The U.N., racism and caste

By Gail Omvedt

THE WORLD Congress on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance will be held in South Africa from August 31 to September 7, marking the culmination of the International Year of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The conference itself is a testimony to an ongoing fight for social justice, to battles won as well as battles remaining. The very fact that it is being held in South Africa is a tribute to Mr. Nelson Mandela and a symbol of the victory won when the apartheid regime, representing one of the most extreme examples of racism, yielded to world-wide democratic movements. The decision to hold such a conference marks the determination not to be content with a few significant steps forward, but to move ahead and annihilate all the vestiges and forms of the brutal discrimination that for so long has tyrannised over the majority of the peoples of the world.

The South Africa conference also marks a big step ahead for the global Dalit movement. After over two-and-a-half decades of organising, caste is being recognised as a form of racist-related discrimination and will be discussed in United Nations forums. Two- and-a-half decades of obstructionism by the Indian Government and the Indian elite is being overcome.

The beginnings of this world-level Dalit organising can be traced to the period of the Emergency, when in August 1975 Dalits in the U.S. under the leadership of Dr. Laxmi Berwa organised a demonstration against the visit of Indira Gandhi. Dr. Berwa, a physician practising in Washington D.C., had mobilised under the banner of VISION, ``Volunteers in Service to India's Oppressed and Neglected.'' Dr. Berwa's organising had also illustrated one of the first examples of unity between Dalits and Black Americans (African-Americans), for he was offered the chance to present his case on radio stations controlled by African-Americans in Washington. For perhaps the first time, in the very backyard of the Indian Embassy, stories of atrocities on Dalits and the continuing burden of casteism could be heard by Americans, whose image of India had been only that of the ``land of Gandhi.'' About the same time, a small businessman in Toronto, Mr. Yogesh Warhade, founded the Ambedkar Mission and began efforts to take the cause of Dalits to the forums of the United Nations. In England, Mr. T. Hirekar began to work along similar lines, and Buddhist groups began to organise. Gradually, a world-wide Dalit movement began to take shape.

It has not been easy. Since Dalits are among the poorest sections of India, migration has been a rare option for them; even among migrants to the Gulf, Dalits from Kerala have been very under- represented compared to the general population. In the U.S., the situation is even more severe. Historically speaking, there were never large sections of working class Indians who migrated to the U.S., unlike Chinese and Japanese populations; those who did (Sikhs to California) were forbidden to bring their wives. For this reason, the NRI community in the U.S. today is one of the most affluent among minorities, and it is even more upper caste- dominated than India as a whole. Perhaps this explains why, when NRIs in the New York area raised money to finance a chair of South Asian Studies at the University of Columbia, they refused suggestions to let it be named after Columbia University's most famous Indian graduate, Dr. Ambedkar. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and similar organisations have found fertile field among Indians in the U.S., and sites relating to India on the Internet are clearly Hindutva dominated. Those Dalits going abroad have rarely been in the universities, more often working outside as engineers, doctors, or occasional small businessmen.

However, long years of organising work by groups such as VISION and the Ambedkar Mission have paid off, and the growing human rights movement has begun to hear the slogan, ``Dalit rights are human rights.'' Not only have Dalit-oriented NGOs sprung up to take the issue to the new World Conference on Racism, but a group of enterprising activists has begun Dalit and Bahujan e-mail forums and an excellent website, Similarly, efforts to build connections between African-Americans and Dalits have gone on. One of the first attempts was a conference in 1986, also organised at Columbia University, dealing with Untouchability and Racism, drawing together Black scholars and Indian Dalit scholars as well as non- Dalit scholars dealing with issues of caste. In more recent years, journals such as Dalit Voice have organised tours of India by representatives of African-American groups. The Conference Against Racism is one example of such linkages being recognised.

Unfortunately, the Union Government has from the beginning offered adamant resistance to taking up the issue of caste at the U.N. - just as it has resisted the efforts of adivasis to be included among ``indigenous peoples.'' Scholarly study of caste issues has been discouraged (students proposing to do their Ph.D. work on this issue tend to get their visa applications refused) and, following the Columbia conference not only did the Government refuse to let a follow-up conference be held in India, but American organisers of the Columbia conference were denied research visas.

