Preserving the caste system at all costs!

A DEBATE is raging in India about whether the question of caste discrimination can be taken up in the UN World Conference against Race, Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance that is scheduled to take place in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7 this year. All the dalit groups are fighting for the caste issue to feature on the Conference’s agenda. The Government of India, however, is equally determined to keep caste out of the agenda and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh has gone on record saying that caste is an internal problem and should not be taken up in this world forum. Even the delegation that is to represent India at this conference shows a definite upper caste bias.

On 3rd July, the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights staged a protest outside the offices of the United Nations in New Delhi and demanded that the forthcoming United Nations Conference in Durban, “discuss the issue of Caste and the violence that casteism has inflicted on the person and human dignity of hundreds of millions of people in several countries of Asia and other continents.” They say that dalits of the world have suffered millennia of subjugation, tyranny, violence, humiliation and deprivation for over three thousand years. They contend that casteism is worse than racism and that ‘Caste is Race Plus’.

Those of us who work among India’s toiling and exploited masses know that all this is only too true and that caste is a deadly cancer that still continues to eat the vitals of our country. South Asia has an estimated 240 million dalits of whom 170 million (1991 census) live in India. Sanctified by Hindu religion and its scriptures, this iniquitous caste system has caused untold suffering and degradation to millions of our country’s men, women and children, and there is no way to escape from it as it binds one from birth to death. Over fifty years of ‘independence’ has hardly made a dent in this pernicious custom that surely must be the most exploitative paradigm ever devised or created by mankind. A paradigm that surely dehumanises and taints the perpetrator as surely as those on whom it is perpetrated.

There has also been a spate of articles on whether caste can be considered as race. The first salvo was fired by none other than Andre Beteille who wrote an erudite piece for The Hindu on the question of race and caste and quotes many anthropologists and scholars to say that no matter how much we may abhor the caste system it cannot come under the category of race. In fact he says that “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.”

Beteille fears that if caste is included in racist discrimination then it will open up a Pandora’s Box for every form of religious and other discrimination to be also included and then, worst of all, he fears that by “flying in the face of the distinctions between race, language and culture, it is seeking to undo the conclusions reached by the researches of several generations of anthropologists.” It appears that these conclusions by researchers are more important to Beteille than to somehow, by whatever means possible, wipe out centuries of shame and humiliation! Beteille’s stand, wittingly or unwittingly, plays into the hands of all those Hindu nationalists who are convinced that the end of the caste system will be suicidal and mean the end of Hinduism and so it must be preserved and protected at all costs! In fact it is rather sad to see that his real concerns are not for the eradication of untouchability but, for academic formulations, as is clearly shown in his concluding remarks: “By treating caste discrimination as a form of racial discrimination and, by implication, caste as a form of race, the U.N. is turning its back on established scientific opinion. One can only guess under what kind of pressure it is doing so. Treating caste as a form of race is politically mischievous; what is worse, it is scientifically nonsensical.”

The other articles that are worth mentioning are two written by Gail Omvedt. It is many years since I have been in total sympathy and agreement with anything that Gail has written, and after her pro-kulak and pro-globalisation stance over the past years, I was delighted to see how she has stripped Beteille of his pseudo erudition to expose his academic ‘concerns’.

The question/the issue/the problem (a la Musharraf!) is not whether caste is or is not technically a matter of race but how can we finally expose and eradicate this injustice. In order to do so, any and every tool must be utilised. India’s double standards have been going on for too long; the arguments and counter-arguments of Brahmanism must be uncovered; the rot must be exposed for the whole world to see, condemn and destroy. Each and every forum, every method should and must be used to eradicate this despicable practice. There is no question of any democracy, equality, freedom or justice for us as long as this lasts. We must support the dalits in their fight for liberation and also support their struggle to be heard at Durban.

India’s hypocrisy and ability to sweep the unpleasant under the carpet is well-known and so it is possible to both support South Africa in its fight against apartheid and perpetuate a far worse apartheid at home or we can have a dalit as President of the country even while countless dalits are forced to wallow in filth and still have to carry human excreta on their heads!

Srilata Swaminathan