Global gaze on caste

The Indian government resists any international scrutiny of the caste system, including a recent U.N. report that condemns caste hierarchy. But no amount of sophistry can wish away the possibility of anarchic violence if the government continues to downplay the problem.

Published : Apr 13, 2016 12:30 IST

The suicide of the Dalit researcher Rohith Vemula has put caste oppression in the centre of the political debate in India. Here, students of Hyderabad University in a demonstration over Rohith's death on the campus on January 19.

The suicide of the Dalit researcher Rohith Vemula has put caste oppression in the centre of the political debate in India. Here, students of Hyderabad University in a demonstration over Rohith's death on the campus on January 19.

Out of the maze of the United Nations Human Rights Council came a short report—just over 10,000 words—with an innocuous title, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues” (January 28, 2016). This report takes aim at caste discrimination as a global affliction, not one that impacts South Asia only. It is a powerful report, which suggests that the caste system contradicts “the principles of human dignity, equality and non-discrimination”. It is not caste violence or caste discrimination that is objectionable, notes the report, but caste hierarchy itself.

India’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Ajit Kumar, hastily dismissed the report. Speaking for the Government of India, Kumar noted that the Special Rapporteur for Minority Issues, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, had breached her mandate. He insisted on a narrow reading of her charge, namely to report on the human rights of “national, or ethnic, religious minorities”. Caste, he said pointedly, did not belong to this list. The report noted that caste has “minority-like characteristics”, which Kumar suggested could apply to any social group. A narrower understanding of minority rights is necessary, Kumar suggests. The Indian government has resisted any international scrutiny of the caste system and its attendant consequences such as poverty and humiliation. During the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, India strenuously rebuked the U.N. for taking up issues of caste hierarchy and the status of Dalits in Indian society. Omar Abdullah, at the time Minister of State for External Affairs in the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told the assembled delegates in Durban, South Africa, that reports of caste oppression were “highly exaggerated” and that those who spoke about the trials of Dalits produced “misleading propaganda” based on “anecdotal evidence”. Kumar’s statement is in line with this denial.

Rita Izsak-Ndiaye is unrepentant. She told this writer that the silence on caste discrimination was intolerable. The death of Hyderabad Central University student Rohith Vemula puts the issue back on the table. “Vemula’s death and the stories of other Dalit victims of suicide,” said Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, “are indeed tragic signals of despair and demonstrate the urgent need to challenge and change the mindset of people who think of others in hierarchical terms.” The Indian government seems loath to acknowledge the problem, let alone allow a mature discussion to take place over a toxic problem with deep roots in society.

Global problem

One of the most important parts of Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report is the insistence that the discrimination of caste is not merely a South Asian problem. She notes that about 250 million people in the world suffer from caste-based discrimination, although of these the vast majority—201 million—live in South Asia. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye points to Yemen’s Mushamasheen (Marginal Men), Japan’s Burakumin, Mauritania’s Beidane and Haratines, Madagascar’s Merina and Bara, Nigeria’s Osu, Senegal’s Neeno, and Somalia’s Sab. Each of these communities, just like the various Dalit groups in India, faces untouchability practices and occupational segregation. The report turns the spotlight of attention towards a widespread practice of using ideas of pollution and filth to constrain people into essential but unremunerated occupations. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye points out that these invented barriers “are a major cause of poverty and perpetuate poverty in affected communities”.

If South Asia’s caste problem is on the surface, these others are buried in obscurity. Her framework of global caste, says Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, shines a light on these other countries where caste is a “taboo topic which is hidden from public discourse. I hope this report can trigger some further discussion.” Scholarly literature has used the idea of “caste” to unearth the practices of discrimination in places outside South Asia, although this discussion is esoteric and has had little impact on public policy. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report is not the first to raise these issues. In the early 2000s, the Special Rapporteur on Racism, Doudou Diene, had drawn out the deep-rooted discriminations against the Roma in Eastern Europe, the growth of Islamophobia in the West, marginalisation of Amerindians, and the question of discrimination based on the caste system. When Diene raised these issues, the Indian government reacted negatively. Ambassador Hardeep Puri, then based in Geneva, said that discrimination had been banned by the Constitution. Caste, he suggested, was integral to Indian society, since it originated “in the fundamental division of Indian society during ancient times”. The Indian social divisions did not amount to racism, said Puri, meaning that they were outside the purview of Diene’s mandate.

I raised Kumar’s question about the mandate to Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, namely on whether the framework of “minority rights” applied to caste. Puri had said that the framework of race did not apply, and now Kumar rejected the framework of minority rights. India, conveniently, avoided censure on caste discrimination by saying that it was sui generis to India and so outside the criticism of multinational agencies. “There is no internationally agreed definition of minorities,” said Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, “because minority situations are multifaceted. In some cases, ‘lower caste’ groups are ethnic or religious minorities in classic terms. In other cases, even if they speak the same language or pray the same way, their non-dominant status and their self-identification as minorities led them to use the minority rights framework for decades to claim their rights.”

Dalit representatives at the 2001 Durban Conference—such as Martin Macwan of the Navsarjan Trust (Gujarat), Ruth Manorama of the National Federation of Dalit Women and N. Paul Diwakar of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights—insisted that the debate about caste being an “internal matter” to India merely avoided the question of caste discrimination. If the atrocities against Dalits were merely an “internal matter”, they asked, why did the government do so little to tackle it? No resolution came from the U.N., but Macwan was unfazed. “Why do you need more resolutions than already exist? We are not interested in a resolution from the U.N.”, he said. “We are interested in creating greater visibility for the Dalit issue.” Minority rights or anti-racism provided the opportunity to talk about what had not been addressed sufficiently within India. “While theoretical and academic debates on the approach are interesting,” Rita Izsak-Ndiaye said, “I wish that there is more attention paid to the actual problems of inequalities and barriers to the enjoyment of dignity and human rights by ‘lower castes’ and to possible solutions on how we can overcome them.”

No question that the Indian government has under its belt a great number of laws. India has been a signatory to the International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) and of the other nine conventions and protocols that place the country firmly in the “anti-racism” camp in world affairs. Domestically, India has not only banned untouchability, but passed a series of laws to combat caste discrimination. In 2004, under pressure from the controversy at Durban, India established a National Commission for Scheduled Castes and in 2013 India finally banned manual scavenging. If there is a political consensus against untouchability and caste discrimination, why is India so averse to the kind of report that Rita Izsak-Ndiaye produced? She told me that she recognised that “this is an extremely sensitive topic internally so it will be important for Indian society to openly and honestly carry on with a public discussion and identify joint actions on how to ensure equality and dignity for all”.

Property and Privilege

Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report recommends that governments pass laws, create awareness-raising campaigns and adopt reservation and quotas as mechanisms to combat caste discrimination. Most of these are commonplace in India. Yet, violence against Dalits and exclusion on social and economic lines continue in a harsh and brutal manner. In one aside, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye notes that “accusations of witchcraft are sometimes made to deprive Dalit women of their basic economic and social rights, including access to land and their assets”. Nothing more is said about this important point. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye told this writer that she did not elaborate on the issue of land and resources because of the “space limit”. It is hoped that a future report will take up this issue as its centrepiece.

Violence by dominant castes seems to be driven in many cases by the refusal to allow Dalits to own land and the demand for Dalits to work—at substandard wages —on the landlords’ fields and in their homes. These demands run parallel with cruel forms of violence. Any attempt to undermine the violence of caste is going to have to take seriously questions of property and privilege. In 1949, B.R. Ambedkar told political leaders of India that their hesitant approach to land reform (and wealth redistribution) did not bode well for democracy. “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

Most of the groups referred to in Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report had struggled for decades to bring attention to the problems of their society. The Buraku Liberation League in Japan has a history in parallel to Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation and the Republican Party of India. These groups fought, as Ruth Manorama put it, to turn “pain into power”. Each of these organisations and the political pressure they put on their society forced their governments to address these deeply rooted social problems. The Indian government might not like attention on the world stage, but it has been forced to adopt ideas of “human rights”—the result is the National Human Rights Commission, formed in 1993. Pressure from these groups brought the issue of caste to the U.N. for the first time at the 2001 Durban conference. Rita Izsak-Ndiaye’s report is part of a sustained effort to force social change. No amount of sophistry by the Indian government can sideline the brutality of caste discrimination. Either it gets broached with the motivation to erase it, or it will erupt in dangerous and anarchic violence.

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