Discrimination that must be cast away

India's reaction to the proposed World Congress on 'Racism, Racial discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance' later this year is curious, say SWAMI AGNIVESH and Rev. VALSON THAMPU. No academic exercise on race, this U.N. conference is instead an initiative to address the evils of intolerance and discrimination in whichever form they exist. But given the country's resistance to social reform, it becomes regrettably necessary to expose the pathology of caste practices to global scrutiny, they write.

THE proposed World Congress on "Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance", (Durban, South Africa, August 31 to September 7, 2001), has provoked a long-overdue debate on caste. Caste today enjoys unprecedented political leverage in this country. The political establishment argues, nonetheless, that since constitutional provisions for dealing with caste-based discriminations and disabilities are in place, caste is no longer a problem waiting to be addressed. At the same time, the protagonists of dalit identity have had considerable success, especially in recent years, in globalising their grievances. The United Nations, in the meanwhile, has become bolder in rejecting the erstwhile dogma that the "internal affairs" of nations should not be interfered with. Those who remain stuck with the mind set of nation states, though, will take a while longer to get used to this changing reality.

Given the track record of tenacious resistance to social reform, it becomes regrettably necessary to expose the pathology of caste practices to global scrutiny. Sticking plaster over festering wounds is not known to help in healing them. They are healed best in exposure. The more we deny dignity and development to our dalit brothers and sisters and try to keep this scandal under wraps, the surer we are to invite scrutiny and embarrassment in a globalising world.

However, the Government, stage-managed by the caste lobby, is keen to forestall the proposed debate. The strategy of obstruction in this instance is two-fold. The official objection articulated by Soli Sorabjee, Attorney General, is that caste being an issue internal to this country, the U.N. should refrain from meddling with it. He argues, further, that bringing caste into the ambit of this conference will dilute the focus on race. The latter in particular is a curious argument. The U.N. Congress is not envisaged to be an academic exercise on race, but an initiative to address the evils of "intolerance and discrimination" in whichever form they exist. Else, the words "Xenophobia and Related Intolerance" would not have found a place in the ambit of the conference. The basic question is not if caste is generically identical or related to race. It is if caste perpetuates intolerance and discrimination as race does. The mandate of the world body is not to shoot down race or caste, it is to rid the world of intolerance and discrimination in its myriad forms.

In the meanwhile, a segment of the intelligentsia has launched itself into endorsing the establishment's stand. Prof. Andre Beteille has protested vehemently against equating caste with race. "Treating caste as a form of race," he writes, "is politically mischievous; what is worse, it is scientifically nonsensical." Even though he concedes that "the practice of untouchability is reprehensible and must be condemned", he feels obliged, nonetheless, to insist that caste is not "a form of racial discrimination". It is not Andre's case that the caste system is free from "discrimination". Like Vivekananda and Gandhiji, he finds "untouchability" repugnant. Condemn it by all means, but let not caste be polluted by having it discussed alongside race. Due to his image as an ideologue of liberal individualism, Andre grants that casteism deserves to be condemned. But that does not prevent him from objecting to the way the U.N. proposes to deal with the issue of caste. The underlying logic amounts to this. "Caste is obnoxious. It must go. But the U.N. should leave it alone". That is clever; for if the U.N. does not question caste, assuredly no one else who matters would.

The Gujarat earthquake is a recent illustration of the discrimination native to the casteist mindset. Kuldeep Nayyar, one of our most respected journalists, has this to say on the discrimination that vitiated relief operations in the quake affected areas. "The criteria for distribution of relief," he wrote, "are said to have been caste, creed and religion. High caste Patels did not allow relief vehicles to reach many places because the population living there belongs to lower castes, which the Patels describe as 'the disease-ridden people'." This is distressingly similar to the situation in Gujarat that Ambedkar describes in his book, Annihilation of Caste. "In November 1935, some untouchable women of well-to-do families started fetching water in metal pots. The Hindus looked upon the use of metal pots by untouchables as an affront to their dignity and assaulted the untouchable women for their impudence".

India was at the forefront of globalising the opposition to Apartheid. We were among the earliest to honour Nelson Mandela for undoing this discriminatory system. Even so we are averse to debating caste objectively. In contrast, when the protagonists of the caste system began targetting a minority community in certain parts of the country, the Prime Minister found it appropriate to have a "national debate" on conversion. Given the prolonged history of caste atrocities,

shouldn't there have been a series of national debates on caste, so that the dalits too could have told their part of the story? As long as we are shying away from this long-overdue exercise, how can we convincingly argue against a global debate on caste?

