India: An international spotlight on the caste system

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray – The International Herald Tribune

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, MAY 13, 2005
NEW DELHI India’s 170 million Dalits, formerly called Untouchables, rejoiced recently when a high government official was arrested for hurling caste-related abuse at his junior. But joy turned to dismay when the Bombay high court quashed the charge under India’s 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act because the offense had been committed in a private office and not in public. However, the court directed the police to register a case under another law, the 1955 Civil Rights Protection Act.
At least this legal nit-picking was not as grotesque as the Madras high court’s acquittal in 1973 of 23 upper-caste Hindu landowners who had burned 43 Dalit men, women and children to death in their huts. The judge argued speciously that people of their rank would hire others to do their dirty work while “keeping themselves in the background.”
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights will now examine the abominations of what has been called the world’s oldest color bar – the Sanskrit word for caste being varna, or color. “Dalits have pierced through the wall of silence in the UN,” exulted the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights convenor, Paul Divakar.
Three years of study are expected to enable the rights commission’s two special rapporteurs, Yozo Yokota and Chin-Sung Chung, to compile a set of draft guidelines to bury the job-oriented caste hierarchy, which goes back millennia.
The two will find that discrimination persists not because India’s government condones it but because poorly enforced laws have failed to move society. They will also discover contradictions that hinder reform. Dalits are traditionally employed as sweepers and cremation ground attendants. They keep “unclean” animals like pigs and are subjected to every conceivable form of discrimination. But their leaders enjoy considerable political clout because, in an effort to redress the injustice of ages, India’s Constitution lavishes generous privileges on them.
(The constitution’s author, a U.S.-trained lawyer, B.R. Ambedkar, was himself a Dalit whom an enlightened Maharajah of Baroda sent to school. But he had to sit outside the classroom and listen to lessons through a window.)
Dalits live apart from the rest of the community in the interior of states like Bihar and Rajasthan in northern India and Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the south. They are forbidden to enter temples, draw water from village wells, bathe in communal ponds or walk along certain streets. Teashops and eating-houses throw them out.
Dalits own less land than other Indians. Their education lags behind the national average. They are the poorest in India. No wonder some have turned to Marxist-Leninist rebellion. Others have become Buddhists. Romance across the caste divide in these places is punished with swift severity: Daring Dalit boys are killed, Dalit girls raped.
Yet, social servitude and economic bondage is not the entire story. Positive discrimination – easy loans, tax benefits, and reserved education, employment and numerous other facilities – has created what an official report calls “a vested interest in backwardness.”
Thus, the number of Dalit groups doubled between 1950 and 1960, with 190 more clamoring for inclusion. That same report spoke of “a creamy layer” within the community. Apparently, a handful of politically savvy Dalits who corner privileges treat their brethren with the contempt of which they themselves complain.
Politics provides the worst example of distorted good intentions. Hundreds of reserved seats in state legislatures and the federal Parliament have made Dalits the target for lobbying and taught them the value of bargaining. Though the best-known Dalit politician, Jagjivan Ram, a prime ministerial contender in 1979, wisely acknowledged that permanent privileges would make people think of Dalits as “a community of incompetent and inferior people,” he did not refuse them.
The constitutional privileges introduced in 1950 were meant to last only 10 years. But Dalit luminaries who have taken their woes to the UN, the World Conference Against Racism in Durban and the European Parliament (which condemns “continual acts of discrimination in Indian society based on caste-related, social or religious status”) would be the first to protest if positive discrimination ends.
The real worry is whether anything the Commission on Human Rights does will help impoverished and illiterate Dalits in remote villages. Obscurantist high-caste officials will thwart reform; so might their own pampered leaders. The international spotlight is a good thing, but experience shows that India’s economic revolution, bringing education and social and political awareness in its train, is the best guarantor of minority rights.
(Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, a former editor of The Statesman in India, is author of ”Waiting for America: India and the U.S. in the New Millennium.”)


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