Is caste-based discrimination racism?

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights with its headquarters at Geneva has declared the organisation of a world conference against racism at Durban, South Africa, during the last week of August 2001. This conference is known as the "World conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and related intolerances" and shortly termed as WCAR. The notions of a race, caste, nation, ethnic group, indigenous people and so on have engaged the attention of social scientists as serious issues of contemporary relevance for quite some time at the international level.

The notion of racial superiority has brought unprecedented human suffering and even world war during the last century. But, mankind has not learnt lessons. Racism and racial discrimination continues to haunt both the gullible and the enlightened public resulting in crisis in society. Racial discrimination and related intolerances, have brought an international upsurge when a parliamentarian in the United Kingdom reacted unparliamentarily evoking racial feelings during the last week of April 2001.

Yet, some sociologists, particularly the Indian brand, refused to recognise the fact that people still carry notions of racism and continue to discriminate people on the basis of these false beliefs. The argument that racism does not stand for scientific reasoning, even after the human genome project, only sounds academic. But the fact of the matter is that people believe in wrong and unscientific notions and act accordingly. That does not mean that there is no discrimination based on racism.

The UNHRC had published reports of brutal killings in Germany, USA and in other parts of Western Europe during 1998 and 1999 based on racial belief of people. It is in this context, the UN has taken serious note of it and is preparing the world to combat this human tragedy through WCAR.

In the process of preparing the governments and civil society (through NGO forum) for the world event, the UNHRC has organised four regional conferences in different regions including the one at Tehran for South Asia. The Tehran conference became controversial because the Government of India represented by its Ambassador and other officials, at the meeting denied the existence of caste discrimination in India.

The work and efforts made by the International Human Rights Watch in bringing the world attention about the "Broken Men" in India is laudable. At the same time, a group of intellectuals and social activists have formed into a group and started a National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights to fight against caste discrimination in 1998.

The NCDHR, through its international network, has brought to the notice of the world that caste discrimination is a phenomenon widely spread across the South Asian region and is not limited to Indian soil. The concept of race is an European invention and caste is an Indian social institution.

There are several parameters which are common in both the categories. But, one important factor that is common to both the categories is the concept of inequality based on birth or descent. In fact, the WCAR has clearly defined what is discrimination and how it is practised. But, the Indian government, because of its own reasons, has not reconciled to the fact that caste discrimination exists even in the 21st century.

Interestingly, the international Dalit networks have succeeded in establishing a common link wherever there is untouchability based on descent and work. It is estimated that there are around 260 million people who are affected by the inhuman practice of untouchability and discrimination based on birth. This belief, it is said is widely discriminated by the Hindu customs of purity and pollution. This is found to be prevalent in countries where the Indian Diaspora is spread.

It is observed that representatives from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and Japan have formed into an international Dalit human rights network to fight against the evil of caste discrimination. This has defeated the argument of the Government of India that it is an "internal issue".

It is no more an internal problem as the Dalits of Nepal and India, Barukuman of Japan with similar social disability and Dalits in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Malaysia and Thailand have joined together to fight against this evil at the international forum.

The NGO representatives of around 35 countries of Asia and the Pacific have witnessed the drama and unanimously supported the NCDHR argument and a declaration condemning caste discrimination was prepared by the NGO forum and presented at the general meeting. The declaration was further endorsed by the NGO representative who met in Delhi after the Tehran Conference.

An exclusive UNNGO meeting was convened in Kathmandu in April 2001 to discuss and further refine the NGO declaration on racial discrimination and related intolerances prepared at Tehran. This has further strengthened the issue of caste discrimination as an important point to be discussed at Durban, South Africa, in August- September 2001. Interestingly, the representatives who were elected by the NGO forum to represent various issues at WCAR are found to be more in number for caste issue, out of the 20, from the South Asia Pacific at the Kathmandu meeting.

The argument that caste and race are two different notions and do not qualify to get included in the agenda of WCAR is almost defeated. The International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of racism has recognised caste discrimination as an important form of discrimination in 1996 (CERD doc A/51/18).

