Friday, March 7, 2008

Recast: rethinking issues of caste and race

In August 2000, the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights passed resolution 2000/4 on Discrimination Based on Work and Descent. This addressed the issue of caste, and aimed at reaffirming that discrimination based on work and descent was in violation of international human rights laws. In 2001, the addition of caste to the agenda of the United Nations World conference on Racism at Durban brought the discussion of caste and race to the forefront within the public domain. This was done by classifying caste as a system of social stratification based on descent and occupation and, as such, it would fall under the purview of Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), therefore allowing its issues to be treated on parity with those of racial discrimination.

The Government of India vehemently opposed its inclusion on the agenda of an inter-governmental conference as it felt that caste was an internal matter. Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, at a regional preparatory conference at Tehran, said that efforts to connect the issues of race and caste were ‘misconceived’. As caste discrimination was constitutionally recognized and prohibited and the governments at the centre and state have taken step towards its elimination issues of caste had no place at an inter-governmental forum.

Another opponent to the inclusion of caste was anthropologist Andre Beteille who put forth the argument that the idea of caste as race had origin in the pseudo-scientific discourse of late 19Th and early 20Th century Europe. The move to include caste discrimination under racial discrimination would, for Beteille be ‘flying in the face of the distinctions between race, language and culture,… seeking to undo the conclusions reached by the researches of several generations of anthropologists’. As many critics rightly point out, while Beteille focuses on the survival and redefinition of his discipline, he seems to miss out on the larger picture of discrimination within society today. Another aspect he neglected to mention was that race, like caste, based on scientific research is no longer viewed as a biological or genetic fact. One valid issue he does raise is that in the pan- Indian context there exists no uniformity of race between all the Scheduled Caste taken together and all the Brahmins similarly grouped together. The Human Rights Watch, an organization working for the discussion of caste at the international level, recognizes this criticism; and while it admits to an outsider that there are no visual markers that separate the castes of India, it points out that as per the International Committee on Racial Discrimination, "the term `descent' contained in Art. 1 of ICERD has its own meaning and is not to be confused with race or ethnic or national origin.

On 7Th May 2001, a group of 40 academicians, jurists, and representatives of NGOs and Civil society organizations, mostly from Dalit communities, had a conference at Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, where they put forth the notion that `Caste is Race Plus' as it has been ‘inflicted by birth, sanctified by religion, glorified by tradition, Caste has had brutal repercussions for a fifth of India's population through the generations’. They argued that caste was race in the Indian context and the Indian government that had been at the forefront of the movement against apartheid in South Africa now chose to ignore the prevalence of apartheid within its own borders. In relation to the government of India’s rejection of caste as race, they argued that the Indian constitution recognized in many of its articles a parity between racial and caste discrimination.

The Human Right Watch sought to show that issues of caste were not only relevant in the India, but it was a widespread problem that warranted international attention. According to its report there existed caste discrimination against the Dalits of South Asia-including Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan-the Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria's Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal and Mauritania. There existed similarities in the modes of discrimination practiced against these groups with relation with marriage, labor, access to education, access to land, debt bondage and slavery. With its association as a system based on descent and occupation, in order to stress the global dimensions of the issue, caste effectively gets de-linked with the practices of religion when it is defined as ‘a distinct form of racism affecting victims equally irrespective of religion’, which goes against the grain of the arguments of many Dalit intellectuals, most notably Ambedkar. Kancha Iliaih puts forth an interesting argument that proposes a greater international stake in the removal of caste discrimination as "[t]he colonial world benefited from the cheap labor of the adivasis, Dalits, and OBCs," "the capitalist west owes a moral responsibility to uplift [the lower castes] as much as the upper castes of India do".

Finally due to protests of the Indian government, caste was not to be included in the Durban declaration. One of the key elements of protest was that the representation of the Indian state as a racist regime is in complete opposition to its self-understanding and image. Therefore as the debate progresses, the issue of caste and race becomes less about a need to equate the two, but rather to show that while racial and caste discrimination may not be identical, they both require international attention so as to avoid being swept neatly under the rug of India’s new found global image as a country of progress.

By Aarthi Sridhar

1 comment:

Vivek said...

If i understood correctly, Aarthi is claiming that the main reason for the indian government to protest the inclusion of the caste issue in the UN, was that it would be in complete opposition to its self-understanding and image. How hypocritcal can one get!