Towards a constructive ‘globalization’

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FROM 26 August to 8 September we witnessed perhaps one of the most significant convergence of oppressed peoples and communities at a world platform, for the first time in modern history speaking their own languages in their own voices. The Durban summit, and the representation of the dalit issue by a dalit delegation from India, can be seen as an aspect of globalization generally missed out in most debates around the issue.

The Durban summit represented a ‘shrinking’ of the world at a different level, countering the dominant paradigms of globalization. The 180-member delegation of dalits included activists, academics, Members of Parliament, grassroot dalit leadership, and a ‘cultural’ team drawn from 12 states in India, besides people from Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It is significant that these people shared resources through 20 fellowships from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and 20 fellowships from South African NGOs, besides monies raised from other sources. The gathering itself was publicized as a summit of the ‘victimized’ at press meets held subsequently.

The dalit delegation (or dalit ‘caucus’ as it was referred to in the WCAR NGO forum declaration) demanded, besides other things, ‘a linking of caste and discrimination based on work and descent, the enactment of suitable legislation to recognize and eradicate discrimination based on work and descent against dalits, the enforcement of speedy and effective legal programmes to abolish the traditional practices of the Devadasi system and the rehabilitation of dalit women. It is of historical significance that the jogin community (the so-termed ‘sacred prostitutes’) from Andhra was also part of the delegation at Durban.

In a conversation after his return from Durban, one of the delegates to the summit, Kancha Ilaiah, Professor of Political Science, author of Why I am not a Hindu, and God as Political Philosopher, highlighted the significance of Durban and of dalit consciousness/politics to R. Umamaheshwari.


Is there a dalit consciousness? How strong is its presence in modern society/politics?

There is a definite form that dalit consciousness has taken, qualitatively different from earlier. We now have a leadership that can argue the problems of untouchability, marginalization and suppression at international forums and conduct struggles at different levels than was done in the past, in the immediate post-independence period. At the level of the ‘dalit caucus’, I was one OBC, there were three upper castes – Mohini Giri, Vasanti Devi, former VC of Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, and R.M. Pal from PUCL. The rest were dalits from various religious backgrounds, majority non-Christian. This leadership of the dalit caucus (Paul Divakar, Ruth Manorama, Jyoti Raj, Martin Macwan) have shown an ability to carve out spaces within the UN bodies for dalit NGOs through the NCDHR (National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights).

Today, NCDHR is established as a ‘globally mobile’ organization to take the issue of casteism to the world. This is important for out of the total FCRA funds for NGOs, about US$ 500 million a year, 30% goes to Hindutva organizations, remaining 60% to upper castes-run organizations, and only 6-7% to dalit leadership-based forums. It was only the dalit leadership that pooled in its resources to reach Durban, which speaks of remarkable organization and energy. It was this historically oppressed section that assumed leadership, representing dalit consciousness. Though many NGOs claim to work for dalits (mainly the upper castes who use FCRA money) but did they take dalits to an international forum, or work for ways of abolishing caste? They merely used dalits as a plank for making money.


What kind of shift do you perceive in the debates on caste pre-Durban?

The very nature of the debate in the media and elsewhere, prior to the Durban meet, smacked of a fear of UN exposure. Nevertheless, it forced the Indian government to take notice. While at one level the Hindutva agenda was propagated, the National Human Rights Commission took a different stand, which was a significant achievement. The summit, as such, gave confidence to dalit masses that they now have the backing of international forums, under phenomenal leadership, a significant section of which comprised of women. This was the first international exposure for illiterate people, the ‘victims’, who were trained how to take a flight, to conduct themselves at meetings. Drum-beaters, singers, took a flight for the first time. The dalit team had extensive material (documentation, etc); there was even a dalit doctor who not only attended to the sick but also actively participated in the deliberations.


How important is this shift from the earlier, more political, movement-oriented activity towards the NGO kind of mobilization?

The NGOs (in this case) took a great risk in confronting the state; they are ready to confront. But we must also take note of the fact that they have substantial documentation, which is an important part of the new consciousness. Both modern technology and methods are now percolating down to the dalits who have reached a stage where they can use laptops and are comfortable in the use of the English language. The dalit leadership is able to handle this at an international level of establishing networks. This kind of sophisticated leadership, in the tradition of Ambedkar, is a new phenomenon.


What is the present paradigm?

Though the BJP-Hindutva brigade practices caste, it is not ready to concede the evils of casteism. Dalits are fighting this. History is on the right track. All major movements in the world construct terms to explain their social and economic position. Today, the term ‘dalit’ expresses that historical situation. Historical deprivation, untouchability (apartheid), and layers of caste discrimination are embedded in this term (dalit). These forces have projected this concept onto the international discourse. The underlying basis of the caste system is untouchability; this needs to be pulled down, and the dalits are hitting at that space in order to destroy the caste system. The OBCs have a weak social consciousness, and do not have the historical anger to fight and liberate themselves.

The Durban summit has important implications. For the first time, the meet was organized under a black leadership, under Kofi Annan, and an Irish woman, Mary Robinson, both determined that whatever the consequences, the victims of racism and discrimination should be brought together to challenge the victimizer. For the first time in UN documents we see a demand for an apology from the oppressor to the oppressed, that the oppressor must pay reparations.

