(Un)Touchable in Durban


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THE UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) held at Durban had three major agenda themes among others: identification of the sources and causes of discrimination, identification of victims of discrimination, and working out a programme of action including possible compensatory measures to combat racial discrimination.

Racial discrimination has been broadly defined as discrimination based on grounds such as race, colour, descent, and national or ethnic origin. With a special reference to India that declined to accept ‘descent’ as a ground of discrimination intrinsic to the caste system, maintaining that the term is applicable only in relation to racial discrimination, the ICERD, in 1996 observed that, ‘The situation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes falls within the scope of the convention (ICERD).

It needs to be reiterated that the issue of caste based discrimination has been raised by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights and others on the grounds of descent which, incidentally was incorporated in the convention on Indian insistence in 1964. The National Human Rights Commission of India has opined that all nations must respect treaty bodies, especially when they have signed and ratified international conventions.

For some in India, the Durban conference was a platform to voice opinion and debate ferociously whether caste is race and whether the issue of caste based discrimination, howsoever important, needs to be internationalized. For millions of dalits and their sympathizers, however, the event was more than a mere debate; it was an opportunity to voice the realities of discrimination born out of their own life experiences to a world in search for solidarity. The difference in both these positions has more to do with ones social origin and less with scientific or rational characteristics.

The discussion in India has, in fact, been more than a debate. Some have attempted to link internationalization of caste discrimination with national interest and, further, to national integrity. Some have preferred to investigate the foreign, Christian and other possible motives behind such attempts. Such allegations are not foreign to the history of dalit assertion movements in this country where caste, and not the national constitution, continues to be the dominant factor. In my humble opinion, the issue at the core is: Do we as a nation wish to tolerate caste based discrimination any more?



When we talk of dalits, we refer to manual scavenging, a practice that according to official figures employs over a million people to sustain the system of manual handling of human waste; millions of those in rural areas whose existence faces constant threat; the devdasis who face the threat of everyday rape by the representatives of Hindu gods right in the temple premises; millions of innocent and bright children who are forced to drop out from primary education both due to poverty and humiliation by teachers and fellow students; millions of farm workers who do not enjoy uniform legal protection with respect to guaranteed minimum wages; and above all, the millions who are victims of caste prejudice of hardcore casteists, religious fundamentalists, ‘defunct’ sociologists, economists and politicians of various shades and colour who trace their social origin to the ‘so-called’ upper caste and class. And finally we talk of dalits who, irrespective of the faith that they may profess, suffer from discrimination arising out of a caste mind as a national character and practice.



Let me share an experience. In 1995, Navsarjan, the organization I work with, received a complaint about an assault on a dalit in a small village in Surendranagar district. My colleague went to the village, met the victim and advised him to file a police complaint. The victim agreed and both set off for the village bus stand. Suddenly, the victim said to my colleague, ‘Can you wait here while I consult the "Durbar" (khsatriya person) whether should I file the complaint or not?’ My colleague, a young man, burning with the fire of bringing about social change, was speechless. The person whose advice was being sought was none other than the individual who had assaulted the victim.

But my colleague soon gathered himself and asked the man to do what he felt right. (Such is the democratic society in which we live!) The man soon came back and reported, ‘The Durbar is resting and his wife has asked me to come in the evening.’ Since the Durbar had reportedly gone out of station in the evening, my dalit brother decided not to file the complaint because he had not secured prior permission from the Durbar.

The irony is that dalits, comprising 16% of India’s population, suffer from a disease, even more pathetic than the practice of untouchability – the ideological dominance of the upper castes who control not only social, economic and political power in the country but even knowledge and opinion. Even the personal experience of being discriminated against does not become an issue unless ‘permitted’ by the experts and the state. To disbelieve them is a necessary precondition for dalit assertion.

There is nothing surprising about the position of the Government of India in the context of the Durban conference; it changes colours like a chameleon at the behest of its colonial masters of the past and their racist clan. In 1975, India voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution that equated Zionism with Racism. USA was not as aggressive then as it was during the Durban conference because of its own political interests. In Durban, India supported USA and the European nations on issues of both Zionism as well as the demand for reparations, probably as a trade-off on the caste question. At the Tehran preparatory conference and elsewhere, India was the big philosophic brother arguing that the concerned conference was against racism and that any inclusion of other discriminations of a general nature in its ambit would dilute the focus of the conference.



