Durban, caste and Indian democracy

By Kancha Ilaiah

TO ASCERTAIN public opinion on the question of inclusion of caste on the agenda of the United Nations World Conference on Racism being held in Durban, South Africa, a national committee was constituted by the Prime Minister headed by Mr. Ranganath Mishra, former Chief Justice of India. The chairmen of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission and the Minorities Commission are its members. The national committee held its hearing in Hyderabad on June 4. Unfortunately, it was held in- camera and initially it planned to hear only the version of carefully chosen organisations. But several (about 30) SC, ST, OBC and women's organisations of Andhra Pradesh sensed this move and forced the committee to hear all opinions, which it did subsequently.

All organisations, except the few chosen ones, told the committee that caste must be allowed to go on the U.N. agenda. Unfortunately, the officially chosen and invited organisations had no idea about the Durban conference and what it would be all about. Only the organisations that went on their own made informed and forceful presentations. Several mass organisations gave concrete reasons why caste should be included in the Durban conference. Let me sum up some of the arguments.

The conference at Durban is against race, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The question is whether caste fits into this definition and India should allow caste to be debated at the U.N. conference. The argument of the Union Government is that the U.N. should not interfere in our internal affairs. That India has evolved enough tools to handle the caste question. That the attention of the U.N. conference should not be diverted from the question of race, about which India is deeply concerned. All these arguments sound hypocritical.

When the issue of race was put on the U.N. human rights agenda, Britain and America, where racial discrimination was being practised, were permanent members of the U.N. and had strongly rooted constitutional democracy in their nations. The public opinion within those nations was forcing them to enact laws that could establish mechanisms for handling racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance. India at that time argued that racism was too major an issue to be left to the respective countries to evolve tools to handle. Nehruvian intellectuals, who argued for pushing racism on to the U.N. agenda, based it on their own experience of xenophobic/intolerant treatment by whites of all coloured people, including Indians, in the West. This colonial experience of the Indian Brahminic elite itself was one of the grounds for asking for abolition of unequal race relations. The Indian upper caste elite suffered such xenophobic intolerance for about 200 years and at that time the distance between the white rulers and the lower castes was too far and was mediated by many castes in between.

Gandhi's experience in South Africa and the argument that Gandhi built against racism were India's strongest points. It is also true that Nehru and a host of other Indian leaders who studied in England carried their memories of racist treatment in their everyday life as students in the West. Nehru and other Indian leaders were strong votaries of the proposition that race must be included on the U.N. human rights agenda. But except Ambedkar, who had had the double experience of caste xenophobic intolerance at home and racial intolerance abroad, all other Indian leaders, who experienced racial discrimination and were angry with it were upper caste men and women.

They never realised that similar, in fact more horrendous, intolerance was practised in India because of caste. They never thought that the pain they suffered was much less than the pain the Indian lower castes suffered. The caste oppression continued for thousands of years. The Indian upper caste elite who suffered racism abroad had a liberative channel from that treatment when they came back home, but for the lower castes there was no such liberation at all. It was/is a long drawn out suffering without much hope.

Even now the Union Government wants an undiluted debate on racism because many NRIs are suffering racism in many Euro-American countries. All NRIs have painful stories to narrate to their parents back home; many of them are either politicians or bureaucrats even in the present ruling dispensation. Is it not true that the vast majority of NRIs are from the upper castes? Do they have the patience to listen to the Dalit narratives of pain back home? What is wrong if such Dalit narratives of suffering are talked about in all forums, national and international? When the upper castes feel relieved of some pain by merely talking about it, should they not concede that much to the Dalits also in all forums?

Is it not ironical that the experience of sufferings of the Indian upper castes abroad is taken as sociologically real and the sustained suffering of the indigenous people, like that of the Blacks in the form of caste, does not become a sociological reality. Even if such a thing is acknowledged they do not want it exposed. When victims of racism want to draw international attention and seek aid and help, why can the voiceless not seek such an attention, aid and help of the world community. Taking the caste issue to the U.N. forums is not only for the sake of debate. It would draw the attention of the world community so that more aid might flow in for taking up educational and empowerment programmes. Such programmes will go a long way in our development. Instead of taking a loan even for causes such as primary education for millions of lower caste children why not ask for charity for primary education by telling about the historical magnitude of the caste problem?

What will happen to the prestige of our democracy among the comity of nations if we talk about caste, is another question that all our ultra-nationalist theoreticians ask. By allowing the race question to be raised did the prestige of Britain and America suffer in any way? While being permanent members of the U.N., by allowing racism to be debated and measures worked out their democratic credentials have been strengthened. It helped the white communities examine their own self in the context of the international critique. It gave confidence to the Blacks. They began to respect their democracy more.

The Third World countries that asked for a debate on race only shared the moral agony of the Blacks. Whereas in the case of caste and the kind of atrocities, ignorance and poverty the lower castes suffer, the capitalist West owes a moral responsibility to uplift them as much as the upper castes of India do. The colonial world benefited from the cheap labour of the adivasis, Dalits and OBCs. If the Union Government does not even concede the existence of caste how can these communities, in the context of globalisation, raise globally relevant questions of compensation? The white rulers of Britain and America, could have easily vetoed any proposal on race. But that would have resulted in their democratic credentials becoming suspect in the comity of nations. More importantly, the victims of racism would have lost confidence in their own governments. But by conceding the truth of racism they gained on all fronts. Their democracies are surviving without facing any major threat.

If the Government of India conducts public hearings such as the one held in Hyderabad and uses them as an eyewash, the international community will laugh at our hypocrisy. The masses who are victims of the caste system will lose confidence in Indian democracy. It is known that at all levels of government the upper castes are holding the positions of decision-making. The representatives of the victim communities, who get an opportunity to sit in such committees, may be made to endorse the decisions. How does that convince the educated among the victims? Particularly, when this Government is backed by organisations such as the VHP and the RSS, which keep arguing that abolition of caste is detrimental to the Indian tradition of Varna Dharma? The day the Dalits lose faith in it because that they cannot speak out their agony, Indian democracy will begin to crack.

Print this Page
Print this Page
Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: June 12, 2001
Send e-mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
No Copyright: dalit e-forum