Race against caste: Why avoid a debate?

Chandrabhan Prasad and Vivek Kumar

The chief of the Indian Government delegation, Mr Omar Abdullah, shocked the participants here, when he, in his speech, mentioned "Caste" only twice, but "Race" or "Racial discrimination" twenty six times! Quite ironically, his speech in the imposing International Convention Centre on Sunday didn't even use the word "Untouchability". The six-page prepared text has become a laughing stock here amongst non-governmental delegates, heads of states, diplomats and mediapersons, as it talks about race, and racial discrimination alone, with a passing reference about Caste. The Government delegation team was either unaware of the fact that the Dalit delegation has carried about one ton of literature to Durban; and there is hardly anyone - be it hotel staff, receptionist, or the participants(!) - who is not aware of India's Caste system and its discriminatory nature. The Indian side was probably ill-informed of the very format of the Conference, where the real Inter-governmental Conference, which is underway now, is preceded by a parallel conference of the NGOs drawn from all over the World, organised by the United Nations. This convention was organised on the assumption that Governments tend to suppress facts and offer misleading explanations, and hence a parallel non-governmental conference where victims are allowed to put up their viewpoints. Since Dalits had done their homework, and made their points effectively heard, the Government side is in the dock as it has presented a fairly rosy picture of India and its social institutions. In his speech, Mr Abdullah appeared a practising Marxist at times when he held that "slavery and slave trade caused untold misery to countless numbers as did imperialism and colonialism". He further added, "The demise of imperialism and colonialism have not led to the elimination of attitudes, habits, and thought-processes ingrained in the entire population over generations". And then he went on to describe as to "how racism affected the Blacks". He then took a U-turn, and took what appeared the RSS line when he said: "Our society has a tradition and capacity for dialogue and building consensus". He described Indian society as an "active civil society," and showered praises on India's nationhood, based on value of democracy and rule of law, pluralism, and tolerance, and diversity. In the aftermath of Mr Abdullah's speech, the media here was left wondering: If the Indian society was indeed so tolerant then why were Dalits excluded from the national mainstream? The Indian foreign office seems to be totally clueless as what, and in which spirit, other world leaders have been approaching this world conference against racism. Here most leaders belonging to the White Privileged World -- the main source of Racism -- did first and foremost acknowledge the source and existence of the problem, and critique the legacy of the past, and come with assurances and promises to evolve corrective mechanisms. But the Indian side chose to state: "In the run-up to the world conference, there has been propaganda, highly exaggerated and misleading, often based on anecdotal evidence, regarding caste-based discrimination in India". While the media here is wondering at the near absence of Indian media (many journalists here thought that The Pioneer is an English daily owned and published by the Dalits) to cover the event, Mr Abdullah describes Indian media as an ever-vigilant media, without realising the fact that B N Uniyal's pathbreaking article "In Search of a Dalit Journalist" is in circulation among the delegates. While Mr Abdullah talked of affirmative actions, he never explained its form, and its magnitude. In fact, in his speech, there is no statistics available to prove the Government of India's stated policies, where as Dalit side has backed each of its positions with facts and figures. He nevertheless said: "We in India have faced this evil squarely. We unequivocally condemn this and, indeed, any other form of discrimination.

The Indian government delegation through its own conduct here in Durban, has discredited the Government side irreparably, and in turn, has helped the Dalit camp, whose every word is taken like a "revelation". The Indian delegation lost all credibility when Mr Abdullah stated that "We are not here to engage in social engineering within member states. It is neither legitimate nor feasible nor practicable for this World Conference, for that matter, even the UN to legislate, let alone police, individual behaviour in our societies, for similar was the position of Pretoria regime during apartheid. This has boosted Dalits moral here as most world leaders are convinced and are sympathetic to Dalits cause, but since they have to deal with the Government of India at international level, trade relations etc. That is preventing them from condemning Indian position openly.

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Referred by:Dr. Satinath Choudhary
Published on:5 Sep, 2001
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