The caste question

Print edition : September 01, 2001

THE non-governmental organisations (NGOs), human rights organisations and intellectuals in India who have lobbied for the inclusion of caste on the agenda of the United Nations (U.N.) Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance to be held in Durban from August 31, claim to have achieved their goal. At its third preparatory committee meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in August, the working group on the Programme of Action for the Durban Conference decided to include the much-contested Paragraph 109 in the draft agenda.

This paragraph deals with discrimination on the basis of "descent and occupation". While it technically provides for the inclusion of caste-based discrimination, the draft agenda does not explicitly equate casteism and racism. To that extent the government's position that casteism and racism are distinct social and historical categories has been vindicated.

Articulating the official stand, Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee said that caste was an internal issue of India and that the U.N. should not interfere in the matter. He argued that bringing the issue of caste into the Conference would dilute the focus on the issue of race. Savitri Kunadi, India's Permanent Representative to the U.N. and leader of the official Indian contingent, clarified that India would keep caste out of the Conference.

But public opinion on the issue was mixed, going by the views expressed at two seminars organised by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in collaboration with the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), in Bangalore and New Delhi in August. Incidentally, Justice J.S. Verma, Chairperson of the NHRC, will represent it at the Conference.

Broadly, three perspectives emerged at the seminars.The first was in line with the official stand, that casteism had nothing to do with racism. Sociologist Andre Baeteille is a proponent of this view. The second was that casteism was an Indian variant of racism, and that the time had come to internationalise it as was done in the matter of apartheid. Several Dalit and human rights organisations have argued thus, and will raise the issue at the Conference. The third was that casteism shared certain features with racism and could be looked at under the 'related intolerance' aspect of the agenda.

In his keynote address at the Bangalore seminar N.R. Madhava Menon, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Juridical Sciences, said that caste and race were two distinct social constructs which happened in different social environments, in different periods and with different consequences. He felt that since the Conference was organised specifically to discuss race-related discrimination, "it is inappropriate to take on board all forms of intolerance or all types of inequality".

He acknowledged the fact that "some manifestations of caste-based discrimination can be more serious than even racist discrimination", but went on to say that "caste per se may not be a harmful category". "It cuts across religion and gives socio-cultural identities to people without necessarily hurting human dignity and social justice." That is why, he added, the Constitution abolished untouchability but not the caste system.

Race and caste-based discrimination were not one and the same thing, argued sociologist Prof. T.K. Oommen. The two terms "have been used so interchangeably by both historians and anthropologists that it is hard to draw a conclusive line between them," he said. "In contrast to racism, which is practised on the basis of physical differences, caste discrimination is anchored to values," he said. "Caste discrimination cannot be practised in situations of anonymity. That is why it is relatively absent in big urban centres. But the moment the veil of anonymity is lifted, caste discrimination comes alive."

V.K. Nataraj, Director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, said that the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights made references to discrimination based on race, colour, gender, ethnicity, religion, birth and descent among others, but not caste. The focus was more on countries that had just then been liberated from colonialism than on their internal problems. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1969 included discrimination based on "descent" (Article 1, CERD). He argued that "the fact that the CERD could and did speak of caste coming within the meaning of Article 1 testifies to the changes that have taken place." The current controversy should be appraised against this backdrop, he said.

"Shall we say apartheid was untouchability in its first phase or shall we say that untouchability was the great-grandfather of apartheid?" asked Devanoor Mahadeva, well-known Kannada writer, who is also a member of the National Committee on Racism. "There is only one race, the human race, and any system that discriminates between humans is part of racial discrimination," he told Frontline later. Expressing similar sentiments, V.T. Rajasekhar of Dalit Voice said that there was no doubt that caste was a form of racial discrimination.

Over the years U.N. conferences have expanded their scope to include xenophobia and "related discriminations", S. Japhet, associate professor at NSLIU, told Frontline. "Why should not caste be included?" he asked. According to Kuldip Nayar, Member of Parliament and senior journalist, by seeking to block discussions on caste-based discrimination the government showed that it was not serious about eradicating it. Shanti Bhushan, senior advocate, said casteism fell within the ambit of the Durban Conference. He felt there was no harm in internationalising the issue.

The government had held an in camera 'public hearing' on June 4, which was organised by a national committee constituted by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee under the chairmanship of the former Chief Justice of India, Ranganath Mishra. The feedback here was against allowing caste to go into the Conference agenda.

While the official process of ascertaining public opinion has been questioned widely, the response to the NHRC's seminars was quite good. More than 30 organisations made written and oral submissions. Intriguingly, the NHRC did not make its own stand public at the end of the two seminars.

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