We expected it to play a leading role in shaping world opinion against racism in Durban. What it did instead was to cowardly negotiate with other nations to drop paragraph 73, wherein discrimination based on caste found expression under the language popularized in the 53rd session of the Sub-Commission on Protection and Promotion of Human Rights and the subsequent preparatory meetings to the WCAR as, ‘Discrimination based on work and descent.’

The essential question is whether discrimination based on race differs in terms of its intent and end results from discrimination based on caste? However, now, the Durban frenzy has been replaced by a global zeal to end terrorism. During Durban the dalits managed to secure positive support, both within the country and outside. They achieved more than the Government of India could, and even more, with the NHRC having decided to stand by dalit activists and not the GOI. In this context, it is now time, therefore, to shift our attention to the realities of caste discrimination and think of ways to end it without impotent ideological hang-ups.

Some of us activists, who have addressed issues of caste violence and discrimination at the grassroots for more than two decades, through an approach that is both humane and constitutional, have lots of experiences to share. We are not academics. We are grassroots activists and dalits working with the sole objective of securing for our masses a life of dignity, freedom and equality, not as a favour but as a right. In our opinion the internationalization of the caste discrimination issue has helped the cause, thanks to the Indian as well as international media, and especially the Government of India, which by thoughtlessly denying the problem, has ensured maximum publicity for the issue. In the aftermath of the Durban conference, which was another opportunity to highlight the issues on which we have worked for many years, new spaces have once again been created to articulate and mobilize public opinion as to the challenges that lie ahead to end caste discrimination in India.



I have attempted to briefly summarize the concerns as follows:

1. Caste discrimination is not an Indian problem: Caste discrimination exists in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and in related forms in Japan and parts of the African continent. Though India has never denied the existence of caste practices domestically, it chooses not to admit it to the world outside. The Durban conference provided an opportunity for dalits across countries to unite and portray the dalit issue as a South Asian concern.

2. Caste discrimination is a national concern: It is incorrect to argue that caste discrimination and its existence is a problem concerning only the dalits. The dalits are only the victims and the existence of such discrimination is a national problem, a reflection of the failure of our Parliament and judiciary.

3. Caste discrimination is not an academic issue: For activists, the situation demands more aggressive action at the grassroots. Priority attention is required to use law, advocacy and direct action to ensure the abolition of manual scavenging and rehabilitation of scavengers; implementation of land reforms; to ensure that no dalit children drop out from schools and for action to be taken against teachers torturing such children; implementation of reservation and its extension to the judiciary and private sector, and; against violence and for ensuring gender equality.

4. Caste discrimination is a violation of human rights: There is a need to fight the ‘monumentalization’ of caste based discrimination, with its existence attributed to incomprehensible social systems or prejudices and not to the failure of the Republic. It has to be established that there is a corelation between discrimination and the lack of political will of the nation and its people to change their irresponsible, inhuman and anti-national practices and behaviour. We, as a nation, had refused to tolerate the presence of apartheid and the backlash against the civil rights movement of the blacks. We need to show the same level of intolerance towards caste discrimination and invite global attention to the issue in the true spirit of vasudhaiv kutumbkam.

5. Caste discrimination cannot end without concrete social and economic change: Discrimination is not a mere ideational phenomenon. It manifests through a set of concrete practices around economic, social and political issues. If I am an elected village sarpanch and continue to sit on the ground while other members occupy chairs, discrimination may not appear very obvious. But only by attacking such inhuman practices can we root out discrimination.



There are six major issues that need national attention:

(i) Land reforms: Gandhi, Nehru and others promised land reforms to control the violent actions of tenants, which led to movements such as land grabbing in the 1920s. Vinoba Bhave tried to play middleman through his famous Bhoodan movement, ensuring that the so-called high caste zamindars and their interests were not disturbed while simultaneously creating a perception that they were generous and poor-friendly. Even the most successful land reforms in the country benefited only a few caste communities like the Patels in middle Gujarat, even as they remained grossly unimplemented when it came to dalits (outcastes) and tribals. The nexus between land reforms and political power is much too well known. The OBCs have risen as a political force not because of reservations. Land reforms need to be fully implemented in favour of dalits and tribals.