Swami Dayanand, founder of the Arya Samaj, blasted the citadels of orthodoxy and proved beyond doubt that the correct interpretation of the Purush Sukta of the Rig Veda not only repudiated the birth-based caste system but also supported the Varna system based on one's Guna, Karma and Swabhava, i.e. Talent, Action and Aptitude. Dayanand advocated inter-caste marriages and uplifted dalits to the status of Aryas. He also denounced the very concept of race by insisting that all of humanity is one race and any discrimination on the basis of colour or form was an abomination. The Indian establishment should proudly appropriate the great legacy of Swami Dayanand and his Vedic insights.

As a tribute to the legacy of another of India's greatest sons, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, India should proclaim from Durban that both race and caste are inhuman institutions and they deserve to be cast out, lock, stock and barrel.

Race and caste leave indelible marks on their victims, physically and psychologically. Various attempts have been made by their apologists to invent scriptural sanctions for them. The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, for instance, deceived itself into believing that Apartheid was compatible with the biblical world view. The Church of England, for long, dragged its feet in condemning this obnoxious system, largely because of the mammoth investments the Church had in South Africa. The prolonged silence of the Church universal in the face of such a scandalous treatment of human beings is at once inexplicable and inexcusable. How on earth could the Dutch Reformed Church preach that all people are created in the Image of God and also justify racism is a riddle that is hard to unravel?

Apparently, caste too claims its sanction from scripture: an allegation acceptable only to those who do not either know or respect the Vedas. Ironically, the very fact that scriptural legitimacy had to be invented for caste proves that it could not have been justified or legitimised in any other way. It is not rarely that scripture is used and abused to defend the indefensible. In point of fact, caste is a post-Vedic invention meant to perpetuate the religious, social and economic domination of a few over the rest. Despite the battle cry issued by social and religious reformers like Buddha, Nanak, Kabir, Dayanand, Narayana Guru, Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar, caste discrimination continues to afflict millions in this country.

Caste, like race is exploitative, discriminatory and anti- developmental. Its virulence can be gauged from the fact that though originally a creation of the medieval Brahmanical priest- craft, the abominable caste system has spread its tentacles into those religions that admitted converts from Hinduism, such as Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. It has not spared even a great social reform movement like the Khalsa Panth, launched 300 years ago, by the warrior-saint Guru Gobind Singh. The invidious character of the caste system has even divided the Dalits into disunited fragments, disabling them from breaking out of this social prison. Decades after B. R. Ambedkar issued the clarion call for its annihilation, caste continues to dominate the social, cultural, religious and political horizon of India. The sun has set over the great British Empire; but not over the Caste Empire.

Hence the eagerness of our Government to forestall the proposed U.N. debate. It is common knowledge that the sole agenda of the Sangh Parivar is to perpetuate the iniquitous caste system under the pretext of Hindu resurgence. It is a measure of the prevalent spiritual illiteracy that this gross misrepresentation has managed to sway many in this country. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, "In religion there is no caste. A man from the highest caste and a man from the lowest may become a monk in India and the two castes become equal. The caste system is opposed to the religion of Vedanta".

In the euphoria that accompanied the birth of the Republic, it was widely believed that the curses of casteism and communalism would wither away with the rise of secularism and scientific temper. Precisely the opposite has happened. An intolerant and casteist perversion of Hinduism is asserting itself politically. The major institutions of our society and culture are being ideologically colonised. Policies and priorities are being tilted in favour of the upper castes and to the disadvantage of the dalits and minorities. The rights and guarantees enshrined in the Constitution are being eroded. A palpable allergy to dissent is becoming the order of the day. Shadows of despair are lengthening over "the India of our dreams".

In the emerging, carefully choreographed media debate on caste, it is doubtful if the voice of the victims of caste oppression will be heard at all. Even if it is, it will be formatted strictly within the academic and conceptual parameters set for this debate by the protagonists of the caste order. This is only to be expected, as they are in a position to fix the terminological and ideological framework for this debate. It is naive in the extreme to expect that there can be a fair debate as long as one of the parties enjoys the exclusive right to fix the rules. Hence the rationale for a global debate that could ensure a level playing-field for both sides. The invidious trick that the social, cultural and political elite have played all through history is to invent the scruples that shape human perceptions and options from within. Once these are internalised, the advocacies of the elite seem logically inevitable. Today irrational scruples are being worked up against linking race with caste, even though discrimination and endemic injustice vitiate both. These arbitrary scruples are a far cry from the plight of the caste victims. Sadly, they do not have the polemical weapons to counter this rhetorical offensive.

