Regaining our lost faith


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THE attempt to include caste discrimination as one of the agenda items in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerances (WCAR) has unearthed many basic issues about the polity and society the subcontinent.

The WCAR, held in Durban from 28 August to 7 September 2001, witnessed the concerted efforts of dalit and human rights activists from India to lobby and pursue the issue of ‘including’ the ‘exclusion of the dalits’ as one of the subject-matter of human rights violation to be discussed in the conference. They received overwhelming support not only from the NGO fraternity but from delegates representing various governments as well as national and international organizations. The official delegation handpicked by the Government of India was isolated whenever it tried to denounce and decry the efforts of activists to introduce caste discrimination as a more horrendous form of racial discrimination and hence a heinous human rights violation.

The starting point of dalit discourse are the atrocities and brutalities that are heaped upon them in everyday existence.1 It is this individual and collective socio-historical experience of oppression and exploitation that provides the fodder for dalit movements as also shapes the direction of dalit discourse. It is a given fact that the dalit movements and discourse begin with the atrocities that they are subjected to from birth in day to day operations, and the mind-set that controls and colours their behaviour. Coupled with this is their immense and inalienable innate power and prowess which equally defines the scope and space for dalit struggles and discourse.

There are various interpretations about the nature of the WCAR, the expediency of presenting caste discrimination for discussion at the global arena. There are some who express strong indignation for ‘internationalising’ an ‘internal reality’. But anyone who examines the pre-Durban phase, the Durban conference and post-Durban scenario would be overwhelmed by the fact that the discourse about discrimination of dalits has moved from the internal arena to the international forum. This is not due to what happened in Durban alone, but because of the years of struggle that the dalits waged against every form of oppression and domination. Further, those who highlighted the caste question in Durban also raised another historico-social issue before the international community – that race is only one form of discrimination. Since race is the western form of social stratification, other horrendous forms of discrimination known as ‘hidden apartheid’ are excluded from the purview of global discussion.



This has gone contrary to the stand of the Indian government which continues to treat caste discrimination as an ‘internal matter’2 The ruling class, which had till now projected itself as a crusader against apartheid, found its hypocrisy challenged from within. The dalit and human rights activists forced the Indian ruling castes and class to ‘set their own house in order’. This reduced the space for the Indian rulers to cry hoarse about apartheid out there. This is a major achievement for the dalit and human rights activists and all those who perceive the validity and legitimacy of this struggle. Above all, it is a victory for the dalits and downtrodden who have entered into a protracted struggle for maintaining human rights at all cost. It is here that the national and inter-national solidarity to root out all forms of discriminations has come into central focus.

It is in the fitness of things to state that due to the clarity of the issue and unity of purpose the proponents of this cause managed to highlight in the international forum the historical discriminatory principles and behaviour towards dalits. The NGO forum, which preceded the WCAR, in an unprecedented manner took note of caste discrimination and the deprivation of dalits.

‘The practice of untouchability, rooted in the caste system, stigmatises 260 million dalits in South Asia as "polluted" or "impure", thereby denying them entry into places of religious worship, participation in religious festivals, assigning them menial and degrading work including cleaning toilets, skinning and disposal of dead animals, digging graves and sweeping, and the forced prostitution of dalit women and girls through the traditional system of temple prostitution.’3



Along with the declaration, the NGO forum’s programme of action demanded that various governments ‘enact suitable legislation to recognise and eradicate discrimination based on work and descent, including caste discrimination and untouchability against dalits, Buraku people and other affected communities in those countries where such legislation does not exist; and in countries where legislation banning such discrimination already exists, take immediate steps to create transparent and effective monitoring mechanisms including the establishment of time-bound programmes to ensure effective implementation of such legislation, even where the perpetrators are states or state agents.’4

The programme of action identifies caste discrimination as a crime against humanity and calls for time bound action for the removal of atrocities. It demands redistribution of land, and legal provisions to protect the rights of dalits and other discriminated communities. It advocates that sufficient financial provisions be made for the upliftment of the dalits in a time bound manner. Alongside, the NGO forum called for international enforcements like the appointment of a special rapporteur to examine the complaints about various forms of discrimination and human rights violation. The Indian governement, incidentally, has refused permission to the special rapporteur from 1996.