Further, the WCAR is concerned not only about caste discrimination, but even interested to probe into intensity of it through the observation of the practices which indicate intolerance. Untouchability is an extreme form of intolerance observed by many in India today.

The Government of Andhra Pradesh had appointed Justice Punnaiah Committee to enquire into this problem and it is hoped that the report will further strengthen the NCDHR to fight against discrimination at the WCAR. But the question whether caste discrimination be equated with racial discrimination needs to be answered.

What is the moral sanction of the UN to discuss any form of discrimination, be it racial, caste, ethnic or some other category? It appears that its strength is derived from the universal declaration of human rights in 1948 which has been accepted by many countries including India. The first article in the declaration reiterates that "all men are born equal" and any form of discrimination based on birth, sex, belief etc,. is a violation of human rights.

Since caste discrimination particularly the inhuman practice of untouchability negates the UN principle of equality as enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights, it is same as that of racial discrimination. In fact, caste discrimination is much worse as the institution of caste carries an intolerant practice of untouchability.

It is hoped that India and the world would turn out to be much wiser in combating this social evil first by recognising the problem and then discussing it at WCAR in S Africa.

Abolishing caste will be rights violation

The United Nations has no business to consider caste discrimination as form of human rights violation. This resolution is unconstitutional. Caste only denotes what profession man has adopted. And it is in use since time immemorial. Ancient customs and system should not and cannot be abolished by any court. It is a violation of human rights to abolish caste.

Caste does not say to anybody to discriminate against each other and there was no discrimination among Hindus. Tomorrow, one might say that nationalism should be abolished as it is also discriminatory.

In racism, characterising racial discrimination as a form of human rights violation was needed. Racial discrimination must be abolished among Christians or the White community as they kill the Blacks.

But, there is vast difference between the two. Now, caste is a State, or the country's problem. This has nothing to do with outsiders. We don't discriminate with other persons or foreigners when it comes to caste. Caste is only to help our own brethren set right our own behaviour in society. But racial discrimination is not like this. Caste does not give any status to anybody.

If caste is status, then how come why Ved Vyas is worshipped by all when he is the son of a fisherman's daughter? Same is the case with Narad. Valmiki was also a Shudra. But we worship them all. This discrimination gained notoriety when the Muslims invaded India. K S Lall, a well-known historian has written that Scheduled Caste and Tribes came into existence during the medieval period.

UN must treat it as racism

In the recent inter-session parleys at the United Nations Human Rights Commission at Geneva, the categories of "race" and racial discrimination were widely debated. The loss of millions of lives in the name of "race" during World War II had rendered "race" a word of abuse to be shunned. But the nefarious doings of the neo-Nazis and the phenomenal rise in the persecution of minorities the world over have revived the interest in the word "race".

On the other hand, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights has demanded that the issue of caste discrimination as racial discrimination be included in the UN World Conference Against Racism to be held in Durban from August 31.

Attempts at projecting caste discrimination as racial discrimination at the UN were decried by some nationalist academics who feared that such a move would lead to further fragmentation and heightened social acrimony in the Indian society.

They would rather throw all the casteist, linguistic, religious, cultural, national and other divisions under the carpet with a view to project India as a homogeneous, unified nation. Let the relevant UN fora decide to treat caste discrimination on par with racial discrimination.

No person can deny the racial and varna overtones of the caste system. Such a decision would help internationalise the racial basis of the caste system and serve as a warning to the casteists in India.

Let us not make it racial

Dalits are Indian by race. They are called the Panchama, the fifth caste. In this sense, they belong to the Hindu fold. Greatest saints, epic poets and Veda composers have come from the Dalit community. The social oppression over several centuries did not go without resistance to this inhumanity.

But that does not make the Dalits a different race. They are part of us and I feel that any Dalit who is oppressed is a humiliation. The struggle is not racial. It is for the abolition of the caste system. Ambedkar disagreed with Gandhiji and insisted that the caste system be abolished and human solidarity shall be established.