The time has come to call the bluff on the immorality of the scruples of the establishment. The reeking injustice of perpetuating caste oppression and the irreligion of justifying this aberration in the name of religion must all be seen for what it is. A world free from the scandals of destitution and discrimination, a society where all are free to fulfill their potential, where none is arya or "pariah" for being in the right or wrong wombs, is the minimum goal towards which we need to move together as a nation. If the forthcoming U.N. conference urges us to take a step in this direction, we should avail ourselves of that chance rather than relapse into defensive disarray.

The discriminatory nature of caste as well as race is duly recognised by the Constitution. Article 15 (which outlaws discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) and Article 17 (which in effect accepts the existence of caste-based discrimination and its effect of untouchability as racial discrimination) are instances in point. Likewise, Article 29 offers protection against caste-based discrimination in admission to educational institutions. The recognition of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as victims of caste discrimination over the centuries underlies the need to provide for reservation in the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies of the States (Articles 331 and 332). Statutory provisions for reversing the ill-effects of discrimination do not make sense unless caste-based discriminations are both prevalent and rampant.

The stark reality of discrimination that plagues a fifth of India's population continues to stare us in the face. This can no longer be hidden nor justified. Our stature and future as a nation depend on the willingness to acknowledge mistakes and the readiness to correct them, rather than on the stubbornness in denying their prevalence or the adroitness in defending them. At any rate, the question of masking the true nature of the caste system does not even arise; for it is not confined to Indian territory. From here, it has spread to our neighbouring countries and, in that sense, caste-based discrimination is not, strictly speaking, an "internal affair" of our country. The fact that this sub-human pseudo-religious mechanism has survived for so long and that it continues to be ascendant does not prove that it cannot be eradicated. It is unlikely that the caste system, despite its rare genius for survival, continues to remain immune to the challenge of the global order, with the vulnerability of nation- states implied in it, and the inevitable subaltern ferment in the wake of an unprecedented celebration of human awareness.

This is not a time for academic hair-splitting. It is a time for bold and forward-looking initiatives. The hangers-on of the old order will have to realise sooner or later that their customary framework of discourse has already given way to a global frame of reference. This is bound to rob their rhetoric of the semblance of plausibility it enjoyed till the rise of the global order. Caste is a blatant anachronism in a globalising world. The sooner this is realised, the better it is for the country as a whole. The attainment of an egalitarian society free from the stains of casteism, communalism and corruption, rather than erecting some temples here and there, should be our authentic "national aspiration".

(“Letters” column)


Caste and race

Sir, - This has reference to the article, ``Discrimination that must be cast away'' in the magazine section (June 3). The issue of caste classified with race, in regard to the proposed World Congress on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to be held later this year, has become a global controversy, as provocative as the debate on caste oppression in India. Persons belonging to the SC/ST do not wish to be clubbed together. A healthy national consensus on exterminating caste oppression is vital to help in the harmonious development of the country.

Given the secular bent of the nation, the establishment of provisions for all weaker sections of the society, the economically backward or restrained, would help in their cordial acceptance of each other. The ills of our forefathers are being redressed, but to such a minimal degree that it defies comment.

The question of how long these provisions should continue also needs to be addressed, for are we not then perpetuating the caste system in allowing provisions for ``some'' instead of ``all'' who need help, for one, two, three, four generations? Casteism and communalism will then again rear their ugly head.

Jayshree Tripathi,


Sir, - The question is whether caste and race are the same, and if there is any racial basis to the caste system. The original meaning of caste as it existed among the Aryans, and its significance today are entirely different. The four castes were divisions among the Aryans only, and as such had no race or racist significance. The only uncomfortable question to many is whether the Aryans originated here, or whether they migrated into the sub-continent. It is very unlikely that a fair skinned race suited to a temperate latitude would have originated in tropical regions like the Indian sub- continent, or in Africa, whose indigenous races are all dark skinned. Inasmuch as the caste system is practised in India is discriminatory and oppressive, it should come under the banner of racism.

Mathew Joseph,


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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: June 9, 2001
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