Sarita Sarvate

Missing from Racism Summit Agenda - India's Caste System

Aug 28, 2001

Pacific News Service

BY SARITA SARVATE

Should India's caste system be debated as a form of racism at the U.N. summit in Durban? The issue has provoked heated controversy in India and revealed striking parallels and one key difference between race-based and caste-based discrimination.

A push to debate India's caste system at the U.N. Summit on Racism set off a heated debate in India. Ironically, the same week that Indian pundits were protesting the inclusion of caste-based discrimination on the summit agenda, the dean of a university medical faculty in my home town of Nagpur was fired for submitting a fraudulent caste-certificate with his job application.

Upper-caste columnists of Indian newspapers used the incident to argue that economic intervention -- not political action -- will eliminate the mistreatment of low-caste minorities in India. Lower-caste activists used the news story to highlight that only a small fraction of India's castes are benefiting from quotas established under affirmative action programs for university admissions and government appointments.

"Scheduled" castes are a category that receives protections under India's constitution, formulated after the country's independence from British rule in 1947. Under the precepts of the Hindu religion, to which a majority of India's population adheres, there are four major groups, or castes, arranged by trade or profession: Brahmins or priests, Kshatriyas or warriors, Vaisyas or farmers, and Kshudras or laborers. Each group is further divided into sub-castes. The untouchables -- or Dalits -- are the outcasts who perform the most degrading, menial tasks.

The issue of India's presence at the U.N. conference recently came up for discussion in India's parliament, where members of the Bahujan Samaj Party, representing the "scheduled" castes, made a strong case for including caste-based discrimination. The Brahmin majority, on the other hand, ruled against the proposition, arguing that race is a biological classification, not a social rank.

On close examination, the opponents' arguments hold little validity. If caste distinctions have been perpetuated through centuries, they should have the same biological basis as race. After all, race is no more biologically based than caste, in the sense that there is no Chinese or African gene. All races have the same blood composition and the exact same DNA. We all are descendants of one human somewhere in Africa or China, the scientific theory goes, so in that sense we are all related to one another. Race or caste distinctions have evolved only over time.

Opponents point out that race is based on physical attributes, whereas caste is not. But this argument, too, falls short when one realizes that there are many African Americans who are whiter than whites, and Indian Americans who are darker than Africans.

Another popular observation is that over the millennia, races have evolved according to geographic boundaries -- Japanese, Chinese, African, Indian -- while castes have not. All castes in India, for example, can be found throughout the country. But this argument also appears to be flawed, because with globalization people are rapidly moving across national boundaries and race is increasingly defined through self-determination.

It is on this last point that caste differences do in fact diverge from those based on race. While in recent decades people in general -- and people of multiethnic backgrounds in particular -- have been able to define their own race, historically, a Dalit or an untouchable could never escape into a higher caste of his or her own free will. This is because most people in India do not possess caste certificates, but are simply known as belonging to certain groups based on their last names and ancestry. No doubt, the very existence of a certificate led the authorities to suspect the Nagpur doctor.

If the Indian government has indeed triumphed over the problem of caste discrimination, it would gladly proclaim its success at the U.N. summit. The U.N. has little clout in ordering its member states to intervene in social problems such as racial discrimination, sex trade of minority women, or slave labor -- topics listed on the summit agenda. But a discussion of such issues is nevertheless vital for raising global awareness and discussing remedies.

The Indian delegation should be allowed to address the issue of caste discrimination at the summit without fear, and to present the progress India has made so far, as well as address the problems that still remain. As India's Poet Laureate Ravindranath Tagore once said: "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; into that haven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake."

PNS contributor Sarita Sarvate is a nuclear physicist and writer for India Currents and other publications.