His attack was on the caste system not on racial discrimination. Maybe in certain areas, where race and caste have together been cause for suppression and exclusion, perhaps an element of racism might have crept in. However, the bulk of the Dalits are by all reckoning Hindus. Let's not weaken the struggle against the caste system by bringing in racial anathema.

It will be an uphill task for Dalits

In the international arena no one knew what a Dalit was or what caste discrimination was. Well some of this changed when Human Rights Watch did a book on the caste issue called "Broken People". Similarly, another book and video inspired by NCDHR's Martin Macwan's battle for dignity of scavengers and putting a stop to the work of carrying night soil on their heads brought to fore the real tragedies in the life of a person who is a Dalit.

In the first instance, when India presented its mandatory periodic report to the Convention on Elimination Racial Discrimination, an alternative report was also reported wherein it was mentioned that caste-based discrimination must be recognised as discrimination under the International Covenant of Eliminating Racial Discrimination.

The committee considering the alternative report and the government's report accepted this argument and held that caste-based discrimination falls within the ambit of the words "discrimination on the grounds of "descent". But at several inter-sessional meetings at the UN, the Government of India brought along a lot of what is termed GO-NGOs, government-sponsored NGOs, who made a big noise on several issues that the move proponents of Dalits rights could not get their wording through.

At a recent meeting, too, there was so much chaos on compensation for colonisation; compensation for slavery; redressal for past wrongs etc., that little work could be done. And the wording Dalit still did not appear. The next opportunity that presented itself is the ongoing inter-sessional meeting which is to finalise a draft document so that it is in some state of preparedness for the next preparatory conference to be held in Geneva at the end of May.

Here, too, there will be many battles but the Dalit battle is to get recognition for their issue through the introduction of the words "discrimination-based on occupation/ work and descent". This is being strongly opposed by the government of India who feel that this is an internal issue and should not be internationalised. If it is internationalised then it will give another handle and whip for the West.

There are countries which are willing to sponsor the NGO point of view put forth by the Dalit campaign but everything is based on hard- headed negotiations that are governed by where the most political advantage is to be had. Everything is a trade off. The South Africans would be natural allies for this sort of motion given their own history of Apartheid.

But they are concerned about being the host country and not having too much controversies around too many issues. They also don't want to antagonise India with the special trade links it has.

The focus must be on casteism

The attempt of Indian Dalit groups to persuade the UN to include untouchability and casteism in the category of racism or racism- related discrimination has generated a lively debate. The Government of India has opposed it because it goes against the "we may be poor but we have a noble civilisation" image that it has been determinedly cultivating in international forums for the last 50 years. It does not say so, of course.

It says instead that internationalising the issue is unnecessary, for two rather spurious reasons. One is that India has constitutionally prohibited casteism and caste discrimination and has enacted legislation to punish untouchability in whatever form it manifests itself.

That is to say, when there are internal mechanisms for tackling the problem, why should it be internationalised? By the same token the UN need not be concerned about extra-judicial executions and custodial violence since there is no country which has not prohibited such atrocities in law.

The other argument is that, treating casteism as a form of racism. By implication, the struggle against racism is somehow a very noble thing which should not be sullied by dragging in untouchability. For, it is is a social problem whereas racism is a crime against humanity, and conflating the two will reduce the seriousness of the latter.

I would argue that treating casteism and untouchability as a form of racism would have the effect of obscuring the specificity of caste and casteism, and even otherwise there is no reason why caste discrimination, untouchability in particular, should not be treated in its own right as a crime against humanity instead of assimilating it to racism. Perhaps the Dalit groups are motivated by three concerns.

One is the practical consideration that the UN has already developed various norms to deal with racism and the struggle against cateism can depend upon those structures if casteism is accepted as a form of racism.

The second is the understandable desire to see India's Hindu establishment condemned in the same breath as the practitioners of Apartheid. The third, probably a theoretical understanding, namely that casteism has its origin in the Arya-Dasa or Arya-Dravida divide, which is a racist divide.

