War for dignity
THE conference at Durban has begun. In Geneva and Washington and in the corridors of power, Dalit activists continued to fight relentlessly to get "the Caste Question" admitted into the U.N.. The World Conference Against Racism(WCAR) (August 31 - September 7) was loathe to admit "caste" into its official agenda. Even if they did, life would not change radically for Dalits in India. Yet, a statement must be made, is the overwhelming view of the Dalit campaigners. The final decisions are made behind closed doors.
Finally, last week the National Dalit Human Rights Campaign managed to get their issue into the Conference. But "Caste" - the big C word - was left out. The issue was admitted as "Discrimination on the basis of Birth and Descent."
But at Durban, politics and diplomacy will prevail. As they have done for the last fifty odd years. The fact that this Conference is about Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related forms of Intolerance and that the Caste system is the worst existing form of discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance, based on birth and descent makes no difference to anyone. The debate revolves around non issues like "Is Caste Race?" The Discrimination and Intolerance is blatant. It is there all around you. Figures of rape, torture, deaths of entire Dalit families by burning, shooting, stabbing or just bludgeoning to pulp. Dalit women stripped and paraded naked before voyeuristic villages. Dalit men humiliated and forced to drink urine, eat excreta, grovel at the feet of uppercaste landlords because they wore clothes or assumed airs considered above themselves by the powers-that-are in their villages. Rebellious Dalit youth forced to pick up with their teeth, the chappals of the feudal village lords and crawl across the village, because they protested against the sexual exploitation of their sisters. The atrocities are reported daily in our newspapers and released to Parliament in every report of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They are even documented officially by respected national magazines and discussed in State Assemblies. And international newspapers from the Washington Post to the Guardian to Le Monde carry a regular diet of atrocity stories to spice up their foreign pages with exotica about India - the still savage civilisation that led the rebellion against colonialism.
Amnesty International can cry Human Rights abuses as loud as it wants. The U.S. and Europe perk up when they can slap trading bans to protest child labour. That is a convenient one. But when it comes to a U.N. Conference, like the Emperor's new clothes everyone can back off, pretend the situation does not exist. It is a closed door club where things work on an "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" basis.
The EU countries are terrified of admitting the questions of colonised countries. The demand for compensation could have devastating repercussions so Britain, Portugal, Spain, and France will form a caucus to fight this. And in an unbelievably ironic twist to history, (Gandhiji and Nehru must be turning in their graves) India can lobby with our Colonial masters, to fend off the compensation question (it is mainly Africans demanding this anyway) if they, our Colonial masters, refuse support to caste! Or offer to support the African countries if they will make a deal. The Palestinians are trying to introduce Zionism as discrimination and the U.S. has warned that it will not tolerate this. So another round of hush hush diplomatic wheeling and dealing is taking place in the corridors of power.
The real issues, the tragedy of everyday human anguish, can be sacrificed at the altar of expediency even while we go through the motions of mouthing platitudes, pretending to seriously tackle the problem of horrendous human rights abuses at the beginning of this historic millennium.
Power games have always been played. They always will. Activists in India should not lose heart. Even if the battle at Durban is lost, the war on casteism, the Dalit fight for the basic right to a life of decency will go on. Durban has a special significance for Dalits. Gandhiji started his political life in South Africa. The Campaign has been innovative if nothing else. There are slogans "We need a Mandela in Gandhi's land." And "Annihilate the Apartheid of Caste" in India.
And for Dalits in every part of the country, the fight to highlight the atrocities against their people has gained new momentum. The National Campaign for Dalit human rights has held public hearings all over the country. The stories told by victims are chilling and they have gripped the imagination of listeners from Chennai to Rajasthan. Any normal human being listening to the accounts of rape, torture and humiliation shrinks from being a part of a society which heaps such inhuman abuse on its own. The battle cry "We got rid of slavery and Apartheid last century. Let's annihilate caste this century" appeals to the decency inherent in every person. Moved beyond words by the voices of Dalit victims, journalist P. Sainath deposing before the National Public Hearing Jury in Chennai, declared: "We are witnessing the single greatest struggle for human dignity on planet Earth by some 240 million people. I have no doubt that the outcome of this great struggle will be in favour of the Dalits. The only question is, which side will you and I be on?" It is a good question. One that We, the people of India must answer.