Saturday, April 17, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Global casteism, a reality

Published: April 17, 2010 18:32 IST | Updated: April 17, 2010 18:32
IST April 17, 2010

Global casteism, a reality

The Hindu Protesting caste: Dalits against social discrimination.
Photo: Suresh Bhat
On the occasion of the birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (April
14 ), ARVIND SIVARAMAKRISHNAN reflects on caste and international
discussions on the issue.

If major civilisations make contributions to world history, then the
Indian civilisation's contributions include caste, caste
discrimination, caste segregation, and caste-motivated brutality; the
anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's birth, April 14, provides an
occasion to look at some of the ways governments respond to caste

It appears too, that wherever substantial numbers of people of Indian
descent settle, caste discrimination appears. Even the British House
of Lords was sufficiently exercised about caste discrimination in the
United Kingdom to debate it for specific proscription when the new
Equality Bill, now the Equality Act 2010, recently came before them.
Although this time the House of Lords did not include caste
specifically, the government's earlier statement that the Equality and
Human Rights Commission had been asked to research the issue drew the
peers' rebuke that the Commission in fact said they had not been asked
to do the relevant research; the government were also accused of
consulting only with upper-caste groups of British Hindus.

My former tutor, a distinguished British professor of philosophy,
would not have been surprised by the government's reluctance to
include caste in its anti-discrimination laws. I recall his saying,
"The British and the Indian ruling classes understood one another
perfectly." His father had been in the Indian Army between the wars,
and he himself only rarely revealed how much he knew about India.

Another British friend told me once of an involvement he had had with
a girl at his college. Well into the relationship she suddenly told
him she would never marry him, as he was of a low caste. They had
parents from the same region of India, they spoke the same South Asian
language, and they were both young Britons. But she drew the shadow

Many apartheids

I recall too, listening to an acquaintance in the Oriental Plaza in
Johannesburg as he savaged the now-extinct apartheid régime, raising
his voice for the benefit of a couple of stone-faced Afrikaner
huisvrouwen who were browsing along the shelves. The young man's aunt,
the shop manager, said quietly, "We have our own apartheid, with caste
and religion and family." That reminded me of an earlier conversation
with a relative, in which I remarked that in some industrialised
countries it could be difficult to tell people's class or occupation
from their dress, manner, or speech, especially outside working hours.
My relative froze, terrified that his children, destined for U.S.
doctorates and gadget-filled mortgages in acceptably white-majority
American suburbs, would get involved with 'unsuitable' people during
their studies abroad. That particular relative might have problems if
asked whether President Obama's daughters were 'unsuitable'.

The Government of India, for its part, tries to prevent international
discussion of caste. At the UN World Conference Against Racism in
Durban in 2001, Indian representatives insisted that caste is not
race, that India has legislated against caste discrimination, and that
caste as an internal matter must not be discussed at such conferences.
The conference adopted the phrase "discrimination based on work and

India's intransigence, however, continues. In response to the
Strategic Management Plan prepared for 2010-11 by the U.N. High
Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), the Government of India notes
the Plan's references to caste and adds that as the document was not
negotiated the Indian mission in Geneva has been instructed to take
the matter up with the UNHCHR. The 160-page document contains only
three references to caste. One is a general comment that caste is one
form of discrimination in the Asia-Pacific region, another is the
inclusion of caste among UNHCHR's thematic priorities for the year,
and the third is the observation that caste discrimination is endemic
in Nepal.

Furthermore, at the 2009 Durban Review Conference, India rejected a
comment on descent, saying it "lacked intellectual rigour" and ignored
the drafting history of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination (CERD). The Convention's history, however, shows that
when it was first drafted in 1965 India's representative both
suggested the term "descent" and said the Convention would apply to
scheduled castes. In 2009, India succeeded in getting the term
"discrimination based on work and descent" removed from the conference
outcome document, though an earlier U.N. statement that caste is
covered by CERD presumably still stands.

India's position is at best incoherent. The government's periodic
report to CERD for 2006 reconfirms its opposition to any equation of
caste and race by saying the Indian Constitution distinguishes between
the two, and that race had been included in the Constitution because
of the "moral outrage of the world community against racism" after the
Second World War. This outrage, however, was not shared at the highest
levels of government. A former civil servant has publicly described
the way the then External Affairs Minister Y. B. Chavan and an aide
violated India's own sanctions against South Africa by allowing Indian
trade with the apartheid state through the Bank of Bermuda in the

Domestically, Indian government statements, including replies to MPs,
often list the legislation prohibiting caste discrimination as though
that eo ipso proves effective action. A single example serves to
undermine that. The National Crime Records Bureau's records for the
period 1995-2007 show that under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, the police registered 441,
424 crimes, but field-survey estimates suggest that the recorded
figure is about one third of the actual figure; for Scheduled Tribes
it is about one fifth.


The proposition that caste is solely an internal matter for India is
untenable. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem
Pillay, has said publicly that globally, caste discrimination affects
260 million people; about 170 million of them are in India. In
contrast to India, Nepal, until 2007 a Hindu state by constitution,
regards caste discrimination as indistinguishable from racial
discrimination, and has confirmed that it will work through the U.N.
to counter caste discrimination; the European Union has made a similar
commitment. The pity is therefore all the greater that India is so
dismissive of international cooperation and so unwilling to take the
lead over what the Prime Minister himself has called a blot on


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