Caste and race

Print edition : June 23, 2001

The Union government's refusal to take the issue of caste-based discrimination to a United Nations-organised conference on racism sparks a controversy.

CAN caste be equated with race? Are caste-based discrimination and racial bias the two sides of the same coin? The controversy involving the government and groups fighting for Dalit rights over the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Tolerance (WCAR), which will be organised by the United Nations in Durban from August 31 to September 2, has brought these larger, long-debated questions to the fore again. The immediate question is whether the issue of caste discrimination can be taken to an international forum like the WCAR.

Andre Beteille, social anthropologist, who resigned from the National Committee on World Conference against Racism.-M. LAKSHMANAN

While the government insists that caste-based discrimination is an "internal" matter of India, its detractors point to the need for "globalising" the issue. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) fighting for Dalit rights have charged the government with drawing the saffron curtain over the issue of human rights within the country.

Matters came to a head recently when Andre Beteille, the well-known social anthropologist, resigned from the National Committee on World Conference against Racism (NCWCR), which is preparing a draft to be presented at the Conference. Several other members who are opposed to caste-based discrimination are also apparently troubled by the implications of being part of the committee.

The government has been reiterating the declared objectives of the Conference: reviewing the progress made by the world in the fight against racial discrimination, finding ways and means to ensure better application of existing standards, increasing the awareness of people around the world about racial discrimination, and so on. While agreeing with the necessity of working towards these goals, the NGOs have been demanding the inclusion of caste-based discrimination in the agenda of the Conference. Said Dr. Ambrose Pinto, executive director of the New Delhi-based Indian Social Institute: "The U.N. needs to change the title of the Conference in such a way as to include caste discrimination. The present terminology is Eurocentric and fails to take the reality of caste-based discrimination into account." Agreeing with this view, Martin Macwan, national convener of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, said: "In earlier international forums, notably the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the Government of India had successfully taken up the issue of caste-based discrimination. We do not understand why the present government does not want to take up caste-based discrimination. Why is it insisting that caste is an 'internal' matter?"

Dalit rights activists point out that the government's stand undermines India's commitment to numerous international conventions on human rights that it has ratified. They argue that it faces the risk of being exposed as a government that has not seriously addressed the crudest form of discrimination. Such an image, they say, would be detrimental to India's efforts to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

The Ministry of External Affairs, however, remains firm in its opposition to a discussion on caste-based discrimination at the Conference. Inaugurating the first meeting of the NCWCR in New Delhi on February 7, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh said that the government opposed all attempts to dilute the focus of the Conference by ascribing racial connotations to caste. He said: "We are strongly opposed to all such attempts. We must ensure that the Conference does not lose sight of its focus on racism."

Abid Hussein, a member of the NCWCR, said: "Caste-based discrimination and racial discrimination are evils. It is important to eradicate them from society. But it is not fair to take the Conference as the venue for fighting caste-based discrimination. One must remember that it is not a conference on taking up every kind of discrimination prevalent in society."

The intensity of the debate is not surprising. Understanding caste and how it came to be embedded in Indian society is a tough task, which involves the study of its cultural implications if it is seen as a religious phenomenon (Louis Dumont in Homo Hierarchicus) or its materialistic roots if it is analysed as a form of economic exploitation (Dipankar Gupta in "From Varna to Jati: The Indian Caste System from the Asiatic to the Feudal Mode of Production," Journal of Contemporary Asia, Number 10). Dalit rights activists see a similarity between race and caste in that inequality is intergenerationally transmitted in both. Said Pinto: "Prejudice and discrimination are both a part of caste and race. And what is worse is that such prejudice and discrimination are not merely personal but institutional, a part of the structure and process of the whole society. In both caste and race theories, the so-called higher or superior groups take the attitude that their culture is superior to all other cultures and that all the other groups should be judged according to their culture. What is the difference between the claims made by the white race in Europe and the upper castes in India?"

In this context, Beteille says that treating caste as a form of race is "politically mischievous and scientifically nonsensical". Citing the ineffectual attempts made in the past to identify and define race in India, Beteille says, "I am now convinced that identifying the races in the population of India will be an exercise in futility... It is sad but true that many forms of invidious discrimination do prevail in the contemporary world. But to assimilate or even relate them all to 'racial discrimination' will be an act of political and moral irresponsibility. Not content with condemning racism and racial discrimination, the U.N. now wants to take on racialism, racial discrimination and xenophobia and related intolerance. It has in its wisdom decided to expand the meeting on racial discrimination to accommodate exclusion or preference 'based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin'. In doing so it is bound to give a new lease of life to the old and discredited notion of race that was current a hundred years ago." Making his opposition to such an exercise clear, Beteille says: "We cannot throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is being misused for asserting social superiority and bring it again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed" ( "Race and Caste", The Hindu, March 10, 2001).

Beteille's arguments drew sharp responses from Dalit rights activists. Some of them took exception to the wording of his article and accused him of raising metaphysical arguments in scientific terms to negate the existence of caste.

Beteille, who has made a significant contribution to the study of caste in India, told Frontline: "There is a tremendous amount of genetic diversity in the Indian population. That does not mean that there are moderately identifiable races in India. Attempts have been made in the past also to divide the Indian population on the basis of race but they have ended in total failure. Thus, there are no satisfactory arguments that race is relevant to India. The argument that there is racial diversity in India falls on its face on these grounds. I agree there is an enormous amount of class- and caste-based discrimination in India but it is wrong to say that there is racial discrimination."

Activists like Macwan agree with Beteille and say that they do not see caste and race as the two sides of the same coin. But, according to them, there is a need to take up the issue of caste-based discrimination at a global forum.

The government has ignored this demand but has stated that the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution will look into the matter. Said Pinto: "The Constitution Review Commission is not a committee of Parliament. How can the government ask it to look into such a sensitive matter?"

Said Macwan: "We will appeal to all Members of Parliament to intervene in the government's decision-making process on such a sensitive issue. The membership of the committee, which is preparing the framework for the World Conference, also needs to be representative. We shall keep on lobbying at international forums to ensure that caste-based discrimination is not ignored at the Durban Conference."

The NGOs see the WCAR as the only acceptable forum to raise the issue of caste discrimination in India. Yogesh Varahade, founder-president of the Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace, said: "We will go to Durban to participate and highlight the discrimination based on birth and descent. World history tells us that any system based on any misleading theory for the benefit of the few at the cost of the majority, will not survive too long and is bound to collapse sooner or later."

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