UN summit spotlights India's castes

The UN Conference on Racism ends in South Africa tomorrow, amid disputes over its declaration.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Normally, India would take a high profile at a global gathering on discrimination. After all, there are many Indians who still remember the "No Dogs or Indians Allowed" signs posted outside the restaurants, parks, and homes of their one-time British colonial rulers.

But, at the UN Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance in Durban this week, India itself has been fending off charges of discrimination on the basis of caste.

Indian officials argue that caste discrimination, while woeful, is an internal matter. "The Durban conference is about racism, and it is different from casteism, and trying to include the subject in the meeting [confuses] the issue," says Maneka Gandhi, India's minister for social empowerment.

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That India has to defend itself before the world, shows how difficult it has been for the world's most populous democracy to demolish its caste system.

Caste is the ancient Hindu system of social hierarchy that defines a person's worth and code of conduct based on social status at birth. Originally divided into four separate categories, with priests at the top, and warriors, merchants, and servants below them, the system has rigidified over the past 2,000 years to comprise thousands of sub-castes, each with its own traditions and levels of worth.

Passed two years after independence in 1947, the Indian Constitution aimed to eliminate the caste system, starting out by banning the lowest rung of the system - untouchables, or "scheduled cast." Still, today, particularly in villages, caste pervades daily life.

In most parts of the country, Dalits - as untouchables now prefer to be called (Dalit means "crushed people") - are still forbidden to touch the water glass of an upper-caste Hindu. Most are not allowed to worship at Hindu temples or marry into an upper-caste family. Some can't even rent apartments in upper-caste buildings, even if they are well-educated and well-off.

Ironically, this very social exclusion has also turned India's lower castes into a powerful political force. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, where more than 50 percent of the state's population belong to the so-called "backward castes," low-caste politicians have built upa massive bank of voters that was once taken for granted by larger parties.

"Continuous negligence of the weaker sections has made them strong, politically; now caste has become a crucial

factor in day-to-day politics that one cannot ignore it," says Mulayam Singh, leader of the Samajwadi Party, a powerful lower-caste party based in Uttar Pradesh.

Indeed, caste has become so powerful a political force that even the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, long a bastion for upper-caste Hindus, has now begun to woo lower-caste Hindus, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, where state elections are due by the end of this year.

The ruling BJP has even suggested creating a separate category called the "Most Backward Castes," allowing this group to have access to an extra allotment of government jobs.

With the power of sheer numbers, lower-caste Indians are gradually seeing improvements, at least on the political front. India's current president, K.R. Narayanan, is a Dalit, and an affirmative action system of job reservations has helped bring some of the best and brightest from the lower castes into the highest rungs of society.

Even so, there are some Indian intellectuals who question whether India's caste system is a subject for international scrutiny.

"These days, there's no such thing as denigration of Dalits in political terms," says Gautam Siddharth, a senior editorial writer at The Pioneer, a newspaper in New Delhi. "Even upper-caste parties know their one-caste group is not enough to catapult them to power."

But Nandu Ram, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says that caste is too difficult to uproot through politics alone. "If someone says, 'he's a scheduled caste,' that amounts to discrimination, because that implies the fellow is less meritorious, since stigma is attached to caste," says Dr. Ram, who is himself a Dalit.

The solution, he adds, is for the Indian government to abolish the caste system in its entirety. "If the state abolished caste, discrimination would still go on in the villages and even in some branches of government, but at least it would not enjoy legal sanction," says Ram. "It will fall on sensible persons to come forward and say: 'Let us not discriminate based on caste.' "

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