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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.

Your reaction

Everyone has the potential to do extremely well if given the right conditions and opportunities

Rajan, England
I apparently come from the lowest caste in India and am extremely proud of it. My dad use to graze cows in his twenties and then managed to get a job as a clerk. He diligently saved up money and eventually sponsored himself through university. As a result of this, I and all my brothers and sisters have had a much easier life. The caste system was created as a mere form of controlling the vast majority of people. The reality is that everyone has the potential to do extremely well if given the right conditions and opportunities.
Rajan, England

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.
Kumar, Great Britain

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
Rishi Tewari, Nigeria

How can this not be racism?

Immivich, Canada
The caste system shows its true colours in the institution of marriage where a Brahmin would never think of marrying a Dalit. How can this not be racism?
Immivich, Canada

It is my view that caste discrimination is worse than racism because it is sanctioned by religion and its status conferred at birth.
David James, Singapore

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.
Andy, UK

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.
Chandan Ray, India

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?
Surajit Chakravarty, USA/ India

People in the lower caste are never treated equally even if everything else is the same

Hari Chirakkal, UK/India
Casteism/ caste-based prejudice is one of the major issues in Indian society. People in the lower caste are never treated equally even if everything else is the same. It is an issue of human rights and therefore it must be a priority of UN.
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.
Abhiith O.K., India

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.
Anand Kumar, India

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.
Johnny, India/U.S.A.

It's unfortunate for this conference that the recalcitrants get all the media attention

Dushyanth Narayanan, India
It's unfortunate for this conference that the recalcitrants get all the media attention. The US and Israel will not abide criticism of Zionism; the Europeans refuse to apologise for colonialism; the Indian Government wants the caste system kept out of it. Each of these, in its own way, is an example of extreme and unfair discrimination and exploitation. It doesn't matter if you call that "racism" or not, unless all you care about is splitting hairs and scoring political points.
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).
Ambrish K Bhardwaj, India

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.
Suraj, India

One does not in one's right mind compare it with apartheid

Surajit Chakravarty, USA/India
I completely agree with Rakesh Chandra and others when they say that the world refuses to acknowledge what India HAS achieved with regards to uprooting the caste system. The caste system began at a time when concepts of democracy and republic didn't exist. It was at that time a practical division of society based on vocation and it was acceptable in society. It is unfortunate that the concept got skewed somewhere along the way. However one has to realise how ancient a concept we are talking about. One does not in one's right mind compare it with apartheid, which represents hypocrisy and a blatant disregard for human values. PS: India's president (Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces) is a member of a scheduled tribe. We are proud of him!
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.
Jvalant Sampat, India/USA

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.
T.S. Chung, Canada

The caste discrimination is now a global issue whether we like it or not

Adam Nayyar, Pakistan
I disagree with Vipul Advani's comments. The caste discrimination is now a global issue whether we like it or not. Pakistan was created because we could not live in a system that perceived Muslims and Christians as untouchables and outcasts.
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.
Mr Sharma, UK

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?
Nilesh Agrawal, India/ UK

Ultimately it's the people of India who should strive for a caste free society

Theo, USA
Caste discrimination, the Indian version of apartheid, is evil. Raising the issue at the UN conference would educate the world and put pressure on the Indian Government. In an age of global human rights culture, the world can do its part but ultimately it's the people of India who should strive for a caste free society.
Theo, USA

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.
Vishnu, India

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.
Dr Adam Nayyar, Pakistan

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.
Tridiv Borah, India/Germany

India has the largest of all equal opportunity programmes

Rakesh Chandra, India
A fact often ignored is that India has the largest of all equal opportunity programmes, mainly in education and government jobs. Although there are cases of unfair treatment and caste-related crimes, particularly in the least literate and poorer rural areas of India, there has been a general lack of acknowledgement by the otherwise vocal human rights groups of the progress India has made in the past 50 years to uproot caste-based discrimination. Unfortunately, it seems that the conference at Durban could likely turn into a handy tool by some quarters who are apparently refusing to see the brighter side. Resorting to a negative approach of blindly censuring rather than providing genuine help to educate the masses, is unlikely to produce any positive impact.
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.
P. Gokulakrishnan, Canada

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.
Fahad Qureshi, India

Caste system is purely a domestic matter

Vipul Advani, United States
The question is not whether India's caste system should form a part of the Durban meeting's agenda, but whether it would serve any purpose. Caste system is purely a domestic matter unlike racism which is more global. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for anyone outside India to even comprehend what the caste system is and how it manifests itself even in this day and age. The truth is that, like all other problems that are uniquely Indian, the solution to the caste system too has to come from within India. Rallying cries in international fora would achieve little more than to embarrass India. Those Indians who need to wake up to the evils of the caste system may never hear the eloquent speeches made in Durban. What is required is more local, more focussed programmes within India - aimed at these very people who need to wake up.
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!
Rakshit Gor, USA

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.
Mo Ahmed, San Clemente, CA, USA

It now depends on the people of India as to how they want to fight this social evil

Vivek Manchanda, US/India
The issue of casteism is really very important. I have seen how my own parents would ask that the cleaning ladies' cups to be kept outside the house (for them to drink). Very unfortunate, but it was so much a part of the daily life that I didn't question it as a kid. But growing up, I have seen worse. The solution doesn't lie with the government, as it has done its part. It has made the constitution and reserved seats for the downtrodden, made night soil carrying illegal and made it punishable to discriminate on the basis of caste. It now depends on the people of India as to how they want to fight this social evil. Flogging the government of India at Durban would serve no purpose, unless the masses are enlightened.
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.
B.K.B. Navilae, India

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.
Swapnil, India

Listen now
... to both sides of the debate
See also:

28 Aug 01 | South Asia
Activists urge caste debate
16 Aug 01 | South Asia
India rejects caste 'racism' debate
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