Caste bias cannot be equated with racism: India

April 18, 2009: The Times of India

New Delhi: India is fighting back a renewed onslaught from European countries who want to nail India on the charge that the caste system is a form of racism. 

In the run-up to the review of the Durban racism conference to be held in Geneva from Monday, South Block was surprised when Scandinavian countries resurrected their stand on the caste system. India has contended that while the caste system is certainly a form of discrimination, it could not be equated with racism. The Indian delegation will be led by Vivek Katju, special secretary in the MEA. The review of the World Conference on Racism (WCAR), which addressed the issues of ‘‘racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’’ in 2001, came out with a resolution that did not mention caste, though India had to fight back a similar charge even then. 

The review process in Geneva is intended to follow-up on the implementation. But European countries, taking advantage of a line in the Durban text that ‘‘recognise(d) the importance of the problem of racism and xenophobia based on descent’’ restarted the debate. India fought back, and thus far, has been successful. The draft text of the document, as approved by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, is far bereft of any reference to caste, but sources said the pressure would be renewed during the actual conference itself. 

India is also fighting a related battle, of giving tribals the status of ‘‘indigenous people’’. For India, this is unacceptable, because this could open a can of worms that would be uncontrollable. Given the huge presence and profile of NGOs in global human rights discourse, India can expect a battering from organizations like Human Rights Watch, international Dalit organisations etc. Analysts of the UN process said these little inclusions in official documents make a big difference on the field — in terms of funding to social activist organizations. This could be channelled to organizations with a strong caste bias. 

The danger this poses can be seen from the fact that this weekend, the US government is hosting a conference of South Asian countries (including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh) to help counter terrorist financing among charities. India is sceptical of organizations that attempt to meddle in the Indian social fabric.

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