Caste and the Durban conference
BY SETTING ITS face against a discussion on the caste-based oppression (that haunts the political discourse in India even now) at the World Conference
Against Racism in Durban, the Union Government has indeed ignited a debate. There may be some truth in the official view that notions based on caste are far too different from race as a concept and discrimination based on caste identities cannot be equated with racial discrimination. It may also be true that the oppressive caste order that prevails in large parts of the Indian countryside (where the Dalits have to face atrocities at the hands of men from other caste groups) cannot be equated with apartheid or Zionism. And in this sense, the Durban conference may not be the place to discuss the caste- based oppression that prevails in India today.
After all, racism or Zionism as they exist (in some parts of the world) relate to the provisions in the legal framework of such nations that explicitly declare the exclusion of a set of people from the socio-political setup. This certainly is not the case in India. Unlike the apartheid that was in vogue in South Africa or the Zionist regime in Israel, the Indian Constitution is categorically inclusive. It does not exclude any social group from the institutions of governance. Instead, there are provisions in the Constitution for positive discrimination towards these social groups and affirmative action in this regard has effected a set of changes in the socio-political discourse.
Yet, the sad fact remains that these actions have not brought about any decisive or fundamental transformation in Indian civil society. Attacks on Dalits (most often orchestrated by collectives representing upper caste interests) and even massacres of men, women and children belonging to the lowest rungs of the social order are indeed a regular feature in most parts of the country. This certainly provides the basis for the argument made by several organisations outside the Government that the oppression of the Dalits is no different from the discrimination elsewhere against races and communities and their exclusion from the political and other walks of life. Despite the provisions against such exclusion of communities in the Indian Constitution, the ground reality in many parts of the country is painfully to the contrary. There can be no denial of the fact that the Dalits are excluded (by resort to the odious social sanctions against them) from taking part in the political process in many parts of India. It is for this reason that it becomes the imperative for the ruling elite to introspect in real earnest and commit themselves to change the status quo.
The Durban conference and the debate triggered can be turned into an occasion to introspect and take a critical look at this country's record on the issue of the rights of the social groups that continue to be oppressed. Such a challenge, indeed, cannot restrict itself to the social realm alone.
The question of land and ownership would also have to be addressed in this context. Demonstrative actions rather than a semantic debate on whether caste-based oppression is similar to apartheid or Zionism is what is expected of the Indian state to show its political will and determination to root out this pernicious phenomenon.