A first-round victory

Print edition : September 01, 2001

The third preparatory committee meeting for the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance decides to include caste as a form of work- and descent-based discrimination on the agenda of the Conference.

THE World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to be held in Durban between August 31 and September 7, will include caste on its agenda as a work- and descent-based form of discrimination. The announcement in this regard was welcomed by various Dalit rights groups, which were fighting the Government of India's opposition to the inclusion of caste on the Conference agenda.

However, the campaigners realise that their task is only half-finished. "The inclusion of caste on the agenda has made it certain that it is one of the topics that ought to be discussed by India. But this has not ensured that the government delegation would raise it in the discussions or take it up with the seriousness it warrants," said Martin Macwan, convener of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR).

What gives credence to this view is the fact that the government representatives attending the Durban Conference have given no indication of any decision to initiate a discussion on caste at the Conference. A Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament, who is part of the government delegation, Denzil B. Atkinson said: "We have not been given any official confirmation on the inclusion of caste on the agenda. In any case, caste is an internal matter of India and we would be touching on issues that are more directly related to the conference, which include race and racism."

It was the third preparatory committee meeting for the Conference, held in Geneva, that decided to include caste under paragraph 109 of the agenda for the Inter-Governmental Conference in Durban. This is the only paragraph that pertains to caste discrimination, and it had been lobbied for by all Dalit groups. It reads: "To ensure all necessary constitutional, legislative and administrative measures, including appropriate form of affirmative action, are in place to prohibit and address discrimination on the basis of work and descent and such that measures are respected and implemented by all states, authorities at all levels."

"However, there is still no certainty that the government will actually go ahead and include caste in its discussion," said Narender Kumar, Director, Public Advocacy Initiative for Rights and Values in India (PAIRVI).

SEVERAL non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and academicians supporting a discussion on Dalit rights are expected to attend the Durban Conference. However, the groups and people who support a discussion on the issue would not include any of the major political parties or their leaders. Almost all political parties, except the Left parties, have yet to make their stand clear on the issue. Both the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have supported the demand of the Dalit groups. A Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) said that although the party did not equate caste with race, it did not mean that the issue should not be taken up at an international forum like the Durban Conference (Frontline, August 31).

"Parties like the Congress(I) and the BJP, feel that it will be politically incorrect to support the Dalit stand openly. This means that whoever would be in power would be against discussing caste at an international meet," said Macwan. Although a number of MPs from major political parties have supported the inclusion of caste on the agenda, their parties have not openly supported their stand. A Congress(I) MP from Gujarat, Pravin Rashtrapal, said: "I had requested the party high command to take a decision on the issue. Till date it has not done so".

Others who have joined the ranks of independent protesters include Rajya Sabha members Fali S. Nariman and Kuldip Nayar and Congress(I) member of the Lok Sabha, Mani Shankar Aiyar. At a conference organised by the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), Nariman expressed unhappiness over the stand taken by the Government of India. "It has been taken without seeking a consensus of the people or their representatives," he said. Nayar said that by blocking a discussion on caste, the government could not possibly improve the plight of Dalits in India.

While support for the inclusion of caste came mostly from the Opposition parties, what was surprising was the support given by two BJP leaders - Dilip Sanghani, MP, and Mahendra Trivedi, Gujarat's Minister of Youth Service, Cultural Activities and Sports - to the groups. The leaders sent a note to the NCDHR affirming their support to the issue and assured it that they would write to the Central government departments concerned, supporting its stand.

The lack of support of political parties to Dalit rights groups is rooted in the realities of Indian politics. One aspect of this is evident in the attempts to form political alliances with the sole aim of building a strong bahujan samaj. The politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) exemplifies this approach. Although BSP leader and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati promised to take up the issue of caste in Durban, she did not raise it in Parliament or any other national forum. Another aspect of Dalit politics is evident in groups that try to forge an independent Dalit identity. Such groups, including Maharashtra's Mahar movement, have been attempting to counterpoise the brahmanical identity. However, even such communities do not seem to have realised the relevance of international exposure to their movement. As a result, various Dalit rights groups have been independently carrying forward their demand of a discussion on caste at the Conference. "On the whole we are happy with the debates generated in India before the Durban Conference because they have brought publicity to the problems of Dalits," said Macwan.

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