But there is no reason why India should not be called to account for casteism for casteism as a separate crime not assimilated to racism. Racism has never been declared to be divinely ordained whereas caste is declared to have been created by God himself.

Another point is that even though race like caste carries with it notions of unequal worth, caste goes beyond that and sets up a hierarchy of modes of life including occupations centred on the notion of unequal inherent worth, unequal rights and unequal value. Hindu society must be called to account for the entirety of its crime and not just that part of it which is comparable to racism.

Shame on Indian politics

The problem of caste discrimination is such that it is difficult to present it in international arena without a reference to racial discrimination. For caste is country specific and far more subtle than race. Race is largely colour-based and therefore distinguishable. It has a limitation as colour cannot be got rid of but the strength is that it can fortify greater solidarity. The discrimination, of course is open, brazen, blatant and inhuman. However, caste discrimination, in certain respects, is much worse.

The demand has other unfolding new trends. One, it is a part of globalisation process wherein there is insistence on increasing accountability more to the global agencies than the national. In a country where there is a semi-colonial culture, it is no surprise that the governments responds more to the white colour than the local democratic pressure.

The second trend is the increasing indifference of our civil society to the whole process of discrimination. The anti-caste movement and increasing Dalit consciousness, instead of leading to transformation, are giving rise to endemic violence. The State which accept a transformative role is retreating and fast becoming a part of the status quo.

At this stage, this demand for international scrutiny is welcome. At the same time, the Indian State, political parties, constitutional agencies and democratic minded people should feel ashamed that the discriminations of different kinds persist forcing the victims to ask for international monitoring.

Dalits also should realise that their struggle to globalise the issue can only give a tactical advantage but making it a part of larger democratic struggle aimed at qualitative transformation of Indian society would give a historical advantage.

HRC yet to take decision

The National Human Rights Commission is yet to take a decision on the plea that caste discrimination should be characterised as a human rights violation. The matter has been referred to the Commission both by the United Nations as well as certain Dalit organisations independently. In September, a meeting of all international human rights organisations is scheduled to be held in South Africa under the auspices of the United Nations.

The National Human Rights Commission is also scheduled to participate in this international conference and express its considered opinion. Prior to that the Commission will hold its meeting under the Chairmanship of its Chairman Justice retired J S Verma and deliberate on the whole question. Since I am a member of the Commission it is not proper for me to give my personal views till the Commission has decided its course.

We'll get justice if it is raised at the UN

In an interview to Deccan Chronicle, National Convenor on Dalit Human Rights Paul Diwakar says that it wouldn't be long before the United Nations recognises caste-based discrimination as racial discrimination. Excerpts from an interview:

The SC/ST Atrocities Act can deal with atrocities, why UN?

The Act is but a showpiece. Even the police is unable to use this Act. It is for the Centre to show the world that they are dealing with atrocities. Actually they are not.

Wouldn't local campaign do?

The atrocities are shameful. Nobody talks about them. The Upper Castes treat Dalits like insects which need to be trampled upon. What is needed is visibility. This mindset has to be brought to the fore. If the issue is localised, there are many inherent disadvantages. If brought on an international platform, we will get justice.

Will the campaign succeed?

One man, Dr B R Ambedkar, understood the importance of the rights of the underprivileged. It took years for people to feel his agony. It will take time, but the forum will not rest till this goal is achieved.

A school of thought feels this forum is being set up for foreign funds?

This is the government's line of thinking. And this is Jaswant Singh's line of thinking. Mind you, the forum has also the backing of people from Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal and so on. People who talk negatively are anti-Dalits. At times I really wonder, why have they not learnt from Hitler?

Our focus is also on making the government realise the potentiality of Dalits and how to use their human resources. You see, it will be good for the entire country, not just for the uplift of the Dalits. They raise all sorts of bogeys only to hoodwink the people.

Referred by: Devadas Cherukuri
Published on: May 14, 2001
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