There was a clear line drawn between the First and the Third World. The tension between the Arab world and America also became clear at Durban. The Arab world stood against Israel and the US. The South Asian countries (except India) sided with the African bloc. The paradigm now is one of demanding apology and seeking reparation. Had the dalit demand been incorporated into the UN document, the Hindutva forces would today be tendering a historical apology to dalits. Imagine the social-economic implications of reparations from colonial masters and Hindutva brahminical forces; it would have been a rewriting of world history from the point of view of the oppressed masses and nationalities and nations.

Issues such as the caste system, dignity of labour, implications of wage equality, and descent-based work would have come to be questioned. No wonder the ruling classes were afraid. It was Marx working into the UN agenda, through para 73; abolishing of work and descent-based discrimination addresses Marx’s question of labour. But our brahminical communists did not see the deeper Marxian implications of the work and descent paragraph of the declaration. In fact, the UN could well be the modern Communist International and could be used for progressive purposes as a democratic, socialist international. But neither the Indian communists nor the world socialist forces saw this possibility. China supported the Indian government, which is significant because it raises a pertinent paradoxical question. How can a communist government understand casteism and its implications? In their understanding, caste as it is practised in India, has never been siginificant.


What were the limitations, if any?

The Israel-Palestine issue overwhelmed the UN agenda thereby affecting the conference, particularly on issues like global apology and reparations and abolition of institutions like racism, caste and gender. But the conference did focus on colonialism, race, caste, gender and indigenous peoples’ discrimination. Had the demands on these questions been conceded, history may have been re-written. The Durban conference had tremendous potential; it spoke the language of liberation. Its role is as important as that of Rousseau or Voltaire in the French Revolution.


What about the inclusion of the tribal/indigenous people question in the dalit debate?

The dalit leadership thought that the issue of the indigenous communities of India and OBCs should not be allowed to dilute the ‘untouchability’ question. I, however, feel that the tribals of India could have gone there (like Borakuma of Japan, the American indigenous people), as part of the indigenous communities segment. Unfortunately, there is no organized intellectual leadership – in terms of resources, language, global understanding – within tribes that could mobilize them, and the dalit caucus wished to concentrate on untouchability as the benchmark.


How vibrant is dalit consciousness at the grassroot level in Andhra Pradesh?

A strong resentment may build up over a period of time. I am surprised that the summit did not give rise to protests (over the non-inclusion of the dalit agenda in UN document). The government may have had a hand in this. This will be an issue for the next decade or more. If global NGO networks move into India and focus on providing education in English and regional languages to dalit children, the dalits may emerge as an important socio-economic force. In South Africa, even the pavement dwellers and street vendors speak English. The dalits here do not. Education needs focus. As long as the BJP-NDA forces dalits to remain backward, that world attention will not come.


What is the future agenda of the NCDHR and the dalit caucus after the return from Durban?

We have not discussed the future agenda. Ideally, it should take the form of a mass campaign against the failure to include the work and descent-based clause in the UN document. This campaign may contribute to a large-scale mass movement against the upper caste ruling forces. The NHRC’s recommendations can be used as a powerful weapon as it defines caste as discrimination and violation of human rights.

An immediate fallout of the Durban summit is the demand raised for reservations in the judiciary, in the Supreme Court and High Courts; upper castes control the legal system, and it is difficult to expect justice there. Even the city-state of Vatican took a stand on caste as a ‘crime against humanity’, but the Shankaracharyas and Hindutva organizations did not make any ‘humanitarian’ statements.


Does the summit, the convergence of peoples discriminated against, represent a different globalization?

Yes, it is the globalization of many issues, like the discourse on nature of religions, questioning whether religion is not spiritual fascism? People want spiritually democratic religions, and spiritual and political democracy. The Hindutva forces here want to establish Ayodhya as a Mecca and Vatican. But if they do not even admit the reality of caste discrimination and untouchability, unlike the Vatican, what should Indian dalits think?


What about the Christian dalit question?

The All India Christian Council has (finally) officially decided to appoint dalits to top posts as priests/pastors and so on. Can the RSS and VHP and Shankara pithas do the same? In Hyderabad, the Bishop is a Madiga. Can Hyderabadi Hindus appoint a dalit priest in a Shankarmutt pitha?


What is your opinion about Gail Omvedt’s recent series of articles talking about reservations in MNCs? Is this not replacing one oppressive mechanism by another?

The beneficiaries of the MNCs at present are only the upper castes. Gail Omvedt thinks that globalization will destroy inequality, but for that an equalized social system is a prerequisite. In that sense I disagree with her proposition. We have seen that in the ‘globalized’ employment context, 100% of the beneficiaries are upper castes; the banias and brahmins have expanded their spheres, and are having the best period in history.


Is there an emerging dalit cultural space in civil society?

In Hinduism, there is no cultural space, the way it exists in other countries and religions. In the South African context efforts are being made to evolve modern cultural forms in a creative way. As a civil society we never had that kind of creativity. We do not dance with joy and abandon the way we saw the African contingent doing in Durban. We do not use our body and mind in a free context given the centuries of hegemony exercised by the brahminical religion. We need to ‘dalitise’ ourselves and create a major cultural space – through education, through symbols of culture, dance forms. The dalitwada should be a part of ‘everywhere’. Its coming to centre-stage will take time, though the effort is underway. We also need to re-formulate terms such as ‘mainstream’ and ‘marginal’ to change the way history has seen/termed us.