Precursor to UN meet on racism:Is caste prejudice also a racial one?

DH News Service


Should India raise the issue of caste-discrimination at the forth coming United Nations world conference against racism and racial discrimination ? Is there a relation between caste and race and does caste discrimination amount to racial discrimination ? These were some of the issues debated thread-bare at the national seminar on ''Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance'' organised jointly by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) here today.

The seminar is one of the two precursors to finalise the NHRC's agenda at the UN conference in Durban, South Africa. A public hearing in this regard is also scheduled to be held here tomorrow at the Senate Hall, in the Central College campus.

Inaugurating the seminar NHRC Chairman J S Verma said the main intention behind organising the seminar was to obtain inputs from a cross section of people on what should go into the NHRC's agenda for the UN conference. He said any sort of discrimination irrespective of the nomenclature is a matter of serious concern and measures need to be taken to eradicate them.

It was important to identify the causes for discrimination , he said. Justice Verma said another seminar on the same issue will be organised in New Delhi on August 11, before finalising the agenda.

NO STAND: He said that NHRC has politely declined to be associated with the Prime Minister's National Committee on Racism. He said the commission wanted to keep an open mind and arrive at an opinion only after listening to a cross section of people.

RACE & CASTE: In his key-note address, Prof N R Madhava Menon, Vice-chancellor, National University of Juridical Sciences while making it clear that both caste and race based discrimination should be eradicated, argued that caste and race were two distinct social constructs which happened in varied social environments in different periods with different consequences.

Racism, he said, is a phenomenon across political boundaries and the world recognised early its pernicious influences and resolutely fought against it through international instrument and collective action.

Whereas, caste, he contended, is not a taboo like race. Prof Menon pointed out that caste system even cuts across religion and gives socio-cultural identities to groups of people without necessarily hurting human dignity and social justice. However, discrimination disability attached with scheduled castes are qualitatively different from those attached with other caste groups and as such cannot be measured by the same set of criteria nor challenged by the same set of instruments. Discrimination against scheduled castes is equally condemnable with racist discrimination. In fact, some manifestations of caste based discrimination can be more serious than even racist discrimination.''But when the issue being discussed is racism, racial discrimination and racism related intolerance, it is inappropriate to take on board all forms of intolerance or all types of inequality'', Prof Menon contended.

INCLUDE CASTE: Prof T K Oommen, from the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University thought otherwise. In his paper, Prof Oommen pointed out that according to latest research race as biological concept was found to have no validity. He contended it is wrong to assert that the phenomenon of caste as an invention of orientism. Ancient Hindu texts depicted that Hindu society was hierarchical and it had a racial basis. The Hindu doctrine of creation refers to the Chatur Varna (four colour) scheme which orders the four categories into a hierarchy.

'DESCENT': Litterateur Devanooru Mahadeva, who is a member of the National Committee on Racism felt that caste discrimination should be discussed at the world conference. He termed the government's interpretation of 'discrimination by descent' as pertaining only to race related discrimination as ''narrow'' and ''restricted''.

Untouchability, he said was a hang-over of racism in India and was still prevalent in a majority of the rural India. ''The rules and practices of prevention, discrimination, exclusion, distinction, restriction and segregation of untouchable who are cast out of society are still a living reality'', he said.

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Referred by: Mukundan C.M.
Published on:August 4, 2001
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