The National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) uncompromising stand to include the dalit issue on the agenda of the WCAR gave unprecedented support to the struggle. Justice K. Ramaswamy in his address stated, ‘The National Human Rights Commission of India has considered it its duty to listen attentively to those, that is, the dalits and the adivasis, in our country who have been victims of historical injustices.’ The commission also proposed concrete measures for its eradication. ‘The commission believes deeply in the value of engaging governments, non-governmental organizations, national institutions, and all concerned elements of civil society in the process of fighting discriminations, and urges that these processes be conducted at all levels in a spirit that is genuinely interested in the furtherance of human rights and not vitiated by self-righteousness or by political and other extraneous considerations.’5

Significantly, this is contrary to the government’s stand which continued to consider caste discrimination as internal issue or engaged in the debate ‘caste is not race’. Thus, the Indian establishment obfuscates the issue of caste discrimination. The bold stand of the NHRC was lauded by Mary Robinson, Commissioner for the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Robinson declared, ‘I congratulate the principled stand taken by the NHRC which stood up to help the dalits and extended moral support.’ She also took note of the manner in which dalit and human rights activists highlighted the plight of the dalits and other discriminated masses. ‘The NGOs have raised what they called discrimination against the dalits in India, and the issue has been brought before the international community.’6

The Indian government stood exposed on another ground too. Minster of State for External Affairs, Omar Abdullah, in his address to the WCAR, criticized those who spearheaded the dalit cause. ‘In the run up to the World Conference, there has been propaganda, highly exaggerated and misleading, often based on anecdotal evidence, regarding caste-based discrimination in India. We in India have faced this evil squarely.’7 Abdullah instead of being applauded for his statement was decried by many delegates.



The WCAR held in Durban has once again brought the issues and struggles of the dalits to centre-stage. It is not that dalit discourse is a new phenomenon. Those who raised this issue at the international forum were under no illusion that the Durban conference would put an end to all the ills of the dalits. In fact, the dalit discourse is as old as the caste system and caste discrimination. But it is at this global conference that caste discrimination was made visible, though the inter-government conference that preceeded the NGO forum did not include caste as a form of discrimination that cries for global retribution.

It would be appropriate to examine some of the dominant dalit discourses. Some economists claim that dalits were never landholders but historically landless agricultural labourers. These social scientists assert that the dalits who were given land under land reform measures sold the land and ‘squandered the money’.8 This is because they do not have a sense of private property and saving for tomorrow as they are a happy-go-lucky people. Dalit intellectuals have attempted to explore and explode myths of this type. From the dalit perspective, since most other avenues are closed to them, the agricultural sector provides the only economically gainful occupation. This is not in terms of adding assets, but to just ensure survival.



Land reform laws have been in force for the last 50 years. If one looks at the election manifestos of the political parties9 and Independence day proclamations, one is overwhelmed by the pronouncements. But the track record over 50 years reveals an abominable picture: out of 78 lakh acres that were declared surplus only 66 lakh acres, that is 83.68% of the land, was taken into possession by the government. Further, out of the 78 lakh acres of land declared surplus only 52 lakh acres, that is 65.85% was distributed. The total amount of land distributed among the dalits was only 28 lakhs, that is 35.60%.10 This empirical data disproves the tall claims of the ruling establishment, the dominant castes and social scientists that the dalits were the beneficiaries of land reform policies.

