Dalits and Durban - I

It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves? - Thucydides

THIS QUOTE with which Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who exposed the numerous Hindu myths, mysticisms and mumbo-jumbo justifying the injustices of Indian society, and tried to instil in the vast masses of India's `outcasts' a sense of confidence, defiance, dignity, freedom, and hope, began his controversial work, `What Congress and Gandhi have done to The Untouchables', is as relevant today as in 1945 when he wrote it.

However, convinced as he was that India's pernicious caste practices have been part of the malignancy of Hindu society which can be extirpated only on Indian soil and only through social reforms and constitutional means, it cannot be gainsaid that in India's changed stature as a sovereign democratic republic Ambedkar himself would have found it ludicrous and even abhorrent to showcase caste, even as tableaux, in an alien land and through a world body of which India is a member-country. More so, as it was mainly because of Ambedkar's initiative as the chief architect of the Indian Constitution that the numerous safeguards for the untouchables and the other weaker sections were enshrined in the Constitution.

The reference is to the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, to be held in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7, the confusion and controversy about caste and race as discriminatory categories, and the furore in India and abroad on inclusion of caste in the conference. Understanding the fallacies underlying this confusion and controversy, and their fallout for India calls for understanding the widely varying postures on caste and race by the proponents and opponents for inclusion of caste in the conference, and the role of the U.N. as a global ``do-gooder''. Going by press reports, there has been widespread support through social mobilisation, meetings, conferences, and writings in the press for inclusion of caste in the conference. The most prominent and vociferous proponents are the ``Dalit activists'', who are a heterogeneous ensemble. The organisations purportedly representing them include the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, the Republican Party of India, People's Watch, the National Council of Churches in India - the highest body in the country representing different denominations of the Protestants - and so on. Whether the ``Dalit activists'' are leaders from among the Dalits, or non-Dalits feigning to be self-appointed Dalit leaders of pressure groups, or both is a moot issue. This issue is, however, very important for at least two reasons. One, if the Dalits could spawn such aggressive, articulate, globetrotting, and internationally acclaimed and influential leaders, they would have overcome long ago their precarious plight as the despised and the damned, the depressed and the downtrodden of the caste- ridden Indian society. Two, if evidence and experience are any indication, the ``Dalit cause'' is hard currency for ``Dalit activists'' operating in developed countries, though it is questionable how far the Dalits themselves have been beneficiaries of the Western dole.

Sources would have it that in Geneva several NGOs in special consultative status with the U.N. have been spearheading the movement for inclusion of caste on the agenda for the conference, and a number of organisations have joined forces to form the International Dalit Solidarity Network. As notable among them are the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and similar organisations from Europe and the U.S., their involvement and vociferous claims are certainly grist to the Hindutva mill. While the initiative of the Church-related organisations is laudable and hopefully indicative of the revival of the long-dormant liberation theology, ignoring for the time being the Hindutva monster, one might ask what the Church-related organisations have been doing to overcome the discriminatory practices among the Indian Christians, in particular Christian converts of Scheduled Caste origin, the persistence of whose disabilities and plight as ``twice alienated'' have necessitated their organised demands for at least the last ten years for treatment as Scheduled Castes so as to enable them to take advantage of the State's affirmative action and special treatment programmes, though here again the initiative of the Church-related organisations has been commendable.

Whether by the Church Council or other organisations, the claims for inclusion of caste in the conference are of two broad streams. The first would have caste as race, caste as worse than race, caste discrimination as racism and more, and so on. The second would have Dalit oppression as worse than racial discrimination; Dalits as victims of centuries-old polluting and stigmatising occupations such as scavenging, persistent discrimination and atrocities, untouchability, social segregation and denial of access to public places and spaces forcing them to live at the margins of society; the history of Dalits as a genealogy of pain captured in the very etymology of the word, and so on.

While all this is true, the claim that the justification for inclusion of caste in the U.N. Conference is to ``internationalise'' Dalit discrimination, raises several issues. One, equating caste with race. As Professor Dipankar Gupta observed in his work `Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society', despite some commonalities between caste and race, particularly between the bottom end of the caste system and the segregationist racism, caste and race are vastly different, for which reason, they should not be collapsed into a single analytical category. Important among the differences are the caste system is about 3000 years old, extremely complex based on multiple hierarchies, characterised by the pervasive purity-pollution dichotomy, and graded discrimination. In contrast, racism is of recent origin, and as race is based on phenotypic criteria there can be no dispute about where one belongs in the race hierarchy.

Caste has been under extensive debate and indepth research for several decades now, and the literature on it is probably much more burgeoning than on race. Though race has also been under extensive debate and indepth research and Gunnar Myrdal's `American Dilemma', followed by Oliver Cromwell Cox's `Race: A Study in Social Dynamics' are still probably the most important works on racism, racism is predominantly an American and South African problem, and even here race relations have undergone tremendous changes during the last three decades. So, a U.N. Conference on caste or race or both may not add up.

Two, equating the caste system with Dalits, as if it comprises only Dalits and none else. This is political appropriation of the caste system by ``Dalit activists''. Though Dalits are certainly the worst victims of discrimination, and account for about one- fourth of India's population, their existential problem cannot be isolated from that of the rest of society. Other traditional caste groups barring Brahmins and probably a few other upper castes have also been victims of the caste system. It is recognising this pervasive nature of discrimination, disparities, and disabilities, that the first all-India Backward Classes (Kaka Kalelkar) Commission of the 1950s recommended reservation for a separate category just above the Scheduled Castes; and it is in keeping with this recommendation that some States such as Tamil Nadu have created the Most Backward Classes category for reservation purposes.

(The writer is Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.)

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Referred by:Benjamin P Kaila
Published on: 26 Aug 2001
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