This unwillingness to recognise that caste is a persisting problem of Indian society, with global implications, has continued during recent years, and government spokesmen have opposed having it taken up at the South Africa conference, arguing that this would only lead to ``diluting'' the efforts to eliminate racism. This official position has most recently been put by the Attorney-General, Mr. Soli Sorabjee, who argues in addition that the issue of caste is an ``internal'' matter. It is sad that the country which has not hesitated to condemn racism and apartheid elsewhere should be so sensitive on the issue of caste that it should oppose this form of ``globalisation'' and try to retreat behind a saffron curtain on the issue of human rights within the country. As Ms. Smita Nirula, a well- known activist on the issue of Dalit rights, has argued, India is a signatory to many U.N. rights documents condemning discrimination on the basis of ``descent''; yet in this case it has made every effort to block the issue and has never been ready to have it discussed in Parliament. ``While countries may ignore the pronouncements of U.N. treaty bodies, they cannot ignore their own Constitutions or the voices of their citizens. The spirit of this conference and own constitutional commitment to freedom of expression, equality, and the abolishment of untouchability demands no less.'' Indians may find it demeaning to be condemned for forms of racism, but what is truly demeaning is the effort to block discussion, the refusal to have social transparency before the world.

Unfortunately, leading intellectuals too have supported the Government position. A major example was an article in The Hindu on March 10, 2001 by Mr. Andre Beteille. Mr. Beteille, however, indulges in some rhetorical overkill; for he not only denies that caste has anything to do with racism, but even appears to be against the effort by the U.N. to deal with racism. ``What is neither understandable nor excusable,'' he writes, ``is the attempt by the United Nations to revive and expand the idea of race, ostensibly to combat the many forms of social and political discrimination prevalent in the world.'' Mr. Beteille has taken an extreme position, but it would still be useful to deal with the questions raised by his arguments: what is racism, what is race, and what is the relation between race and caste, or racism and casteism?

MR. ANDRE BETEILLE has argued two major points in his article, ``Race and Caste'' (The Hindu, March 10). One is that racism was based on false science; there are no genetically and biologically different races among human beings. The other is that caste has nothing to do with race, and therefore to include caste in a discussion of racism is erroneous, however politically useful it may seem to some people.In fact his two points contradict one another. Neither caste as a social system nor ``racism'' are based on actual biological differences among human beings. Both, though, are systems of discrimination that attribute ``natural'' or essential qualities to people born in specific social groups. In other words, while caste has nothing to do with ``race'', the justifications of caste discrimination have a lot to do with the social phenomenon of ``racism''.

As Mr. Beteille has argued, ``race'' in terms of naturally different species does not exist among human beings. The science of genetics is now strikingly clear on this - there are no significant genetic differences among socially identifiable groups of people; the genetic variation among individuals is by far greater than any among any society group. But, this is only to say that ``racism'' as a social phenomenon is based on a lie; it does not provide us an analysis of why that lie has come to exist.

Racism, which is the attribution of ``natural'' characteristics to groups of human beings, came into full-scale existence in the last few centuries, largely in connection with imperialism. In order to justify the brutalities of conquest and subjugation, the non-white peoples conquered by the colonial powers had to be viewed, and were viewed, as less than human. The new biological sciences and even genetics came in handy for this purpose. Suddenly skin color and the shape of heads could be taken as representing some inherent biological and genetic features which had larger implications. Dominance was asserted to be the result of the ``natural'' (biological, genetic) superiority of white European peoples, who had the god-given charge of caring for the ``lesser'' peoples of the world.

This connection of racism with recent European-based imperialism is not to say that cultures of non-white peoples, whether Chinese or Japanese or the Africans themselves, have lacked systems of discrimination similar to ``racism''. It is simply that the European form has been dominant in the world over most of the last centuries, and has been linked with the strongest forms of oppression.

