The problem

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JUST a little over three years back, Seminar published a symposium on the ‘voices, visions and political assertions of dalits’ (471, November 1998). The symposium reflected a deep divide between dalit and savarana positions on almost every issue concerning the communities juridically encapsulated within the bland and official category of scheduled castes. Equally, and this is more important, was the significant difference of perspectives and positions between those claiming to be the authentic representatives of our many dalit communities.

The recent UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held at Durban (27 August-7 September 2001) brought to surface both these divides. Despite everyone present agreeing about the need to abolish untouchability, for who can deny that this is a good cause, the ‘official’ Indian position was marked by an effort to keep discussions related to caste and caste based discrimination out of the inter-governmental forum. This altitude, needless to add, was strongly resented by the many dalit and human rights activists participating in the NGO Forum.

At the formal level, it is difficult to contest the official position. After all, the Durban conference is an outgrowth of the earlier conference against racial discrimination. That race and caste represent distinct conceptual universes is anthropologically well accepted, one representing a biological/genetic category while the other a mode of social stratification. Equally, as the official Indian position made clear, whatever the painful reality of caste discrimination and the persistence of the noxious practice of untouchability, constitutionally and legally our situation cannot be compared to that under apartheid. If anything, the modern Indian state has not only banned untouchability, it has put into operation a wide- ranging and multi-faceted programme of affirmative action including a regime of reservations – political, economic and educational – designed to give compensatory advantages to the historically disadvantaged communities.

Nevertheless, since the Durban conference was to consider not just issues arising out of racial considerations but claimed a wider ambit incorporating discrimination/exclusion drawing upon work (occupation) and descent, the official Indian sensitivity to including any discussion related to our dalit communities did come across as intriguing, if not obstructive. Was it a fear, as many alleged, of the possible sullying of the country’s fair name, an argument invariably advanced in the run-up to international forums? Even more, the effort seemed designed to block possible corrective interventions by the international community. In brief, it was postulated that any raising of ‘internal domestic concerns’ at an international forum created the danger of an infringement of national sovereignty by meddlesome outsiders.

It is not that the activists present were unaware of these concerns. Many of them argued that while caste is not race, yet the real life reflections of the two at the grassroots are similar. That, despite constitutional guarantees and innumerable schemes of affirmative action, caste based discrimination, including untouchability, continues to be widely practiced. Worse, that all efforts at seeking ‘internal/national’ solutions – be they legal remedies, caste based mobilization and assertion, or even conversion to non-Hindu faiths – are met by a process of denial, oftentimes violent. The recent denial of public space for a rally to convert Hindu dalits to Buddhism is only the latest example of a deeply entrenched unease with any form of dalit assertion.

It is precisely because they feel that they have exhausted the internal political space that they have now decided to go ‘international’, the hope being that concerted external pressure would impel the Indian state into more effective implementation of the existing laws and schemes as also radically reform the social space to usher in genuine equality as citizens.

The Durban process brought to surface other issues as well which need to be engaged with. It was pointed out that the participation at Durban incorporated more the voices from the South and West of the country rather than the North and East. Particularly striking was the veritable absence of any representation from both Punjab and West Bengal, the two states with the highest proportion of dalits in the country. Is it that these two states do not experience the problem of caste atrocities, at least in the way that other parts of the country do? Is there something specific to the social histories of these two regions, including the nature of political mobilization, that has resulted in the ‘settling’ of the caste question? In West Bengal, for instance, one rarely hears of caste violence or even of mobilization on caste lines. Is this a reflection of a deep-rooted class politics practised by the Left? But then, why do we not witness a similar absence in other regions where Left politics is equally strongly entrenched, viz., Kerala and the Telengana regions of Andhra Pradesh?

Critics, and it needs to be admitted that they are few, do point out that despite caste identity having a weak presence in public spaces and discourse, including the difficulty of identifying the caste status of an individual through the family name, almost every institution in West Bengal is hegemonised by those from the upper castes. Nevertheless, there is no significant attempt at creating exclusive dalit forums to correct the imbalance.

Equally Punjab. Despite Sikhism providing no doctrinal support to caste, dalit Sikhs continue to be clustered in the lower echelons of the social order. Episodically they even attempt to create their own religious deras, this while enjoying access to the common gurudwaras. But, as a recent case of a self-styled dalit Sikh ‘guru’ exemplifies, attempts at postulating religious equality, particularly through re-interpretations of the ‘holy’ texts, engender violent retaliatory response.

As intriguing as the uneven spatial representation was the marginalisation of voices from the political party spectrum. It is significant that, barring rare exceptions, no major dalit leader or parties were involved in the Durban process – no Paswan, Mayawati or Kanshiram. Most Ambedkarites too kept away. Why? Was it only because Baba Saheb Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, had clearly demarcated caste from race. Or was it, as some have pointed out, that the political implications of equating caste and race can be negative. For one, such a politics may well result in freezing, at least partially, malleable categories permitting upward mobility into mutually irreconcilable blocs converting the political and social battle from ‘same but treated differently’ to ‘different but equal’. Others go further in arguing that treating caste in racial terms will sow the seeds of separatism. Clearly this has serious implications for the construction of an equal citizenry.

Observers have also noted the crucial role played by NGOs in both the Durban process as also the articulation of a new dalit politics. Even more, the NGOs with the requisite skills and networks to successfully intervene in international forums. It is groups with the ability to document and research, understand international covenants and build cross-border alliances which are now gaining prominence. And whether or not such formations can effectively participate in democratic, electoral politics, they can and do influence the social agenda through an alternative process of mobilization and intervention.

The fact that many NGOs draw upon foreign funding support or may sometimes seek validation for their politics in external forums does raise the question of allegiance/loyalty. But to accuse them of being anti-national, as is often done, or particularly in the context of Christian dalit NGOs, to paint scenarios of a global Christian conspiracy to break up Hindu solidarity, is only falling prey to the worst kind of chauvinism.

All these have once again brought the dalit question to the fore. Whatever our position on the academic or political implications of caste and race, or of the emergence of new forums and new actors using new language and strategies, the long standing questions of exclusion, discrimination and oppression based on caste remain. This issue of Seminar seeks to debate these vexed concerns in the hope that it will contribute to a richer understanding (and hopefully practice of) a new emancipatory politics.

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