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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 11:17 GMT 12:17 UK
Is caste discrimination a matter of international concern?
The plight of South Asia's low-caste Dalits is one of the many contentious issues dominating the run-up to the UN World Anti-Racism Conference in Durban.
Activists for the people once known as "untouchables" have called for international support to stop the widespread discrimination they suffer. They argue that millions of Dalits suffer daily humilation, segregation, neglect and violence.
But many believe that race and caste are separate issues and there is no need for international action. In India seats in parliament are reserved for members of lower castes, and recently the prime minister of Nepal vowed to end discrimination against them.
Should caste discrimination be higher up the UN agenda? Is it tantamount to racism? Are moves to end it starting to work? Is this issue worthy of international scrutiny - or a problem to be dealt with internally by the countries where the caste system prevails?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
I belong to a very 'High Caste' (whatever that means).
I can't understand how the rest of the world could sit back and tolerate this anymore.
There are several discriminations. Caste is just one of them. There will be no end to one form of discrimination or other for the next one thousand years. The South African conference is a waste of time. It is more of a holiday for the delegates
It is my view that caste discrimination is worse than racism because it is sanctioned by religion and its status conferred at birth.
The caste system really hits you when you want to get married. It's an awful feeling knowing that the Hindu gods have declared you a low caste therefore you must suffer in this life.
The basis of the caste system in India is rooted in the concept of race. The Sankscrit for Caste is "Varna" which means "Color". Remember India is home to the Indo-Aryans, Dravidians, Austric and the Mongoloids. The upper castes are predominently Aryans and the lower castes are predominently Draviadians, Austrics. So if black vs. white can be racism, so is the caste system which means colour in Sankscrit anyway.
We wouldn't ask the British to overthrow the monarchy would we? After all doesn't that system represent people being advantaged on the basis of birth?
Hari Chirakkal, UK/India
In my opinion, all this cry about the caste problem is unfounded. India's constitution is the testimony to this. It happened to be written by a so-called lower-caste person. Caste originated from the type of work associated with the person and his family. I think some similar classification exists in each and every country, however modern.
If apartheid was an international issue, so is the Indian caste system. In many ways the Indian caste system is more damaging to the low castes in India than apartheid was for Africans in South Africa. In this day and age when the modern electronic media is able to inform the world of events as and when they happen - all over the world - it is ridiculous to tell the international community that an issue which is effecting the lives of 250 million people, does not concern it.
Trying to differentiate between caste discrimination and race discrimination is totally beside the point. There is a large group of people being discriminated against, that should be a good enough reason to discuss this issue at the UN conference. There would always be people who would not want to internationalise this issue. The reasons could be 1) they want to project a false image of India as an eastern paradise free of any social problems, definitely not something as huge as caste discrimination, 2) it would harm India's image as champion of the downtrodden etc. This is a massive problem, and discussing the problem at an international forum can only help the groups that are being discriminated against.
Dushyanth Narayanan, India
India is a very old civilisation. To study caste system first we will have to study the system which this society developed over the centuries. Nowadays community is divided in various strata like government officials, professionals and other less qualified and skilled/unskilled individuals. Some command more respect from the society, some less and most of them nothing. There has never been a world where everyone is equal - like Americans tirelessly say 'America is the only superpower'. India's caste system is nothing different but just an old wine. People who are discussing this issue are either doing it for the sake of gaining cheap popularity or they hate Hinduism and want to humiliate Hindus (discrimination).
Caste system in India is one of India's worst problems. The sad truth is that the so called 'educated' people in India has become immune to all the discrimination the system puts against the majority of the population. For centuries 'Brahmins' withheld knowledge, misused scriptures made complex rituals, ceremonies and dogmas into Hinduism with narrow minded motives. Dr Ambedkar spent his life to rectify this social evil. Sad truth is 'Caste System' still prevails in most of the states in India. The only way India can get rid of this is for the higher caste people to change from within.
Surajit Chakravarty, USA/India
The caste system is a problem in India. However to equate it to racism is ridiculous. If the debate is on racism, it cannot be discussed because all Indians belong to the same race. It took USA some 200 odd years to give equal rights to blacks - however, their economic condition is hardly in the same league as the suburban whites. India abolished the caste system (which incidentally was promoted by the erstwhile British colonists) the day it became independent. You cannot eliminate a 2000 year old social evil in 50 years. Give India a few more years to educate its people on caste discrimination. Face it - racists exist everywhere - USA, Europe, Asia - there is no utopia.
