Untouchability and India’s (D)urban Elite

Untouchability is abolished now and its practice under any form is prohibited. (Constitution of India, Article 17) Despite the constitutional mandate, untouchability is prevalent in 12 states—Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamilnadu, Uttar Pradesh and Pondicherry. It is prevalent in a mild form in 6 states—Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Goa and Delhi and in the Union Territories. (Maneka Gandhi in Parliament, July 1998)

To those aware of the the scourge of untouchability in India, details of the kind furnished by Maneka Gandhi before Parliament are not shocking. But judging from recent developments it appears that there are many, particularly among the more influential sections of the intelligentsia, who either do not know or do not particularly care about the persistence of such a nauseatingly undemocratic practice. There is no denying the fact that despite half-a-century of constitutional measures untouchability continues in myriad ways and forms. In many places Dalits, to date, are denied entry into temples or served tea in 'special' glasses in hotels and restaurants or are not allowed to draw water from government wells situated in areas where dominant castes reside. Dalit women are driven to prostitution through religious customs like the Devadasi system or are forced to do menial and 'polluting' jobs like scavenging as a hereditary duty enjoined on them by lowly birth. And it is a sign of the durability of this system that despite many superficial changes, partly under constitutional duress and partly induced by the compulsions of modernity, it has managed to maintain intact the core function of insulating caste purity from caste pollution.

Why does the need arise at this point to recapitulate these details of a system that pervades Indian society and violates the country's Consitution every day in numerous ways—a system which, in the words of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, imposed itself not as a "division of labour but as a division of labourers"? These seemingly well known facts bear urgent repetition precisely because of the reluctance displayed by members of the Indian intelligentsia and the government to use available opportunities to tackle a problem that shames the nation. The issue of caste apartheid or caste discrimination, especially dalit oppression, has now become the focus of attention as a possible agenda at the proposed Durban World Conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, to be held in August-September 2001 under the auspices of the United Nations. The conference has been timed to mark humanity's successful victory over apartheid a decade ago and also to chalk out a strategy to do away with the vestiges or remnants of a similar nature. This has given rise to a debate among India's intellectuals, activists and some politicians, about the inclusion or exclusion of the issue of caste oppression, and especially dalit oppression, at the Durban conference.

The debate has been going on at several levels and has raised questions of various kinds. One of the main disputes relates to defining the agenda of the conference. Whereas there are many who would like the conference to move beyond formal proclamations on racism and engage in serious discussion about discrimination based on "occupation" and "descent" as well, as part of the agenda of the conference, India has taken an intransigent position on the question of dalits. Although it is ready to discuss the Romas of Europe and the Burakus of Japan it has officially expressed strong reservations about the inclusion of dalit oppression on the agenda.

This position is at variance with the South Asian neighbours, especially Nepal and Sri Lanka. Both countries are ready to include caste oppression as part of the discussion. It may be noted that in Nepal, dalits in the mid-hills and tarai plains are said to constitute 22 per cent of the population which is about the same as the Indian figure. Nepal is candid in its admission of the problem. What stops India from doing likewise? What is even more intriguing is that it was India, an initial signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which had taken the initiative for the inclusion of discrimination based on "descent" at one of the earliest CERD conferences. In effect, India is backtracking on an earlier commitment.

The position taken by the Indian government is that caste oppression is an "internal" issue of the country. This has given rise to the second question in the ongoing debate, namely, what, in such social circumstances, constitutes an "internal" issue of any country and what is an issue that lends itself to "external" scrutiny. The obvious discrepancy between internationalising the issue of race apartheid, in which India took a vanguard position, and sweeping the problem of caste discrimination under the domestic carpet, as a matter to be dealt with internally, seems to have escaped the government.

This in turn has raised a third and fundamental point of debate: what constitutes a nation and what is the nature of the relationship between the nation and its citizens? Does national interest mean the interests of the broad masses of the people or are the basic rights and interests of some sections to be dispensed with in the interest of protecting the nation's dignity.

An unfortunate fourth point has also emerged in this debate and revolves around the peripheral and largely academic question of the similarity and difference between race and caste. That this point is being discussed at length, despite its complete irrelevance to the issue at hand, indicates the extent to which trivial issues are being used by motivated individuals to sidetrack the debate and mislead the ill-informed. A cursory glance at the draft documents of the conference makes it adequately clear that the issue is not as complex as it has been made out to be.

Given the vigour of the ongoing debate what is disturbing is that a majority of the Indian elite has adopted an ostrich-like attitude. Their unconscionable silence amounts to nothing less than tacit support for the government's specious argument that caste oppression as an "internal" matter of India cannot be raised in international fora. The silence is most starkly evident in the political sphere because it, in effect, represents the convergence of attitudes of the far right, the centrist formations and the mainstream left on the issue. Most political parties have by and large refrained from taking a clear-cut position over an issue which is linked to the real empowerment and dignity of fully a fifth of the Indian population—who, for thousands of years, have been denied that most basic right, the right to live like human beings.

