Smita Narula's letter in TOI

Caste Away

In `Racism, Name Changing and Toilets'(March 4) Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee joined the ranks of Indian government officials to argue that caste is not race, that the inclusion of caste-based discrimination in a UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) would `dilute' the conference theme, and that caste-based abuses are an internal, not international, concern. The conference is to take place in South Africa in September.

Mr Sorabjee's arguments effectively undermine India's commitment to the universality of human rights, as expressed through its ratification of numerous international conventions. They are more reminiscent of the `not-in-my-backyard' defensiveness of governments around the world. The arguments also ignore the pronouncements of numerous UN treaty bodies that caste-based discrimination is discrimination on the basis of descent under Article 1 of the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Caste-based abuse is rampant in numerous Asian countries including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Japan. Its inclusion in the WCAR is, therefore, not a dilution but an affirmation of the voices of hundreds of millions of victims who continue to suffer from segregation, modern day slavery, and extreme forms of exploitation and violence.

At preparatory meetings for the WCAR, the issue of caste has been undermined, sidelined and ignored by Indian delegates and state- sponsored NGOs purporting to represent the world's largest democracy. The government has consulted neither Parliament nor the National Human Rights Commission or National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes while promulgating and promoting its position. Mr Sorabjee is an expert member of the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights - which recently passed a resolution on work and descent-based discrimination. As India's attorney-general, he should encourage the government to support efforts to implement a resolution he helped create. While countries may ignore the pronouncements of UN treaty bodies, they cannot ignore their own Constitutions or the voices of their citizens. The spirit of this conference and India's own constitutional commitment to freedom of expression, equality, and the abolishment of untouchability demands no less.

Smita Narula, New Delhi

Referred by:Balram Sampla
Published on: March 16, 2001
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