01, Apr 2001
By Teesta Setalvad
The continuance of manual scavenging, untouchability and other obnoxious practices do not seem to bother the Indian establishment, the intelligentsia included. What does disturb them deeply is the campaign of Dalits to have the indignities of caste recognised internationally as a distinct form of racism.
From August 31–September 4, when the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances (WCAR) meets in Durban, the first time since the discriminatory and centuries old regime of apartheid was overturned through much sacrifice and struggle in that country, another group of subordinated peoples, discriminated by descent and occupation, forcibly segregated by tradition and religion from access to common resources, will make their voice heard before the international community.
They will demand that caste-based discrimination, which amounts to descent and occupation based oppression, segregation and exclusion be recognised as a distinct form of racism. A distinct form of racism, because it amounts to the denial of basic human rights based on prejudice, discrimination or antagonism and is justified by well–entrenched beliefs about high and low, superior and inferior.
A wide network of Dalit groups from within and outside India will voice this demand on behalf of 160 million Indians. They will make their case through public testimonies of victims and documents drawn up by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights — NCDHR (see box).
Predictably, there have been strong attempts by the Indian government to resist the bid to raise the issue of caste discrimination in an international forum. At the preparatory meeting for the WCAR, on February 19 in Teheran, the government made it’s stand clear — introducing caste into the ambit of the WCAR at Durban would amount to diluting the concept of racism. The government delegation was represented, among others, by the attorney general, Soli Sorabjee. More significantly perhaps, government spokesmen stressed that the problem of caste was an ‘internal’ one and therefore out of the purview of the UN.
Using his weekly column in The Times of India, (March 4, 2001) to emphasise the government’s position, Sorabjee endorsed the overall rationale behind the theme of the forthcoming conference;an acknowledgement that “no country is immune from the virus of racism whose roots lie in the hearts and the minds of the people”. He mentioned the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ECERD) convention but commented on the “misconceived attempts by some NGOs to equate racism with caste–based discrimination which is based on birth and occupation and has nothing to do with the race of a person.” Our Constitution, he said, recognises the distinction between race and caste, which are separately mentioned as prohibited grounds of discrimination.
In stark contrast to the Indian governmental position was the Nepal government’s candour on the same issue, confronted as it is with recent assertions of Nepali Dalits who account for not less than 15 per cent of the total population. The government of the only Hindu kingdom in the world openly admitted that caste is the source of acute discrimination and segregation within Nepal. This, it held, was a serious issue that falls under the theme of the forthcoming conference and should, therefore, form part of the official deliberations at the WCAR at Durban.
Apart from the Indian government, several academics, individuals and groups have also voiced serious concern over what, in their perception, is a Dalit move to link caste to race. This, according to them, is a dangerous move that would lead to a revival of the theory of race that resulted in “Hitler’s disastrous racial policies” and that was discounted decades ago (anthropologist Andre Beteille in The Hindu, March 12).
According to Beteille, “interested parties within and outside the UN would like to bring caste discrimination in general and the practice of untouchability in particular within the purview of racial discrimination… The practice of untouchability is indeed reprehensible and must be condemned by one and all; but that does not mean that we must begin to regard it as a form of racial discrimination. The Scheduled Castes of India taken together are no more a race than are the Brahmins taken together. Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination… We cannot throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is misused for asserting social superiority and bring it again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed. The metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or making demands on the basis of disadvantaged groups.”(Emphasis added).
There are two substantive issues involved here. One is the theoretical rejection and support for Dalit demands by not just academics but other groups and individuals, movements and formations on the lines that Beteille argues. The other is the resistance to any attempt to take the issue of caste–based discrimination to a global forum; to solicit international condemnation of caste–based discriminatory practices and support for the struggle against it.
Put together, both amount to attempts to distort and thereby contain efforts by the Dalit movement to seek international focus and attention on caste based discrimination, legitimised for centuries through scripture and followed in practice by notions of high and low, superior and inferior, pure an impure. Even half a century after independence, the problem continues. The Dalit condition, which was the result of such a pernicious theory, is the result of a pernicious understanding of race by perpetrators of this condition and not the other way around. It is not the metaphor of race that is being invoked but the metaphor of racism, which was the outcome of the misplaced metaphor of race.
