to the clause on descent. Why is the government playing a different tune now? Even the U.N. Committee on Civil and Political Rights has observed ``SC/STs continue to endure severe social discrimination and suffer disproportionately from ...intercaste violence, bonded labour and discrimination of all kinds.'' The U.N. bodies have opened up opportunities for Dalit activists, movements and organisations to highlight their oppression in the international forum. When the Indian state has not effectively implemented its constitutional mandate of Dalit Human Rights, what is wrong that the Dalits demand for rights from the World Government, the U.N.? After all, India is a signatory to most of the covenants of the U.N. In the light of India's ratification of CERD in 1969 it is perfectly constitutional, lawful and democratic for the discriminated communities to approach the very body to bring to its notice the discrimination they suffer.

Vested interests

In spite of ground realities why is our ruling elite thus sound increasingly irrational? The reason is vested interests. It is the same interests that did not permit Ambedkar to raise specific concerns of the Dalits with regard to independence at the Round Table Conference. Once again, it is the very same interests that deny any implementation of affirmative action in the name of efficiency and merit. The caste system has developed a large amount of socio-economic interests and any change in it affects the existing socio-economic order. That is why our ruling elite abhor any transformation of the system. What the Dalit cause needs is perception of ground level realities from all concerned and not faithfulness to the position of the state and its academicians. We need to work for the liberation of the marginalisalised based on ground realities as experienced by the discriminated people.


Referred by:Balram Sampla
Published on: March 30, 2001
Send e-mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
No Copyright: dalit e-forum