Another area where dalit discourse has made a contribution is by unravelling the phenomenon of litigation, the root cause for non distribution of land. Over 48% of land was not distributed because of litigation.11 Nevertheless, the rulers have already announced the need to introduce changes in land legislation policies. The National Agricultural Policy states that ‘the legislative and regulatory framework will be appropriately amended and strengthened to achieve these objectives.’12



This anti-people and anti-dalit policy has been criticised by dalit intellectuals. Anand Teltumbde argues that ‘the impetus to export agriculture in the reforms is bringing in corporate and contract system in agriculture. The government has already declared that the Land Ceiling Act, identified as the main obstacle in the process, would be suitably changed. Directionally, the emergent corporate farms will gobble up small holdings of the marginal to middle farmers and push them into the herd of job-seeking millions... This emergent scenario will certainly aggravate the unemployment problem further rather than solving it.’13

There are indications that untouchability did not take this tyrannical form as long as it was practiced only by the upper castes. But when the lower castes began to practice untouchability towards each other, it adopted this rigid, inhuman form.14 We need to investigate the social conditions and social forces that contributed to the harsh enforcement of untouchability, both among the dalits and between the dalits and non-dalits. This investigation would also unravel the root cause behind polarisation among the dalits.

‘Thousands of dalits embrace Buddhism’15 ‘Defying the ban, thousands of dalits attend a conversion rally in Delhi on 4 November.’ The numbers game apart, such announcements are indicative of the social processes at work within the dalit community. Conversion in general poses two fundamental threats to the existing religious realities. On the one hand, it demonstrates to the majority religious community that its boundaries are penetrable and vulnerable to external forces. On the other, it registers the social fact that what were earlier held as unshakable and unalterable beliefs and practices stand shattered. For dalit intellectuals, conversion is not just moving from one religion to another, but provides a paradigm for social change.



One of the overarching strengths of the dalit community is that dalit women customarily enjoyed considerable freedom, both spatially and temporally. One is not arguing that dalit women were equal to dalit men. But as one moves down the social order, one can recognise the comparatively free existence and operation of dalit women, for instance, in the absence of dowry exchange and the consequent dowry deaths. But as dalits get educated, urbanised and economically mobile, they fall into the trap of non-dalit practices. Interestingly, there are some emerging voices demanding that the dominant castes should learn from the dalits about the principles and practices of providing freedom to their women.16

The dalit discourse should seriously and comprehensively take note of the polarisation around leadership in dalit movements. The question being raised is: Should dalit movements be led exclusively by dalits? Dalit intellectuals also need to examine the root cause of emergence (and extinction) of dalit movements. The emergence of the Dalit Panthers in the early 1970s was an unprecedented assertion. This appeared to be a spark which would set the forest aflame.



According to Anand Teltumbde, there could be varied explanations for the paradigm shift in dalit politics marked by the Dalit Panthers. Remarkably, they spoke the language of defiance and militancy which shook the foundations of the established order in the country and demonstrated what the wrath of the wretched could be. Going by their manifesto, the Panthers radicalised the political space for the movement by imparting a proletarian radical class identity to dalits, linking their struggles to those of oppressed people all over the globe.17 Though a radical move, it soon died out because of a failure to provide adequate substance.

Dalit and human rights activists will have to address these burning issues. Their discourse needs to begin from the lives and struggles of the dalit masses. But its legitimacy can be sustained only in the context of its contribution to the liberation and emancipation of the excluded, exploited and subjugated masses. The dalits will have to comprehend the various methods used by the dominant castes to throttle any attempt to stage protests against the existing social order through time-tested weapons like repression, co-option and distortion.



Above all, the dalit discourse has to engage in a protracted battle for the mobilisation and organisation of dalits and the downtrodden to strengthen the struggle for basic issues such as rights over natural resources, proper wages, social dignity and self actualisation. Thus, dalit movements are not directed towards elimination of caste discrimination alone but work ultimately for the restructuring of the social order. In this sense, dalit emancipatory struggles are not just ‘freedom from’18 subjugation but also ‘freedom to’ liberation. This attempt has to be at all levels – local, regional, state, national and international. If those who raised the issue of caste discrimination at the WCAR are satisfied that the issue has been made visible at the international level, they would be betraying the dalit cause.