The re–emergence of a vibrant and vocal Dalit movement (after the Dalit Panther movement of the seventies) in the mid-eighties and early nineties has formed the backbone of the national campaign whose demands are now being heard. The systematic campaigns (see box), documentation and theorisation that have emerged reflect the painful reality of 160 million Indians (not counting Dalits of other religious denominations) even 54 years after political independence and democracy.
Even the dictionary meaning of the word racism, (Shorter Oxford: racism is the belief in or adherence to, by the perpetrators not the victims — advocacy of the theory that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities qualities etc specific to their race distinguishing as inferior or superior to another race or races; prejudice, discrimination or antagonism based on this), needs to hark to the theory of race to describe it’s consequences — the condition of racism described as antagonistic or prejudicial or discriminatory. Moreover, within political science and sociology circles, racism has come to typify and describe systems of inequality and discrimination.
The condition of 20 million Dalits more than fulfils the description of the conditions used to describe racism. The term is now being invoked to show how the same kind of dehumanising prerequisites (in terms of definition) that are used to describe, understand and protest against racism are more than fulfilled (thousand times over) when we speak of untouchability and caste–based discrimination.
Is it not time that we fill and feed such terminology with our own histories and thereby deepen their meanings?
To argue that caste-based discrimination — through exclusion, dehumanisation, segregation, violent atrocities and practices — is a distinct form of racism is surely not out of a desire to dangerously re-introduce, as Beteille seems to argue, the theory of race. Rather, the intention is to emphasise that despite the ostensible world wide rejection of the theory of race, even today, a fifth of the population in South Asia has to endure bitter prejudice, segregation, exclusion and discrimination legitimised by a tradition of superior and inferior, pure and impure. (In any case, the supposed rejection of the theory of race is obviously restricted to limited circles, as even today neo-Nazi squads in the West are a grim pointer to the awesome gap between theory and lived experience. )
The very theory of the atishudra — that even now, in the twenty- first century excludes an entire segment of men, women and children out of the Hindu caste fold, but controls this section through an elaborate system of exploitation, economic, social and political — is a theory of superior and the mleccha, the pure and the impure. The millions so exploited are used for backbreaking manual and menial tasks. Worst of all, they are even excluded from discourse, from the mind’s eye.
To state that caste, descent and occupation-based discrimination is a distinct form of racism is to evocatively highlight the depth and details of the sub–human conditions that a fifth of the population of India is forced to endure — through segregation, exclusion and discrimination, hierarchy and domination.
It is to racism, and not the theory of race, that the Dalit movement as a whole seeks to link it’s condition and demand world understanding, international condemnation and, yes, support. There may be individual voices within the movement who hark back to the issue of Dalits being a race but for the moment, at least, the overwhelming Dalit position goes beyond it. (Incidentally, theorists associated with the movement intimately, especially Thorat of the JNU, are emphatic in pointing to Dr BR Ambedkar’s own rebuttal of the Brahmanical theory of race that justifies the exclusion and brutalisation of the atishudra.)
The Dalit campaign urges all people, political parties, civil liberties groups, human rights organisations, to address not the whys of caste but address it’s present day existence, manifestation and reality. What continues to motivate us as a people and a civilisation to segregate so brutally 20 per cent of our people and prevents us from lending support to their struggle?
Elected representatives across party formulations — RPI, Congress(I), CPI and the CPI(M) — have allied with the ongoing struggle for international condemnation of continued caste-based discrimination and exclusion. At the preparatory conference in New Delhi between March 1–4, former prime minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, former chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Mohini Giri, CPI MP D Raja, RPI MP, Ramdas Athavale, Congress MP, Praveen Rashtrapal, CPI(M) MP, Arindam Sen, all declared allegiance to the move for international solidarity.
