India's apartheid

By Rajeev Dhavan

IT IS no disservice to the heroic struggle in South Africa against apartheid to compare it with the struggle of Dalits and tribals to fight the cumulative injustice of centuries. In doing so we salute the struggles of all peoples to fight rascist and related ideologies which imprison and brutalise their lives.

It is unfortunate that we have to remind ourselves about India's apartheid through the aegis of the United Nation (U.N.) Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance due to be held in Durban from August 31 to September 7, 2001. It is doubly unfortunate that a cruel and ungainly controversy exists in India over whether casteism which plagues the everyday lives of Dalits, tribals and others is the same as or akin to racism? And, if misfortune can be compounded three times over, the Indian Government has obdurately taken the stance that the fight against the casteism has no place in the U.N.'s agenda to combat racism and related phenomenon.

It was at Durban over a century ago that Mahatma Gandhi began his struggle against racism and related intolerance. It is at Durban, too, that India refuses to follow his example to confront the biggest curse that plagues around 300 million, if not more people in India with one of the most vicious ideologies and permanent social diseases the world has ever known: casteism. It was early this month that a couple from different castes were hung whilst an entire village watched the spectacle. This is not an uncommon event. Nor is the permanent isolation of Dalits who are brutalised everyday through beatings, rapes, ostracism, land grabbing, deprivation and endemic disadvantage. Casteism is not a social preference, but an ideology that effects inter- generational injustice to condemn certain castes and communities into subordination and a cycle of deprivation for decades to come.

Why is Durban important? The 20th century was remarkably creative and destructive. It enabled political but not social democracy. It moved from the bicycle to cyber space, without bypassing nuclear destruction. It created a manufacturing bonanza but perilously threatened the environment. It transmitted good and evil on an enormous scale into our time. We carry into the 21st century four critical agendas:(i) the quest for an equitable global economy, amidst the exploitative regime of the WTO; (ii) the Rio and Kyoto agendas to protect bio-diversity and all living creatures; (iii) the fight against poverty and socio-economic inequality; and (iv) the struggle against racist related and similar ideologies which victimise whole peoples on the basis of their colour, race, ethnicity or descent.

Durban is concerned with the fourth agenda to confront the ideological social enslavement of entire peoples through ideologies that viciously discriminate against them under conditions of hate and endemic social disadvantage. This is an continuing evil. Indians should know better; look at the plight of Indians abroad. In 1968, Indians were thrown out of Kenya. In 1971, Idi Amin unleashed a reign of terror against Uganda's Asians. In 2000, in Fiji, a Prime Minister of Indian origin was dethroned whilst his community lived in terror. In 1968, in England, Enoch Powell, provoked and predicted that `rivers of blood' would flow. They did. In 2001, riots took place in the north of England. John Rex's research shows how housing patterns of immigrants perpetrate permanent disadvantages. In America, `dot-busters' attack Indian women who wear bindis on their forehead or Indian clothes. Of all peoples, we cannot afford to ignore racism-related phenomena being the pointed target of the global agenda.

Why do we resist the inclusion of casteism in this global agenda? For this we have to understand the global agenda; and, indeed, India's own. We are concerned here not with race but racism. Not caste but casteism. Racism is not just a socio-biological phenomenon but a colonial legacy. Like casteism, it is a social construct. It exists amongst and within White communities. Spielberg's Schindler's List reminds us of the struggle of the Jews in our time. The English outcasted Anglo and other mixes. The Dutch did not. The Durban Conference is directed against entrenched racism and related practices which contain the following characteristics: (i) a socially constructed ideology; (ii) founded on notions of superiority (or, inversely, inferiority); (iii) directed against entire peoples; (iv) on the basis of descent, ethnicity, colour, or physical characteristics; (v) manifesting violent expressions of hostility, including vicious and violent attacks, hate and bias; (vi) to perpetrate endemic social disadvantage; and (vii) effect inter-generational injustice.

Sociologists may quibble - as, indeed, Prof. Andre Beteille and others have - over academic dissimilarities between `race' and `caste' as heuristic `ideal types' to thrown the baby out with the bath water. But apply the seven tests which, perforce, underscore the global agenda. Caste is based on descent and birth. This is recognised as part of India's human rights constitutional dispensation in its equality provisions (Articles 15 and 16), the abolition of untouchablility (Article 17), the temple entry provision (Article 25), special provisions for an SC and ST Commission (Articles 330-342 and 46), and in the scheme of Indian federalism (Articles 164 (1), 371 A-G, Vth and VIth Schedules). Thus, the Indian Constitution has a priority constitutional commitment to fight a descent and birth based struggle against casteism and tribalism.

Our Constitution recognises that `casteism' is a centuries-old vicious ideology founded on hate, violence and exclusion from equality, opportunity, empowerment and resources. The Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955-1976 and the SC and ST (Atrocities) Act 1989 underlie this commitment. Yet, after 50 years, despite affirmative action and other agendas, casteism continues. Rapes, beatings and deprivations reflected in Government reports are the tip of the social inferno. Temple entry is accompanied by purification ceremonies before and after entry. Humiliation accompanies violence. By inclusion in the global agenda, the fight against casteism will be enhanced.

It was at India's insistence that `descent' was included in the Convention against Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1969. By 1996, India argued that `casteism' was not part of CERD, but was, in effect, overruled by the U.N.'s Human Rights Committee. Today, India flounders. It does not want to admit that `casteism' is India's apartheid which will continue in its most vicious and persistent forms for decades to come. Even if India's stance is linked to its quest for a seat in the Security Council of the U.N., this cannot mortgage human rights priorities for Dalits and tribals.

If `casteism' is not the same as `racism', it must be deemed to be similar. Article 25 of India's Constitution uses such a deeming provision for temple entry for Dalits by including Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains as Hindus. `Casteism' is not a social preference, but India's apartheid. We stand on the brink of history; and, we quibble over words on whether to include `casteism' as a related phenomenon similar to `racism'. Durban is not just about what is be included in the U.N.'s remit on racism and related phenomenon. It is about how to fight these social diseases. India should concentrate on these prescriptive programmatic dimensions. Fundamental issues remain. These include fighting hate propaganda while mindful of free speech. India's programmes have concentrated on self-betterment avenues for education and jobs as part of affirmative action, and some element of administrative and political empowerment through reservation. But it has failed to distribute economic resources including land and capital which are critical for inter- generational justice. The fight over tribal lands, the Samta judgment and Balco are examples of this - as, indeed, the resourceless denotified tribals. Anti-atrocity legislation lies relatively unenforced. The police do not investigate. Courts do not convict violators. We have progressed on paper but not in fact. We should recognise and stop the horror of India's apartheid, not brush it under the carpet.

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Referred by: Sashi Kanth
Published on: August 18, 2001
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