Because of this abdication of responsibility by the more influential sections of civil society, it has been left to a minority—consisting of dalit organisations, some NGOs, and a handful of radical political formations— to question the government's credentials and commitment to the socially oppressed. This small combine has pointed to the stealthy manner in which the government has gone about dealing with the issue. It has kept Parliament in the dark, nor has it consulted the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a statutory body constituted by an act of Parliament. Perhaps it is the government's view that dalits do not merit parliamentary discussion and civil safeguards. This is how the government deals with an "internal" issue.

Increasingly, the debate over the inclusion of dalit oppression on the agenda of the UN conference is being dominated by the question of the similarity and differences between race and caste. Dalit activists have denounced the narrow definition of caste that dominates the sophist arguments of those who oppose the linking of caste oppression with race discrimination. Such definitional nit-picking is quite pronounced in the arguments put forward by Professor Andre Beteille, a prominent Indian sociologist, who resigned in May this year from the committee constituted by the Prime Minister for drafting India's response at the UN conference. According to him "Race is a biological category having distinctive physical markers whereas caste is a social category. The consequences of this will be to add more divisions in Indian society. We have enough divisions based on language, religion and caste, which we have to address. So we don't need to fabricate or invent yet another based on race."

This seems to be the position that India wants to adopt at the UN conference. Beteille's academic opinion that caste is not race can always be debated at leisure. What is important at the present moment is the simple fact that both racism and casteism are social categories with political ramifications. And this aspect of both problems does not afford us the luxury of leisurely debates. Beteille's stand also completely neglects the proposed ambit of the conference. The draft document of the conference specifically takes into consideration "discrimination" based on "occupation" and "descent". But Beteille is not the only one raising irrelevant objections. Professor Dheerubhai Sheth, a wellknown political scientist, while noting, in the Jansatta of 12 June 2001, the benefits that will accrue to the Dalits if the issue comes up for discussion at the conference, concludes by raising the spectre of the abolition of affirmative action if caste is equated with race. Leading columnists in Indian publications have also put forward similar arguments.

Why internationalise caste oppression?

It is precisely because of the indifferent silence and the vociferous opposition that dalit activists want the problems of caste prejudice to be raised at international for a like the UN so that global pressure can be brought to bear on the Indian government to protect lower castes.

This has become an important issue because of the actions and intentions of the government of India. At the 57th session of the Commission on Human Rights, Savitri Kunadi, India's permanent representative at the United Nations, clearly outlined the government's stand that the caste system does not fall within the purview of racial discrimination. It was not surprising therefore that the organisers of a Global Conference against Racist Oppression and Caste Oppression in New Delhi in March 2001 had to face official wrath. The Indian government refused permission to many foreign delegates to participate in the conference. Doubts are now being raised in many quarters about whether the Indian government will permit organisations and individuals who have been championing the dalit cause to even attend the Durban conference.

In addition to all this is the long history of the Indian government's responses to international bodies on the issue of caste and race. From the document titled Perspective of UN Treaty Bodies on Caste, it is clear that in recent years United Nations Human Rights bodies have underlined the existence and persistence of caste-based oppression in India and many South Asian countries. They have also emphatically drawn attention to the fact that numerous national level legislations have failed to protect dalits from discrimination.

It has taken a long time for the dalit problem to be recognised so openly. Though India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 1969, it was not until 1996 that the CERD Committee made its first explicit reference to caste-based discrimination, "untouchability" and scheduled castes. But the Government of India was quick to respond. In its 1996 state report to CERD, the Government of India took the position that caste discrimination did not fall within the purview of CERD because caste was not the same as race and the term "descent" in Article 1 referred exclusively to descent based on race. This was not an argument that CERD found persuasive. In its concluding observations on the government of India's 1996 state report, CERD opposed this position stating that though caste may not be equivalent to race it nevertheless fell within its purview under Article 1 of the Convention.

According to the CERD document A/51/18 Donas 339- 73, "The Committee states that the term 'descent' mentioned in Article 1 of the Convention does not solely refer to race. The committee affirms that the situation of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes falls within the scope of the Convention." Interestingly, the history of CERD reveals that when the draft of the CERD did not include the term "descent" in Article 1, it was the Indian government which had insisted on including it. Today, the same government opposes the inclusion of caste based discrimination, in CERD and the World Conference against Racism (WCAR), under the term "descent".

