Along with Kashmir, casteism is now on the radar of the international community. Both issues came up at the 12th UN Human Rights Council which closed yesterday at Geneva. Actually, whether caste goes under the rubric of racial discrimination has been discussed at the UN for almost a decade. Meanwhile, Indian researchers working with their US peers assure us that there is no racial basis to caste, and that the Aryan invasion never happened. This story, too, goes back a decade to the Human Genome Project, which released draft data in 2000.
The UN process began eight years ago in Durban, at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Then, the emotive issue was not caste but the Western legacy of slavery and colonial freebooting. But three days after the meet concluded, 9/11 wiped it all out of public memory. Everyone was most relieved, having evaded the difficult issue of compensation for crimes anciently committed.
Dalit groups and NGOs highlighted caste later, most recently at the Durban Review Conference in April this year. And now, Nepal has backed the movement to use UN institutions to supplement national efforts to end caste discrimination. It’s worth considering, since despite decades of legislative and legal action, we are not even close to solving the problem. Thousands of outrages against Dalits are still reported every year and the persistence of community and caste as the basis of electoral politics suggests that, fundamentally, we have failed.
Caste is a forbiddingly complicated matrix of race, karma and profession. Even its basis in traditional law is contested because the Manusmriti reads like a prescriptive tract rather than a descriptive social taxonomy. The author could have been an upper caste conservative alarmed by growing social mobility in the period of uncertainty, following the collapse of Mauryan power. Anyway, it is completely out of date in contemporary society, where social mobility is a sign of modernity.
India is baffled by caste. Positive discrimination is deeply politicised and exposes the ugly territorial instincts of the fortunate castes. Empowerment has created a class of new Brahmins within the Dalit community, who have inherited upper-caste traits like impunity. Legal action has only reduced the incidence of violent crime against Dalits, not everyday discrimination. Political initiatives are electorally motivated — the UP Congress celebrated Gandhi Jayanti yesterday by corralling its district leaders overnight in Dalit hamlets, with strict instructions not to carry their own tiffin, water or bedrolls. The hardy institution of caste survives it all. It even survives conversion, creating Brahmin Christians, for instance.
Having failed to find a solution domestically, India has lobbied hard to prevent the internationalisation of the issue. Are we being cussed here? I would not trust international opinion on Kashmir, where the West saw terrorists as freedom fighters until 9/11 and as scum fit for the noose thereafter. Both positions are completely innocent of reality. But caste sits quite well in the universally understood discourse on racism. It is much more complex than race, as India likes to argue, but it is similar in its effects. And since the priority is not to theorise about first causes but to prevent ugly outcomes, the internationalisation of caste issues as race matters could be a positive step.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal