Caste Out, Yet Again

24 05 2009

This is the draft version I wrote for the editorial of the Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLIV No. 20, May16 2009.

[The official Indian delegation again blocked all mention of caste at the UN conference of Racism]

The recently concluded review conference organised by the United Nations in Geneva to assess the work done to implement the decisions of the 2001 world conference on racism held in Durban, has been a largely staid affair. Except for the predictable walkout and tumult over Iranian president Ahmedinejad’s statements against Israel, the entire conference was almost entire unreported in the mainstream media. Most readers would remember the intense public debates and acrimony over the terms and outcomes of the Durban conference. In that context, it was a bit surprising that the first such global conference on the issue of racism and other related discriminations in eight years, should be such a quiet affair.

In September 2001, the most contentious issue for Indians was the demand for the inclusion of caste discrimination as a specific form of racism. The NDA government of that time, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), blocked any reference to caste in the documents of the Durban conference using a combination of legal and academic arguments and the diplomatic power of the “emerging superpower”. It was obvious that behind these official positions lurked the deep resistance of Indian official nationalism to stand up to global scrutiny, a resistance which often cloaks itself under some form of anti-imperialism. As dalit activists and others who campaigned for the inclusion of caste in the racism conference argued, caste discrimination is among the most obvious and significant of discriminations based on birth and social grouping in the contemporary world. Caste discrimination did not only affect people in India, despite all the Constitutional guarantees and policy measures, it also had a considerable presence in other South Asian countries as well as some others.

It was obvious that a government led by the Hindu nationalist BJP would be loathe to allow any international scrutiny of Hindu social practices. But eight and more years later, the Congress led government has shown a similar inflexibility in allowing any discussion of caste discrimination at the Durban review conference. The Indian official delegation blocked 33 out of the 40 NGOs (mostly dalit bodies and organisations representing smaller nationalities) who wanted to officially participate in the proceedings and kept intact the unremitting opposition of the previous BJP led government to inclusion of caste references in the documents of the conference. There is no denying the fact that the Indian Constitution has banned caste discrimination and put in place a slew of measures to help those who face such discrimination. Despite all its acts of omission, the record of the Indian State on this matter is perhaps better than any other State faced with the same issue. Yet it cannot be denied that the State and its institutions have also been complicit in blunting the impact of anti-caste legislation and policies and personnel in positions of authority are often given to caste prejudice. Caste discrimination remains so deep in our society that it colours everything, including supposedly impartial State institutions. The charge that the obstinate blocking by the Indian government of all discussions on caste in international fora, is merely a symptom of the proclivity of upper caste India to deny the very existence of caste discrimination, may therefore, have a fair element of accuracy to it.

It does no one any good by denying this obvious social reality. International pressures, and grandstanding by western powers who may use this to browbeat India for other agendas, cannot be met by such denial. An honest acceptance of shortcomings and mistakes is the first and necessary step to taking corrective measures and turning present opponents into allies, thus voiding the possibility of diplomatic arm-twisting by western powers. It would also strengthen the anti-caste movement domestically and provide support to dalit populations in other countries. While the continuation of the BJP stand by the Congress government is noteworthy, what is particularly surprising is the lack of any domestic debate on this matter given that the country is passing through a general election to choose its next government.

Where the Durban conference failed to stand up on the issue of caste discrimination, it did finally manage to take a, somewhat watered down, stand on the discrimination and exclusions faced by Palestinians. This led to the walk out by Israel and the United States and their continued boycott of the proceedings of the present review conference. Other countries like Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands and Poland joined the boycott this time. It appears that the condemnation of Zionism as racism provided these governments, specially the USA, with a fig-leaf to escape scrutiny over their track-record on combating racism, discrimination and xenophobia. While the diplomatic strength of the Arab and OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference) delegations ensured that Palestine would continue to be mentioned in the document of the World Conference on Racism, the relative weakness of the Dalit movement on the international stage ensured that the discrimination faced by about 300 million people remained excluded.

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