Yet, in the wider section of the political class, the intelligentsia, academia, progressive groups and organisations, there has been a distinct tendency to stay aloof from the issue at hand. The general fragmentation of social movements could be one of the reasons for the exclusion of the Dalit issue and its specific demands from other struggles and also the misunderstanding of the thrust and focus of the Dalit campaign. But the distance and divide is also reminiscent of what happened 50–70 years ago, when the voices of Ambedkar and Periyar were drowned in the lead-up to the national struggle against colonialism, for freedom against foreign yoke.
Then as now, Ambedkar’s stance was deliberately misconstrued and ignored by the dominant discourse. Ambedkar had to bear the burden of being labelled a traitor simply because of his plea that the rights of Dalits, the ‘untouchables’, should be made a pre-condition for independence from the British. His own lived experience, of having to endure the humiliation of being treated as ‘impure’ even after his education at Columbia University, pushed him towards the demand for separate electorates. Today, an honest look at not just the plight of Dalits (see box) but also the exclusion of the Dalit issue from other struggles is a stinging reminder of the possible validity of Ambedkar’s position.
The questions raised by Ambedkar decades ago are relevant even now. They are questions about prejudicial and discriminatory methods of production and social relations, methods and relations based on principles of exclusion, denial and humiliation that have existed within the Indian sub-continent for 3,000 years before the British arrived. These centuries’ old practices continue to result not only in the creation of wealth and security for half of the population at the cost of the rest, but also in the distinct dehumanisation of a fifth. This state of affairs, sanctified by religious scriptures and practised in the name of caste, is not very different even today.
Why did the national movement not lend support to Dalit concerns? Was it an internal discomfort, a discomfort in dealing with and facing the reality and shame of caste, that reduced us to denigrate and label Ambedkar then and what impels us to resist the demands and support the Dalit movement now?
In the face of growing articulations from the Dalit movement,and demands putbefore the forthcoming WCAR, serious introspection is required over our resistance to the Dalit move to list the shame of caste, in facts and figures and to seek international solidarity and support. Our response is especially strange considering that in non–governmental circles especially, international solidarity on issues of social concern — for example, the iniquitous new economic regime under GATT, displaced persons by big dams, discriminatory labour laws, gender issues, peace and de–nuclearisation — is accepted practice. Why then is there such resistance to the idea of caste indignities being highlighted internationally?
The significance of the forthcoming conference should not be underrated. The abolition of apartheid in 1991 did not, of course, immediately result in the transformation of South Africa into an egalitarian society with an equitable distribution of resources. But the discrediting and abolition of such a discriminatory system within South Africa was largely due to international pressure and support.
The world has seen, before and since, a variety of exclusions, xenophobias and intolerances that have resulted in the genocide of different sections of the people. The plight of Bosnia and the Bosnian people in the very heart of Europe is an example. It will be interesting to see where and how that issue gets representation, if at all. The orchestrated genocide of the Iraqi and Afghani people suffering exclusion, death and poverty as a result of the unjust UN–imposed sanctions ought to find some space in the deliberations if at all the WCAR is intended as an event meant to convey a serious commitment to the issues under deliberation. Caste–based discrimination goes back thousands of years and it is time it receives world condemnation.
And what of the other sharp and very real intolerances that have emerged in South Asia and even Southeast Asia? Can we honestly look at South Asia in the context of the theme of the Global Conference and not reflect on or highlight the intolerances that have so sharply surfaced in the name of religion?
The crude destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas recently cloaks what the terror of the Taliban means to it’s own people especially women. In India we have been witness to the insidious movement of the Hindu right-wing, which in the name of Hindutva is manipulating the individual faith of millions to legitimise a religion–based nationalism and destroy democracy. Strife and sectarian violence within Pakistan are testimony to the failure of religion–based nationalism. Bangladesh that fought a secular liberation struggle for independence from Pakistani Punjabi domination is today grappling with it’s own demons in the garb of Islamic fanatics. Farther east, for the past three years Indonesia has been torn apart as ethno-religious strife (between Muslims and Christians) poses a serious threat to the polity.
Can we from South Asia really speak at the ‘World Conference Against Racism, Racial Intolerance, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances, without any mention of the intolerances and xenophobia being created in our part of the world in the name of faith?