In search of a new cast

Should caste violence be raised at the UN

Vandita Mishra

It is an unequal fight’’ intones P L Mimroth, advocate, Supreme Court, and national co-convenor, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). The Campaign is at the helm of the demand by various Dalit groups to raise the issue of caste-based discrimination in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7.

Mimroth’s apprehensions are entirely in order. Though the Indian government has set up a 15-member National Committee to evolve a consensus on the official position at the UN, its mind is already, firmly, made up. Regretting the ‘‘deliberate attempt by some to dilute the focus of the conference by broadening its scope to bring all forms of discriminations within the ambit of the conference,’’ External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told the Committee in its first meeting on February 7 at Delhi’s Hyderabad House, ‘‘we are opposed to discrimination in any form. But racism should not be confused with discrimination in general. Nor is it within the purview of the world conference.’’ Those who have been fielded to make the government’s case at UN fora in the elaborate run-up to the conference have argued that caste is an ‘‘internal’’ matter, and that India has enough constitutional, legislative and judicial instruments to ‘‘settle’’ it.

As Dalit groups make representations abroad and the government deploys a series of diplomatic manoeuvres to block their moves, a debate has hesitantly taken off on the issue back home. It is, first of all, about whether caste is equal to race.

Sociologist Andre Beteille, who resigned as chairperson of the National Committee earlier this year because he wanted to be free to express his views ‘‘as an independent academic’’, is categorical the twain do not meet. Stating his position in an article in a national daily, Beteille cites Franz Boas, widely regarded as the father of American anthropology, who ‘‘established conclusively with a wealth of empirical evidence the distinction between race which is a biological category with physical markers and social groupings based on language, religion, nationality, style of life or status’’. The UN’s attempt to ‘‘revive and expand’’ the idea of race, says Beteille, is ‘‘an act of political and moral irresponsibility’’ which will open up ‘‘a Pandora’s box of allegations of racial discrimination throughout the world.’’

The battle is joined with Beteille on the ‘‘scientific’’ ground by Kancha Ilaiah, author of Why I am not a Hindu. He believes India is home to three races, Aryan, Dravidian and Mongoloid, and that Brahmins belong to the Aryan race and the lower castes to the Dravidian. ‘‘Caste’’, he says, ‘‘has a clear racial character. It has roots in the racial division of society. Therefore, caste must be fought on the same plane as race.’’

But others dismiss the biological argument as a red herring. Says Chandrabhan Prasad, who writes a weekly Dalit Diary in a national daily, ‘‘His (Beteille’s) objections are like those of a Shastri Bhavan babu who questions why two xerox copies have been brought to him instead of one. The end result, in caste as in race, is the same, even worse. You might come across Blacks in American society who have done very well for themselves, but you won’t find a single Dalit in the membership rolls of the India Habitat Centre (IHC) or the India International Centre (IIC).’’

Both the ‘biological’ and ‘internal matter’ arguments are terribly suspect, points out Aditya Nigam, fellow at the Sarai CSDS. ‘‘This is not a conference on science or biology, there are clear parallels in the two kinds of oppression. Also, we have obviously failed to sort out the problem by ourselves’’.

That latter contention is borne out by the reality of continuing caste discrimination more than fifty years after Independence, especially against the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It continues, despite the plethora of constitutional commitments and special laws, and in spite of the much-touted policy of reservations. Social segregation, and the ‘two glass’ system, survive in many parts of the country. The pitiful conviction rate bears witness that the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989 exists mainly on paper.

The overwhelming majority of the rural Dalit population is still outside the pale of land reform. The literacy gap between Dalits and the rest of the population has been consistently maintained over the years. SC/ST representation in teaching jobs hovers around 2 per cent though affirmative action provides for 22 per cent. ‘‘Constitutionally, we have absolved our conscience’’, points out Imtiaz Ahmad, Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. ‘‘For the rest, we seem to think that if we close our eyes to it, it will cease to exist.’’

But how will taking the issue to the UN help? This question is immediately countered by another: In an increasingly globalised world where every discourse matters, why rule out the UN? ‘‘International pressure and support have helped the black movement against apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the US. It has certainly benefitted the women’s movement. We’re looking to the UN conference to chalk out and monitor a concrete programme of action for the 240 million affected by caste discrimination in South Asia,’’ says Martin Macwan, national co-convenor of NCDHR. Others are less ambitious. At least some moral and political pressure can be built upon the state to fiddle with various options as in the case of child labour, they say.

Significantly, even as the battlelines are being etched increasingly sharper over the last many months between the Dalit activists and the government, politicians in general, and Dalit politicians in particular, have been uncharacteristically reticent. When contacted by The Indian Express, BSP chief Mayawati admitted her party had not taken a position so far. ‘‘This is the first time I’m speaking on this issue’’. But, ‘‘of course, caste discrimination must be talked about at the UN since successive regimes have failed to improve the condition of the Bahujan Samaj,’’ she said.

A clue to the Dalit politician’s reluctance may be revealed by a closer look at the Dalit movement perhaps. The ‘movement’ is not one, explains Imtiaz Ahmad, there are different concerns. One battle is afoot to cobble alliances with other groupings to forge a ‘Bahujan Samaj’. This is a fight, a la Kanshi Ram’s, to achieve political power; the rest, it is believed, will follow. Whether or not caste should be discussed in a UN conference on race is unlikely to be an overweening question here. The demand may not find ready advocates in another section of the Dalits as well, which is preoccupied, like Maharashtra’s Mahar movement, with carving out a strictly Dalit identity counterpoised to the brahminical.

It is a third strand, on the margins of the movement, not numerous enough to count politically or to be overly preoccupied by questions of identity, that makes the demand for caste-based discrimination to be discussed in a UN conference, even if the subject is race.

It is not the Dalit politicians alone who are reticent though. This reporter found that a notably large number of academics/intellectuals were unwilling to take a position on record.

Could it be a pointer to the fact that the issue is, indeed, much too complex? Or is it an indicator that Dalit issues continue to receive only the wary ‘corner of the eye’ attention from an overwhelmingly non-Dalit intelligentsia? Or could it be that in a sharply polarised debate on a ‘sensitive’ issue, there is very little space left over for the ‘yes, buts’ and the ‘no, buts’? There are apprehensions, for instance, as yet unrecorded, about whether it wouldn’t be better for the Dalit movement in the long term to demand that caste be discussed and understood as a specific problem at the UN, with its specific solutions, instead of clubbing it with race. That the Euro-centric UN vocabulary be challenged in a more forthright way.

As the August conference draws nearer, then, there are two questions. The first — whether or not Dalit activists will finally succeed in including caste on the UN agenda this year— is more or less settled. As Mimroth and his co-campaigners in the NCDHR already apprehend, they most probably won’t. It is that other question — what is the nature and reach of the debate that the issue provokes — that continues to fester.

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Referred by: Chandra Bhan Prasad
Published on: June 12, 2001
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