Fight caste in Delhi, not Durban
We have witnessed a series of seminars and consultations, not with a view to draw up a programme how to eradicate discrimination against Dalits but whether caste discrimination should be included as an item of agenda of discussion at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Intolerance (WCAR) being held at Durban. I find this an exercise in futility.
Judged by any measure it is not even arguable that the worst of discrimination and deprivation is the usual lot of Dalits. This shameful attitude of Hindu society toward Dalits made Swami Vivekanand cry out in anguish, "India's doom was sealed the very day it invented the word "mlechcha" and stopped from communion with other ... O Indians... Forget not that the lower classes, the cobbler, the sweeper, are thy flesh and blood, thy brothers".
But not withstanding all this, the evil of castism has the vicious habit of persisting. Dr Lohia was, therefore, insistent that sustained efforts be made to put Dalits into positions of power, and warned of the damage the caste system had done to India, and how she may rid herself of it. This pain was also reflected in 1982 in a judgement of the Delhi High Court, which, justifying that in the matter of allotment of land by the Government, priority be given to Dalits said: "Our social system has had, it must be remembered, to live down centuries of caste exploitation and sub-human existence to which this large chunk of our population, ie Harijans were condemned". A question may well be posed as to why then I see no utility in caste discrimination being discussed at Durban.
Though I am prepared to admit that discrimination against Dalits may sometimes be worse than many instances of racial discrimination, to equate Dalits as a separate race is to evolve a theory that India is a mixture of various races. That we are a multi-religious and a multi-cultural nation is a reality. But we are not multi-racial-like the US, which colonised Indians in America, or like Australia and New Zealand, which colonised the Aborogines and the Maoris. In India, people have lived together in harmony for thousands of years. To pick out any particular segment of the population as a separate race is illogical, because on similar grounds, the Brahmins and others will claim to be separate races, which will endanger the inherent unity of the country.
No, we cannot wash off our sins of caste discrimination by passing the buck to the UN. I am against providing an excuse to the Hindu society to absolve itself of its shame and guilt by purporting to put forward an excuse that discrimination against the Dalits is not a cancer within Hindu Religion, but a question racial discrimination.
The Dalit Christians too have expressed their resentment at being discriminated by other Christians in being denied facilities like a common church and common burial grounds. Should not Christian groups feel concerned as to why the religion of Christ, who treated all beings as children of God, and who has inspired millions of us in the fight for equality and universal brotherhood, permits this discrimination? Are we running away from our collective shame by saying that Dalits constitute a separate race in India and, therefore, are discriminated against by all religions-Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. I refuse to lessen my guilt as a Hindu at the treatment meted in the past and in the present by Hindu society, in calling Dalits a separate race. I must continue to wear the cross, till I redeem Dalit dignity and rights.
No, we do not have to go to Durban to know the reality of caste discrimination. Commendable work has been done by some NGOs which last year held a public hearing on this aspect. Violation of the Human Rights of the Dalits are perpetrated not only by the State but also by dominant castes. More disturbingly, they found that in Kerala, the CPI and the CPI(M) workers were threatened by Dalits who had left their party to join the Dalit Movement and also instances of forbidding temple entry to Dalits by the upper castes.
No, it is not a question of concealing from the international community this evil which is so well documented. Nor is it the devilish design of the present Central Government to avoid discussion on caste at the international forum. As far back as 1996, the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) noted that the then Indian Government, in its report, had claimed that the situation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes does not fall within the scope of the convention. The United Front Government in its communication of September, 1997 to the Special Reporteur repeated the same stand.
The euphoria that a programme of action could have been defined at Durban to fight caste discrimination is to deliberately shut one's eyes to the motivation and purpose of the organisers of WCAR. The United Nations publication mentions that the drafters of the UN Charter were well aware of the dangers of racism which had become so clearly evident in the years prior to the Second World War and which, during that war, reached an unimagined level of horror in the systematic and wholesale extermination of people for reason of race alone.
In 1991, in a note by the UN Secretary-General, the need to proclaim the Third Decade to Control Racism was emphasised as new conflicts along racial and ethnic lines have come about, among others, because of: (a) Intensified migration from Third World and Eastern Europe countries which suffer economic stagnation; (b) conflicts over economic resources, in developed as well as developing countries; (c) exacerbation of old racial conflicts and prejudices by racist groups, which in some countries have gained power and legitimacy by election to public office; (d) increase in Western countries of racial discrimination such as that which occurred with respect to immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa during the Gulf War.
The fact sheet of the World Conference has highlighted that racial discrimination, ethnic conflicts and widespread violence persist in various parts of the world. In recent years, the world has witnessed instances of "ethnic cleansing". Racial minorities, migrants, asylum seekers and indigenous people are persistent targets of intolerance. Right since 1945, the concept of racial discrimination has been the discriminatory treatment by Europe and the developed world of Asians, Africans and people from developing countries.
The shame of Dalit discrimination is certainly an issue of Human Rights and can and should form, legitimately, the subject matter of discussion at any International World Conference on Human Rights. But to purport to include caste in the WCAR would really take away the pressure from the racist policies of Europeans, like the treatment meted out by Clermans to Turkish immigrants, and to the racial attacks on people of Asian origin settled in the UK by the white hoodlums.
I fear no practical benefits will accrue to the Dalit movement; instead, in the bargain, it may weaken the fight against racism which is spreading in the developed world against the poor of the South. I would rather suggest that the Central Government be pressurised to hold an International Conference on Dalit Discrimination, with emphasis on how to eradicate it. NGOs engaged in the work of racial discrimination from outside the country should also be invited. Let the shame of our treatment of Dalits be exposed to public view.
My disagreement is only with those who want to fight this battle at Durban. If all the energy that has been put in just to place this item on the agenda at Durban had been spent fighting and exposing this discrimination at the ground level, a good deal of ground would have been covered. It is not jingoist nationalism that urges one to speak against the Durban discussion, but the sheer purposelessness of it. We must accept that the biggest hurdle in the fight against casteism is that our society is still seeped in a feudal mindset.
The Brahmanical caste system must be uprooted, and a Satyagraha launched for breaking the barrier of temple entry, and ending the practice of separate wells. But the battle has to be fought in Delhi, not Durban.