Alongside the mobilisation and organisation of dalits, activists have to engage in forging a broader alliance with other exploited masses – tribals, women, backward castes and minorities. Any exercise outside this framework would defeat the very purpose of engaging in a struggle against forces of oppression and exploitation. There is no denying that there are some differences among these communities, but there is a common unifying factor among them: they are the exploited masses of this subcontinent.

For instance, the dalits in Jharkhand are more vulnerable than the tribals of the area. The tribals are protected by the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. They are also protected under the Fifth Schedule, which upholds their constitutional rights. But the dalits in Jharkhand are not protected by any of these provisions. Similarly, the tribals in Bihar are more defenceless than the dalits of Bihar. The dalits can claim their legitimate rights due to the reservation policy. But the tribals, who are in a minority in five out of 34 districts of Bihar, are in no position to demand proper implementation of the reservation policy. Women from all these communities are the worst exploited segment of the population.

Moreover, it is only a broad alliance that can protect the exploited masses from the onslaught of the ruling dispensation. Since the forces of castes and upper classes are powerful and resourceful, any independent struggle would only weaken the exploited masses. The experiment in Kerala where the dalits and fisher-folk showed solidarity with the tribals and thereby achieved their objectives, demonstrates the scope for a united struggle.

The Durban conference on racial discrimination did mark a watershed, showing that despite internal differences and polarisation, a broad-based united, struggle alone can help the liberation and emancipation of the dalits. It is crucial to note that this liberation struggle is not directed to dalits alone but for restructuring an unequal and hierarchical social order.

‘We have begun a new life

We have found our new temples

Regained our lost faith

All are equal here.’

– Harish Bansode, a dalit poet19



1. Prakash Louis, ‘Casteism is more Horrendous than Racism; Durban and Dalit Discourse.’ Mimeo, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, 2001. Also Shiv Visvanathan, ‘Durban and Dalit Discourse’, Economic and Political Weekly, 18 August 2001, pp. 3123-3127.

2. Shiv Visvanathan, ‘The Race for Caste: Prolegomena to the Durban Conference’, Economic and Political Weekly, 7 July 2001, pp. 2512-2516.

3. The Declaration and the Programme of Action of the WCAR NGO Forum, Durban, 3 September 2001.

4. Ibid.

5. Abstract of the Statement of the National Human Rights Commission of India.

6. NHRC support for dalits praised. The Hindu, 6 September 2001.

7. Statement by Omar Abdullah, Minister of State for External Affairs, India, at the WCAR, Durban, 2 September, 2001.

8. Prakash Louis, ‘People’s Perception of Land Reform Policies and Practices: A Comparative Study of Eastern, Western and Central Regions of Uttar Pradesh,’ Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, 2001.

9. Election Manifesto of Indian National Congress (I) Party, 1999, p. 18.

10. B.B. Mohanty, ‘Land Distribution among the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.’ Economic and Political Weekly, 6 October 2001, p. 3863.

11. Ibid., p. 3864.

12. The National Agricultural Policy. Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, July 2000, p. 13.

13. Anand Teltumbde, Impact of New Economic Reforms on Dalits in India. Paper presented at a seminar on Electoral Reforms and Dalits in India organised by the University of Oxford, November 1996.

14. Kancha Ilaiah, God as Political Philosopher: Buddha’s Challenge to Brahminism. Samya, Calcutta, 2000, p. 32.

15. The Hindustan Times, 5 November 2001.

16. Manisha, ‘Avarna se kuch seekhen savarna’. Rashtriya Sahara (Hindi), 18 December 2000.

17. Anand Teltumbde, Ambedkar and Post-Ambedkar Dalit Movements. Sugawa Prakashan, Pune, 1997.

18. Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Emancipations, Modern and Post-Modern. Sage Publications, London, 1992, p. 13.

19. Steven M. Parish, Hierarchy and its Discontents: Culture and the Politics of Consciousness in Caste Society. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1996, p. 82.