Britain, in a major victory for the movement against caste based discrimination and atrocities, can soon declare caste prejudice unlawful under laws against racial discrimination becoming the first country of the world to do so. The development was imminent in the wake of the fact that the House of Lords had already passed the Equality Bill empowering the government to treat caste as 'an aspect of race' in March this year leaving just one more step of getting it passed by the House of Commons to be enacted as law.
The victory has come as a result of the valiant struggle of the Dalit groups along with members of the broader civil society against the exploitative and oppressive system of caste, amidst tremendous opposition of the Indian government and the right wing Hindu groups based in Britain.
The significance of the development lies in the fact that it has taken almost a decade to come since 2001 when the Government of India had succeeded in botching up the attempt of the Dalit Rights Group together with the broader civil society to make caste based discrimination an aspect of racial discrimination at the Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The Government of India claimed the caste issues as ‘internal matter of India’ and asserted that they were making all attempts to put an end to caste based discrimination.
What it forgot in doing that was its own, and glorious, role in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. If caste issues are an internal matter of India, would not apartheid be an internal issue of the governments of apartheid-era South Africa? So why did India play a crucial role in mobilising the world opinion against apartheid?
The government of India tried to further substantiate its claim by asserting the caste issues as intra-racial and intra-cultural even while conceding the existence of discrimination. Soli Sorabjee, the then Attorney General of India, maintained that the only reason behind India’s attempt to keep caste discrimination off the agenda of Durban Conference was that “it will distract participants from the main topic: racism”. Even while conceding that caste discrimination in India is 'undeniable' he stressed that 'caste and race are entirely different'.
It could very well be. After all, no two systems of social stratification in this world are absolutely similar to each other. A lot of factors, from culture to economy, intercede with the systems of stratification to produce the division of power and hierarchy in the society and make the systems, in the process, absolutely distinct from one another in internal structure. The crucial question, however, is not about their distinctiveness but their efficacy in maintaining and safeguarding social hierarchies.
Sadly, Indian caste system has proved itself to be one of the worst, if not the worst, system of social stratification for maintaining and perpetuating social hierarchies. Most probably, humankind has never devised a more comprehensive system of keeping a section of society under perpetual subjugation amidst inhuman conditions. It has never devised a worse way of dehumanising fellow human beings and reducing them to being mere labour force devoid of any dignity leave aside rights. Everything said and done, when it comes to committing atrocities on people, the caste system has proved itself to be far more clinical in brutalising its victims than race and not less.
The argument of the Indian government that caste based discrimination should not be included under the category of racial discrimination because it is making serious progress in the issue by having protective laws and positive discrimination fails miserable in the wake of data produced by its own agencies.
For example, the number of crimes against people belonging to the Scheduled Castes as per records of the National Crime Records Bureau of India, a body of ministry of Home Affairs, went up to 33615, an increase of more than 2 percent from the preceding year. Or the fact that the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act does not get applied even in such ghoulish cases of caste based atrocities as in the killing of a Dalit family in Khairlanji while committing brutal rapes on the women speaks volumes about the seriousness of the efforts of the government.
The second argument of Indian government, unfortunately backed by a few leading sociologists, was that since 'race' is a not a meaningful biological category in India and all attempts of profiling different castes along racial lines have fallen flat. Their claim is that even if caste is based on descent it is entirely different from race.
Even if the discrimination against the Dalits is intra-racial, the consequences for them are no less brutal than that in racism. On a more fundamental level, the lack of 'scientific' evidence may prove the absence of 'race' in India but not the absence of 'racism', an ideological structure based on the belief of superiority of some people because of birth and inferiority of others because of the same! And there is no doubt that this ideology is becoming stronger day by day despite all the attempts of Indian government to put an end to this ‘evil’ practice.
The seriousness of the government on the issue speaks for itself in its acts. After all, the government's dogged opposition to the inclusion of caste based discrimination does not come out of some failure to understand the ground realities out of sheer ignorance. It reflects the mindset and the psyche of the government and the people manning it. The stand of the government emanates from that pre-modern, barbaric and regressive social structure of caste that rules the country under its democratic façade. A facade that gets exposed more often than not by the deeds of all organs of the state, including its judiciary.
It is hard to believe that even judiciary can do that but even a cursory glance on its track records bear out the fact. Be it the highly misogynist and casteist verdict in Mathura rape case ((Tukaram V. State of Maharshtra, AIR 1979 SC 185) when the Supreme Court overruled the decision of the Bombay High Court convicting two policemen for raping Mathura, a 16-year-old girl because of the fact that the girl was an ‘illiterate and orphaned tribal girl’ and was of loose character by implication to the recent verdict of Maharashtra High Court in Khairlanji massacre, the judiciary has proved itself complicit in letting the government off its responsibility of abolishing caste based discrimination.
At times, ubfortunately, it has went all the distance to be part of the perpetuators ad not only accomplices of caste discrimination. Like in the infamous and stinking observation of the trial judge in the Bhanwari Devi rape case in 1995 that because Hindu scriptures do not allow upper caste men to touch a low caste woman, the accused could not have raped the Dalit victim. This case and many others have put our constitution to shame.
And that is why, compartmentalising the issue of caste into the 'scientific' and 'cultural' aspects and then prioritising the scientific ones to assert that caste is not race is not only incorrect but in fact a deceitful attempt to violate the spirit of the constitution of India if not the letters itself, and should be fought against from within and outside.
As a matter of fact, the meaning of the term 'descent' has been expanded to include 'discrimination based on caste' ,by the general recommendation number 29, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) 1969. Indian government will do well to remember that it is a signatory to that convention along with more than 170 other countries.
It will also do well to take note of the fact that the lives of more than 165 million citizens is not a question of intellectual theorising over whether race is caste or not before putting its act together and cracking down on all forms of caste atrocities decisively. By then, it can begin with accepting that caste is a form of racial discrimination, at least of racism if not of the 'pure' (in the Brahiminical sense) biological category of race!
Meanwhile, lets us all support the British Dalits in safeguarding their hard won victory against the demon of caste, threatened by the right wing Hindu organisation in Britain as well as Indian government which is, reportedly, trying to arm-twist the British government into not intervening in its 'internal' matter. Making that absurd claim amounts to appropriating anything relating to Hindu religion as ‘internal’ and caste serious aspersions on the secular credentials of Indian state. Does Indian government want to claim that all issues concerning Hindus are its ‘internal’ issues, throwing all its secular pretensions away?
After all, caste based atrocities have long ceased to confine themselves in Indian subcontinent. If the gory facts about honour killings taking place in Britain and Canada among other places were not proof enough, the recent killing of a Sikh religious leader belong to the Ravidasi sect (a Dalit sect) in Vienna leaves no scope for doubts about the same.
We can begin by standing by the policy and reminding the Indian government not to meddle in the internal issues of Britain, as it is dealing with an issue concerning its citizens and has nothing to do with a ‘secular’ India. Further, no government can sit idle when caste issues lead to illegal confinements, abductions, forced marriages, and even killings. It is the Indian state which has failed to contain the demon of caste, leave aside killing it, and it has no right to demand the same indifference and disdain for human life from a sovereign state for such a pressing issue.
Avinash Pandey, alias Samar, a research scholar based in New Delhi, is currently in Hong Kong on assignment with the Asian Human Rights Commission, which has distributed this article. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org