Racism, or ideas of innate, biological superiority and inferiority is, as Mr. Beteille himself has noted, a very ``plastic'' concept. All kinds of ``races'' have been postulated; class differences themselves were even interpreted at times in terms of race. It was quite natural, then, that when the British conquered India at the time of the full-fledged flourishing of racist concepts, when they were puzzled by the phenomenon of caste, that they should interpret it in terms of race. Thus, linguistic similarities among many of the languages of India and European languages were linked to groups such as the Aryans, identified as racial types, and using the notion of an ``Aryan conquest'', the argument was made that the upper three varnas were descended from the Indo- European ``Aryans'', and the Shudras, Adivasis and Dalits from non-Aryan indigenous people. In fact, racism in India has been as much a lie as elsewhere; the millennia of mixing of linguistic-ethnic groups, Aryan, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic, has resulted in little clear distinction between caste categories. Ambedkar himself was categoric in rejecting the ``Aryan theory'' or the racial theory of caste. Caste was not a racial division but a division of races, he said (still using the category); Punjabi Brahmans and Punjabi Untouchables were ethnically the same, and Tamil Brahmans and Tamil Untouchables were not racially different.

However, what has to be answered is why this ``Aryan theory'' proved so attractive to Indians themselves, why interpreting caste in terms of race has been so pervasive. The reason is precisely because of its resonance with indigenous themes of caste. For caste, like race, is based on the notion that socially defined groups of people have inherent, natural qualities or ``essences'' that assign them to social positions, make them fit for specific duties and occupations; it is their swadharma to carry out these duties. The word jati has been applied to species of plants and animals; and quite naturally many Indians thought of human castes as similar to such species. Thus, when the Buddha sought to refute the notion of birth-determined caste, two and a half millennia ago, he referred to the basic physical similarity of all human beings. According to the Sutta-Nipata, when asked by Vasettha, a Brahman, to settle a debate between him and a friend about whether it is ``birth'' or ``life'' that makes a Brahman, the Buddha replies that whereas grass and trees, insects, snakes, fish and birds have diverse species - he uses the term jati - among humans this is not so. ``Men alone show not that nature stamps them as different jatis. They differ not in hair, head, ears or eyes, in mouth or nostrils, not in eyebrows, lips, throat, shoulders, belly, buttocks, back or chest.'' He then goes on to say that one who lives by keeping cows is a farmer or kassako; on who lives by handicrafts is a tradesman or sippiko; one who lives by selling merchandise is a vanijjo; one who lives by services done for hire is a pessiko or wage-worker; one who lives by taking things not his is a robber; one who lives by warfare is a yodhajivao or soldier; one who lives by sacrificial rites is a yajako or priest; one who rules is a monarch or raja. This denial of innate, inborn differences between jatis contrasted with arguments in the Manusmriti that, for example, Shudras were by essence, by nature, designed to serve, that they were created as servants. Thus, because such notions of ``natural'' differences lay behind justification of the varnas, it is perhaps not so surprising that when the British put forward their racial theory of caste, it was accepted by so many Indians also. The original theological justification - varnas created out of the original Purusha - could be replaced by a pseudo- scientific justification. Thus, caste is not based on race; but the theories justifying caste, or caste as an ideological construct, were similar enough to racism to allow a racial interpretation of caste. (It has to be added also that many of the Indian elite, including Gandhi, used sociologically themes of a harmoniously functioning society to justify an idealised varna system).

The fact that the United Nations is holding a conference on racism is not a matter of perpetuating notions of ``race''. Indeed, significant progress in most countries has been made over the last decade in fighting existing forms of racism, caste discrimination and similar social forms. This is true also in India. Yet it would be foolhardy to say that racism or caste discrimination do not exist, whether we are talking about the United States, South Africa itself, Japan where an indigenous group similar to Untouchables, the Burakumin, have been organising, or India. Racism and casteism cannot be annihilated by ignoring their existence. Policies to eradicate these social evils require full consciousness of their extent, knowledge of their various expressions, and will to take public action. In a global age, fighting racism, caste discrimination and similar phenomenon means global alliances and international as well as national policies. There is no reason for a government representing the Indian people to fight this; if the government does so, that means it is representing very different interests.

Referred by: Ajit N
Published on: April 10, 2001
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