Caste is a word India just doesn't want to hear
25 April 2001
By Sultan Shahin
GENEVA - The Indian government is involved in a series of diplomatic initiatives to prevent caste-based discrimination from being included on the agenda of a major United Nations conference on racism, and it appears to be winning the early rounds.
The most recent initiative is taking place at the ongoing deliberations of the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) in Geneva, where India is trying to block members of the Dalit (untouchable) community from having descent-based discrimination on the agenda of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to be held in Durban, South Africa from August 31-September 7.
This conference marks the culmination of the International Year of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and inclusion of discussion on India's caste system could prove a major embarrassment to the country. In Geneva, several non-governmental organizations in special consultative status with the UN are spearheading the movement for caste to be included on the agenda and a number of organizations have joined forces to form the International Dalit Solidarity Network.*
This follows a similar campaign at an Asian regional preparatory meeting held in Tehran, Iran from February 19-21 for the world conference where India argued that to discuss caste would "dilute" the Durban conference's focus on racism.
The Dalit network has taken its lead from the fact that a special UN rapporteur recognized caste as falling within the scope of racial discrimination and related intolerance in a January 1999 report. The report cited articles from the Indian constitution and views of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in reaching its conclusion.
Another important forum, the Bellagio consultation, has likewise recognized caste as a form of racial discrimination and intolerance. Similarly, the Asian Legal Resource Center pointed out in its statement to the Regional Seminar of Experts, Central and Eastern European States, held recently in Warsaw, Poland, as another preparatory meeting for the Durban conference, that "elitist claims that Dalit concerns are merely historical matters of backwardness and society's functional bases are equally fabrications that aim to perpetuate their subjugation of lower castes".
India does not want the caste issue raised at the international level for several reasons. First, it argues that caste discrimination is different from racial discrimination. Second, the Indian diplomatic mission in Geneva has taken the position of denying any violation of human rights in India based on caste discrimination. Third, the caste issue can be entertained at any international forum only in the context where it is proved that the domestic mechanisms of redress have failed. India argues that such mechanisms are still active, even in regard to the question of Dalits.
The government has also raised the bogey of nationalism against the "internationalization" of the caste issue. It argues that India's adversaries, such as Pakistan, might use it to embarrass India internationally, as indeed they are already trying to do.
Dalits say caste discrimination should be included on the agenda based on two grounds. First, caste and race, by implication, are the same because both lead to discrimination. Second, the caste issue, prevalent not only in India but also in other countries, including Senegal, should be given visibility at the international level.
Dalit groups have succeeded in having a resolution passed in the meeting of the sub-commission on racial discrimination. But the Indian government succeeded in removing the word "caste" from the resolution in favor of "discrimination-based on occupation and descent".
Gopal Guru, the Mahatma Gandhi professor at the University of Pune, Maharashtra, says the defense offered by India at the Geneva meetings has contradictions. For example, at one level, the government, at least in the past, has supported the liberation movement of the blacks fighting against white racial discrimination in different parts of the world. Similarly, representatives of the diplomatic establishment in Geneva lamented the racial discrimination that is practiced against Indian upper castes settled in countries dominated by white majorities.
Guru asks, "If caste also involves discrimination, perhaps of the worst kind, and therefore necessarily leads to the denial of recognition of human dignity, why does the government of India feel hesitant to accept it in an international forum? Why does it refuse to seize an intellectual initiative to define discrimination in broader terms? In fact, such generalization would help the government to remove the inconsistency in its approach towards discrimination and thus strengthen its moral standing internationally. Its refusal only helps its adversaries, those next-door or far off. "
Guru further argues that the Dalits are lobbying for their cause not with any intention of undermining the nation; their efforts are aimed at expanding the democratic base of nationalism. They expect the government to appreciate this point of view, which is radically different from groups motivated by the idea of secessionism. In fact, he says, such acceptance of caste-based discrimination offers the government a chance to prove its democratic credentials.
A potential difficulty for India comes with a provision in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) that stipulates that a state is still accountable for racism even where there is no proven intent. CERD requires remedial action whenever there is racism in effect: even where there may be no intent whatsoever to discriminate against a certain group. Thus India may be in trouble in the comity of nations even if it is able to prove, as it very well may, that it has no intention to perpetuate inequities based on caste discrimination.
The situation of the Dalits has been highlighted by several NGOs in Geneva. A written statement submitted to the UNCHR by the World Council of Churches says the living conditions of the Dalits have been aptly described by the former Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Mr H Hanumanthappa, in the following terms: "The Dalits are in different stages of socio-economic development and are engaged in divergent forms of work for their living.
"The practice of such traditional unclean occupations as scavenging, carrying night soil, removing dead animals, leather work, beating of drums, etc, gave them a low position in the traditional caste hierarchy and they are viewed as occupying the lowest rung of the social ladder. The vast majority of Dalits are landless and work as agricultural laborers and wage earners to eke out their livelihood. Dependence on upper-class landowners for agricultural labor and perpetual subjugation force many of them to live as bonded laborers."
The recently released annual report of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also draws attention to the Dalits."The commission considers it deeply offensive to human dignity that the degrading practice requiring the manual handling of night soil is still allowed to continue in our country, 50 years after independence. Despite the launching of a nationwide scheme in March 1992 to free those engaged in such work, and to rehabilitate them in other occupations, implementation has remained dismal."
Leading Indian intellectuals have, however, supported the government position. A major example is an article in The Hindu by Andre Beteille, who argues, "The metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or for making demands on behalf of disadvantaged groups. If discrimination against disadvantaged castes can be defined as a form of racial discrimination, there is no reason why discrimination, real or alleged, against religious or linguistic minorities cannot be phrased in exactly the same terms. The Muslims and other religious minorities will claim that they too, and not just backward castes, are victims of racial discrimination."
The initiative taken by the UN is bound to encourage precisely that kind of claim, says Beteille. "The UN initiative will open up a Pandora's box of allegations of racial discrimination throughout the world. By treating caste discrimination as a form of racial discrimination and, by implication, caste as a form of race, the UN is turning its back on established scientific opinion. One can only guess under what kind of pressure it is doing so. Treating caste as a form of race is politically mischievous; what is worse, it is scientifically nonsensical," concludes Beteille.
* The most notable among these are the Human Rights Watch, New York; the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR); India's National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights; India's National Federation for Dalit Women; India Committee of the Netherlands; Voices of Dalits International; Dalit Solidarity Forum, United States; Dalit Solidarity Network, United Kingdom; Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace, Canada; Bread for the World, Germany; Dalit Liberation Education Trust, Tamil Nadu; International Dr. Ambedkar Centenary Movement, Tamil Nadu; Navsarjan Trust, Gujarat; Sakshi, Andhra Pradesh; Society of Depressed People for Social Justice, Rajasthan; and People's Watch, Tamil Nadu.