Controversy over whether Dalits face caste or race discrimination
Monday, May 21, 2001 (New Delhi): Sharp divisions have erupted between the government and Dalit activists in the run up to a UN conference on race discriminations. These groups want to internationalise the oppression they face by asking for caste discrimination to be treated as race discriminations. At the epicentre of this explosive new debate is a committee set up by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to draft India’s posture at the UN conference on race discrimination. On the committee until recently was Andre Beteille, one of India’s best-known sociologists. His academic opinion matches the posture that India wants to take at the UN, that equating caste and race is harmful to national interest. "Race is a biological category having distinctive physical markers whereas caste is social category. The consequences of this will be to add more divisions in Indian society. We have enough divisions based on language, religion and caste, which we have to address. So we don't need to fabricate or invent yet another based on race," said Professor Beteille. But Dalit activists and his academic contemporaries say this is a narrow definition of caste. They believe that bringing up caste bias at an international forum like the UN will increase global pressure on the Indian government to protect lower castes, who even today continue to be victims of severe oppression. Stung by this kind of criticism, Professor Beteille has resigned from the Prime Minister’s committee. But that hasn't stopped India's determination to prevent internationalising the debate on caste. At a preparatory session in Geneva, Indian diplomats tried to prevent attempts by NGO's to introduce wording on caste into the final resolution Maya Daruwalla of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said, "The national campaign for Dalit human rights and international solidarity network were attempting to get in language that would introduce the idea of caste discrimination that is prevalent in India. And they did.” The UN conference begins in September and the government is planning to hold last minute meetings in state capitals to solicit contrary views on the debate - a move described by Dalit activists as too little too late.
Sources: Thanks to www.ndtv.com, May 21st 2001.