The Dalits to Durban

By Garimella Subramaniam

Denial is deadlier than the crime, and thwarting attempts to debate caste-based discrimination in the forthcoming `United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance' will cause far greater embarrassment to the Government than any possible fallout of the deliberations at the world meet in Durban coming September.

That apart, India's consistent stand in the campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa, and its subsequent enthusiastic response to the return of that country into the world community of nations, is too recent a memory for the hypocrisy underlying the resistance to the so-called ``internationalisation of caste discrimination'' - supposedly an internal matter of India - to go unnoticed.

Similarly, it is futile to seek shelter under the claim that while apartheid in South Africa was a state-sanctioned ideology of exclusion, untouchability is an ancient socio- cultural relic that is crumbling under the weight of modern constitutional mechanisms and therefore it is unnecessary to raise caste discrimination at the global arena.

Dodging ground realities

Such posturing merely dodges the continuing realities of occupations based on descent and inhuman conditions of living for millions. The country's recent human rights record has been glaring; and the world can easily see through the constitutional gloss sought to be put over some of the uglier aspects of India's social mosaic, especially those pertaining to minority communities.

At the very bottom, practices of social discrimination raise basic questions of human dignity and should ideally elicit concomitant political responses from the highest quarters in the land. This is especially urgent for a country like India where social mobility (or disadvantage as the case may be), determined by one's position in the caste hierarchy, continues to characterise practically every walk of life. But the prelude to the Durban world conference has revealed a distinct lack of sensitivity to the underlying issues by deliberate digressions from questions of social discrimination to the meaningless discourse on the demerits of conflating caste and race. The matter, however, would have to be viewed as settled ever since the United Nations opined way back in 1996 that the situation of Dalits and Adivasis in India fell within the scope of the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Failures at home

At a broader level, the context of the Durban conference should be seized upon to direct the spotlight on the trajectory of the Dalit movement in the country. A point to ponder here is the failure of the movement to acquire a pan-Indian character and leadership like its parallel in the African-American movement in the United States. At least part of the explanation for the prevailing scenario would have to be traced to the civil rights movement in India which had none of the synergising of resources as its European and American counterparts.

The example of all-round gains made by the black and women's movements elsewhere through mutual solidarity would have to be replicated with conviction and imagination for the lofty goals set out in the chapters on fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy in the Indian Constitution to be translated into reality.

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: June 13, 2001
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