Grumble Of Distant Drums
Perhaps only a handful of the 240 million Dalits back home know they are the subject of a passionate debate thousands of miles away in the coastal city of Durban. Even fewer would know about the 250 activists dancing and beating drums for their cause. And, in all likelihood, none would know that the group officially lobbying for them at the World Conference Against Racism (wcar) comprises mostly foreigners withlittle experience of India's grim realities.
Yet, all the song and dance and the relentless propaganda came a cropper, unable as Dalit activists were to secure the inclusion of caste as a form of racism at the United Nations Conference here. Their failure was in stark contrast to the euphoria the Dalit campaign had generated in the four days of the ngo forum preceding the conference.
Till then, the Dalit campaign, spearheaded by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), had raced ahead of almost every single group, barring those representing the Israelis and the Palestinians, in the feverish jostling for space and spotlight at the world forum. Generously distributing head bands that screamed "Dalit rights are human rights" and wearing black jackets asking people to "cast out caste", their cultural troupe had the audience swinging to their drum beats and dancing steps.
But the fizz from the campaign went out after UN secretary-general Kofi Annan snubbed the agitating Dalits at the ngo forum plenary, refusing to respond to the Republican Party of India leader Prakash Ambedkar, who made a political statement instead of asking a question-which was what all participants were supposed to do.
Worse, irresponsible statements left a bitter taste in the mouth for everybody. For instance, Gujarat Congress MP and ncdhr member Pravin Rashtrapal had people blushing at his risque analogy: "Racism is rape without a condom and casteism is rape with a condom." This statement, made unabashedly at a press conference, was reported in the Conference News Daily. The Independent on Saturday wrote about the nuisance Dalit activists were creating and quoted others who thought they "were shameless in their attempts to win publicity".
Says J.V. Bhairavia, who belongs to the Ambedkar Education Society and supports the Indian government's stance on caste: "The unruly members of the Dalit caucus just didn't allow other ngos opposing them to speak at the ngo commissions. This is clear hooliganism."
As the Dalit campaign started to falter, the activists resorted to the blame game. Ambedkar was held responsible for Annan's snub; others, though, wanted to know the identity of the person who allegedly passed the note from which Ambedkar read out the impolitic statement. MP Dalit Ezhilmalai was criticised for creating, Parliament style, fracas at the decorous plenary session.
With enthusiastic activists dissipating their energy, the more serious task of lobbying for the Dalit cause was left to a battery of foreigners sympathetic to the cause. Among them were Rikke Nohrlind of the Denmark Church, Peter Prove of the Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, Tim Gill of the Asian Human Rights Commission and Walter Hahn of Bread for the World, a Germany-based worldwide Christian citizen's movement.
Says Gill: "The main purpose of bringing the caste-based discrimination at wcar was to highlight the Dalit's human rights issue at the international forum. We have a long way to go, yet we have succeeded in creating international awareness about the Dalit issue."
Gill isn't wrong. Foreign delegates and the world media could be seen at the various fora discussing caste-based discrimination in India. And yet, despite the sympathy, the desired results eluded the Dalits at the official level. That South Africa President Thabo Mbeki didn't mention caste in his inaugural speech at the ngo forum and Annan restricted discrimination to descent (and not work) are illustrative pointers.
The problem for Dalits began when Switzerland withdrew its support to Para 73 in the programme of action that talked about discrimination on the basis of work and descent and on which the Dalits had rested their case.
Ironically, the Swiss had introduced this para. China also threw its weight behind the Indian government's stance that caste was an internal issue and outside the ambit of wcar.
With such formidable support behind him, it wasn't surprising to find minister of state for foreign affairs Omar Abdullah, who led the official Indian delegation, speak assertively at the wcar plenary.
Accepting that much needed to be done to eliminate caste discrimination from India, he went on to argue his government's case thus: "We are here to ensure that there is no state-sponsored, institutionalised discrimination against any individual citizen or groups of citizens. We are not here to engage in social engineering within member states."
Riling against Abdullah, however, was writer Ruth Manorama. Says she: "His understanding of caste is very poor. For the past 54 years the mechanisms to safeguard the human rights of Dalits have performed abysmally. Now that the issue has been internationalised, we hope some countries will lay down terms for safeguarding the human rights of Dalits and provide resources to the Indian government."
Dalit activists feel it was the clout of the Indian government that derailed their campaign. "The Indian government put tremendous pressure to dissuade many countries from supporting us," says Paul Diwakar, an ncdhr member. "An international human rights mechanism is the only peaceful, democratic way to fight for the Dalit cause."
Ultimately, the Dalits failed at Durban, says Ram Raj, national chairman of the All India Confederation of sc/st Organisations, because they lack a powerful mass movement back home. "In contrast," he says, "a handful of Israelis and Palestinians succeeded because they are backed by powerful mass movements. Beating drums at Durban is no achievement if we are silent on home grounds." .