(ii) Abolition of manual scavenging: Many argue that one reason why apartheid should not be compared with caste discrimination is because while the former is a state policy the latter is not. In my view, non implementation of legal and other measures against discrimination amounts to a hidden state policy. The best example of this is the system of manual scavenging. The government that has banned the system and made its practice a punishable offence under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (prohibition) Act, 1993, is the largest agency that employs and pays over a million scavengers in the country through its various organs to manually handle human waste. Scavenging has remained a caste based occupation and become a source of their exclusion from other jobs. It needs to be noted that one does not hear about this crude form of human rights violation under the rubric of racial discrimination. The system needs to be abolished immediately and the scavengers rehabilitated. More significantly, the entire burden for the rehabilitation of the scavenging community has been passed on to commercial banks who take the ultimate decision as to whether or not it is viable to give credit to scavengers for rehabilitation.

(iii) Primary education: The corelation between quality education and emancipation is well established globally. How then can we justify that 50% of dalit children (64% dalit girl children) are pushed out of the school system before they can complete even primary education? How do we ensure a strong nation, assuming that dalits are part of the nation, when we cannot even ensure basic education to 16% of our population? In Gujarat, like elsewhere, most of the education budget goes towards salaries for teachers. But the state budgets a mere Rs 5 a month per teacher for extracurricular activities for the development of students.



To my way of thinking, an even more serious question is whether the state that represents a certain class and caste culture, can be entrusted with the responsibility of education, especially for dalit children. Education, if perceived as a tool of empowerment, needless to add, cannot be trusted in the hands of state agencies.

(iv) Comprehensive legislation to protect rights of unorganized workers: Most dalits are landless agricultural workers. Minimum wages, being a state subject, differ from state to state. Besides, in most cases, domestic legislation is not respected. Gujarat, until recently, perhaps had the lowest minimum wage at Rs 34 per day, but the workers were actually paid as little as Rs 12. A Navsarjan study suggested that the extent of underpayment to farm workers as a class, the gap between what is paid and what should be paid, amounts to Rs 350 crore every year in the state of Gujarat alone.

(v) Violence on dalits: The systematic elimination of six million Jews by Nazis hit us hard on the face because it took place in such a short span of time. In the case of dalits, though the ‘genocide’ has been systemic, it has taken place at a slow pace. The current government statistics of murder, rape and assault that dalits are subjected to paint a horrible picture if extended to a history of 3000 years. We have reason to believe that approximately 21,90,000 dalits have been murdered, 32,85,000 raped and over 7,50,00,000 assaulted. The violence perpetrated on dalits cannot be rooted out until long term economic, social and political measures, such as land reforms, are firmly implemented.

(vi) Equal opportunities for dalit women: Most scavengers are women. They are unaccounted bonded labourers. Dalit women continue to be dragged off as temple prostitutes and it is they who are increasingly the target of caste violence. Dalit women are excluded from the normal women’s struggle, so far as their representation is concerned in the decision-making bodies.

6. Globalization: International co-operation is an accepted modern day aspect of our political life. The areas of cooperation are not just economic and military or combating terrorism but also acting on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an undemocratic and discriminatory practice on the part of the state to deny any section of its society the right to international cooperation for human rights.

7. Nationalism: This has become a buzzword. However, for most in our country the notion of the nation is limited to their own caste and class. When their sectional interests are affected they propagate that national interests are affected. The situation is worse when narrow-minded patriarchs are in power. National interests presuppose common interests of all citizens, determined on the basic principles of dignity, equality and equal opportunity. If certain sections therefore equate raising dalit issues on an international platform as negatively affecting national interest, it is high time that they introspect whether dalits are a legitimate part of the nation or not.



The continuing failure of the law and moral appeals to end caste based discrimination has once again shown that the dalits need to develop their own agenda for social change based on the facts of discrimination. Equality is a pre-condition for effective democratic participation and that is unlikely unless dalits rise as a united political force. Our national tragedy is that the research and knowledge that we produce is susceptible to the influence of caste and class psyche and that is one reason why it has proved to be impotent in fuelling any worthwhile social change.

The Durban conference has once again provided an opportunity to all in the nation to introspect on these vital issues of human rights.