There is an arresting lack of congruence between the government of India's position and the views contained in the Constitution and the various commissions and committees of inquiry instituted by it. A statement released by academics, jurists and civil society groups after the New Delhi conference in March, demanding the inclusion of caste issues in the Durban agenda shows quite clearly how the Indian Constitution looks at the whole issue of caste and race. According to the statement, "…Article 15 of the Constitution of India which outlaws discrimination based on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, treats caste at par with race as a prohibited ground of discrimination. Article 17 while declaring the abolition of untouchability has in effect accepted the existence of caste based discrimination and its effect of untouchability as racial discrimination." Article 341 of the Constitution states that "The president may with respect to any state or Union territory and where it is a state after consultation with the Governor thereof, by public notification, specify the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within castes, races or tribes which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed to be scheduled castes in relation to that state or union territory, as the case may be." According to the statement it can be construed that "…according to the Indian Constitution the concept of SCs is inclusive of the concept of race."

The March 2001 New Delhi conference also looked at a few of the judgements relating to discrimination against Dalits and inferred that many of these judicial decisions recognise caste "as a prohibited ground of discrimination not only at par with race but also as a form of racial discrimination. The different definitions of caste adopted by the several decisions of the supreme court of India show that for the purposes of treating caste as a prohibited ground of discrimination, caste is race in the Indian context [K.C. Vasantkumar vs. State of Karnataka 1985 (supp) 1 SCR 352]… The 9 judge Constitution Bench in the case of Indira Sawhney vs. Union of India [1992 (supp) 3 SCC 217 at 714] defines caste in the following terms: 'a caste is nothing but a social class—a socially homogeneous class. It is also an occupational grouping, with this difference that its membership is hereditary. One is born into it. Its membership is involuntary.' In another judgement the same Supreme court described 'caste discrimination to be more atrocious than racial oppression'."

The National Human Rights Commission has observed in the case of a dalit atrocity in Devaliya, Amreli district, Gujarat (No. 14/6/99-2000) "…[D]evaliya is only a tip of the iceberg of the atrocities flagrantly committed with impunity on the Dalits in the country. Their total dependence on daily earnings is the root cause of their being subjugated to indiginities. Due to education and marginal cultural development, when some youths either assert the right to equal treatment or attempt to protect the dignity of their person or of their women or resist the perpertration of the practice of untouchability or atrocities being committed on Dalits, they are often branded as Naxalites and extremists, they are implicated in false crimes and killed in false encounters." The observations of the NHRC echo the conclusions of various commissions and committees formed by the government from time to time to look into the cases of atrocities against dalits.

In the light of the unanimity of opinion expressed by various bodies of the state there can be no justification for the exclusion of caste from the agenda of the forthcoming UN conference on racism. If the matter has to be dealt with internally there have to be appropriate instruments and the necessary will to accomplish the tasks. Unfortunately, the existing instruments do not inspire confidence. There have been instances when the courts have been less than sensitive to the. Question of caste oppression. The judgement in the Killevanamani massacre (Tamil Nadu 1969) in which more than 35 dalit women and children were killed in cold blood by the local dominant castes as a punishment for demanding better wages is just one instance. The final judgement of the court in this first organised caste massacre in independent India is shocking. All the accused were allowed to go scot free on the dubious assumption that "…since they are upper caste people it appears impossible that they would have gone walking to the hamlets of the dalits." Given such an approach, by the government, consistently, and the judiciary, intermittently, it seems unlikely that treating the dalit problem as an "internal" problem will yield any meaningful progress.

It is necessary for civil society organisations to take the lead in placing the issue before the world if a government that makes so much of its contribution to South African democracy and the Palestinian cause looks the other way when 200 million dalits are abused and reviled within the country's borders. The forthcoming 53rd session of the UN Subcommission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights ought to play a catalytic role in the emergence of such a campaign.

The 52nd session of the Subcommission, which convened to prepare the agenda for the Durban conference, adopted a unanimous resolution recommending that "The world conference focus inter alia on the situation of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, related intolerance and ethnic conflict, and other patterns of discrimination such as contemporary forms of slavery that are based on race, colour, social class, minority status, descent, national or ethnic origin or gender, including topics such as: a) the link between forms of slavery and racial and other discrimination based on descent. b) the implications of multiple identities (race, colour, descent, minority status, national or ethnic origin, gender…" India was also a party to the decision of that Subcommission's meeting. The same meeting entrusted an expert member from Sri Lanka to prepare a working paper on forms of discrimination based on occupation and descent with special reference to South Asia. He was also to identify those communities which suffered such discrimination, the judicial and legislative measures adopted to ameliorate their conditions, and make future recommendations. The 53rd session of the UN Subcommission will be held in August to discuss the paper.

What will be the Indian representative's stand at that meeting? Can India transend its alleged "national" interests and be ready to discuss its "internal" matter at a world fora with an open mind? Or will history repeat itself and policymakers and self-serving intellectuals continue to claim that letting others comment on the plight of Indian dalits will be an affront to the nation's sovereignty? Perhaps they need to be reminded of the words of Sarveshewar, the famous Hindi poet of the sixties, "…a nation is not just a map on a piece of paper…" .

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