The UN Conference on Racism is the best time to raise the Dalit issue, since their voice cannot be heard in India. If the Indian government feel that it is a domestic issue what can they do about it. If the issue is not brought up at the UN Conference I think the Dalits will remain treated as they are today as long as the earth exists.
Adam Nayyar, Pakistan
Segregation of society exists in each community and land in the world whether it be based on working classes, minority sects or castes. The caste system is one of the greatly misunderstood aspects of Hinduism. It was created as a means to categorise on the basis of action. A person can pray in the morning and be known as a brahim, he can then go to the office and be known as a vaishya. Similarly one's father can be a priest and the child could be a businessman. Unfortunately this process was misused. The solution is to teach the public via the media, and this is what the conference should be used for.
In India, one can see thousands of jobs advertised for gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia. These ads carries a clear caption that 'only Muslims and Christians are eligible to apply'. What kind of discrimination is this? Is the conference going to discuss this?
How can they equate the caste system with racism? Racism is defined as the colour of skin, while castes are given to us by our gods.
The constitution of India clearly sanctions caste discrimination and had 'affirmative action' in place long before the term was invented. The situation on the ground, however, does look a little different. The Indian government can't sweep this under the carpet and act coy - it's time the nettle was grasped.
There should be no sympathy for any system that puts human groups at an economic or social disadvantage by virtue of their birth - and caste is one such complex system.
Caste is a social plague in India. It is the responsibility of every Indian to oppose and fight it. There can be no justification of discrimination based on caste, creed or race in a modern society. The successive governments in India passed enough legislations to make castism illegal. It now depends on the citizens of India to make our society a truly tolerant one, as opposed to quoting noble scriptures.
Rakesh Chandra, India
Caste system and Hindu culture are intertwined; one can't be separated from the other. The only way to eliminate the caste system is to bring a radical reform of the way Hinduism is practised in India. Unfortunately, most Indians live in denial that caste and religion are two different things.
Since the apartheid in South Africa was an international issue so should this be. When one group of people are suppressed and that suppression is sanctified by society or government, then the problem should be addressed. It's not about scoring points, as Swapnil might suggest (below). Ask the low caste people in India how they feel when the police refuse to accept their complaints because they are low caste and the government does not do anything about it. Who else will voice their concerns? It's more then 50 years since independence and still there are there sets of glasses in restaurants! If nothing has happened in 50 years, nothing is going to happen in another 50 unless the international community forces India to take care of her people including all minorities like Muslims, Christians and Dalits.
Vipul Advani, United States
With more than 50% of higher education seats reserved for so called low caste people in addition to reservations in government jobs and preference for promotions, there is no reason to believe that these people are discriminated against economically. In fact, contemporary India is much tougher to succeed in for people from higher caste, solely due to the government's efforts to provide better opportunities to lower castes and undo centuries of "injustice". If someone from higher caste does not want to be associated with lower caste, that is a personal preference and is NOT racism. In any case, I am strongly opposed to foreigners with little, if any, understanding of complex Indian society dictating how we should conduct our internal affairs. We are doing probably more than we should, to the extent that it is harmful to the country, to remove any discrimination against low castes. It is time Western world realised that India is a Big Boy!
Caste System in India is several thousand years old. Its imposition in society has no logical or scientific basis. It should be looked at, discussed and corrected. My concern is why the Indian Government does not apply the Constitutional provisions. The answer may lie in the fact that political and economic power is vested in the higher caste. India should have a Civil Rights Act and Voter Registration Drive to empower the Dalits and Untouchables.
Vivek Manchanda, US/India
In the final analysis, it is all about economic status and education.
People with no money and no access to education will continue to remain most vulnerable to discrimination, irrespective of their caste.
The caste system is a horrendous thing plaguing India for decades. However the government is trying hard to address the issue (reservations in jobs, government, education etc) The practice which has been followed for centuries cannot be erased in 40-50 years.
However, it is an internal matter of India not open for international debate. A conference against racism should discuss what falls within its scope - racism, xenophobia etc. Otherwise the main objective is lost. If people are so adamant to include debates on Zionism, casteism etc then why not discuss the religious discrimination in the Middle East kingdoms, the religious terrorism, etc.
Nowadays every international conference is cynically used to score political points, losing the sight of the main objective.
28 Aug 01 | South Asia
Activists urge caste debate
16 Aug 01 | South Asia
India rejects caste 'racism' debate
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