Monday, January 12, 2004

India's caste system under fire at anti-globalisation meet

NEW DELHI : India has for years fought to keep caste discrimination off the international agenda. But starting on Friday in Bombay, Hinduism's centuries-old social hierarchy will be a focus of fury for thousands of global activists.

The World Social Forum, the annual convention of the anti-globalisation movement which is being held in Asia for the first time, will take up caste as one of five main themes for its panels and protests.

Caste "is certainly a very central issue that's going to be put on the table," said Gautam Mody, a spokesman for the forum which organisers expect to draw 75,000 people through January 21.

More than 138 million Indians belong to the lowest caste known as the Dalits, or "the oppressed," the term the community prefers to the archaic "untouchables." Another 68 million Indians belong to tribes facing similar social stigma.

By the estimate of New York-based Human Rights Watch, more than 100,000 atrocities including murder and rape are committed each year against Dalits, who in the view of Hindu traditionalists should not be allowed even to sit on the same bus seats as higher-caste Indians.

However, caste discrimination was banned by the 1949 constitution and a number of Dalits have risen to prominent positions -- most notably K.R. Narayanan, president of India from 1997 to 2002 and a scheduled speaker at the World Social Forum's closing session.

The Indian government, always sensitive to international criticism, in September 2001 moved to block caste from the agenda of the UN Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, arguing that it was already tackling a problem which was not racism.

The final resolution condemned discrimination based on "descent" without specifically mentioning caste.

Omar Abdullah, who headed the Indian delegation to Durban as junior foreign minister but is now out of the federal government, said he was not bothered by the focus on caste at the World Social Forum.

"At that time I was representing the government of India's position. But as an individual I recognise there is a problem," Abdullah told AFP.

"If there is an international forum that discusses caste discrimination, then fine," said Abdullah, who leads the main opposition National Conference party in Indian-administered Kashmir.

"But the problem is not necessarily going to be resolved just because of the international community. It requires greater domestic involvement."

It is domestic concern that Dalit activists are hoping to spur by the high-profile meet in Bombay.

"Untouchability has been officially abolished for 50 years. Fifty years should be sufficient time to get into the bloodstream of the country," said Paul Divakar, convenor of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

Activists from Divakar's movement have been criss-crossing India since December 6, holding Dalit rallies that will culminate at the World Social Forum.

While the focus in Bombay will be on India, Dalit campaigners said they wanted to form alliances with other communities suffering hereditary discrimination, such as the Burakumin, Japanese who traditionally lived in isolation as tanners and butchers, and indigenous Americans.

Among the speakers at the World Social Forum will be Ecuadorian indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso and Victor Dike, who has lobbied against discrimination among the Igbos of Nigeria.

"The whole concept is to rally all the communities who are being humiliated by no fault of theirs," said Ashok Bharti, convenor of India's National Conference of Dalit Organisations.

World Social Forum organisers said they hoped the meet would bring greater cooperation between Dalits and other Indian movements such as labour unions, Muslims and feminists.

Besides talks and rallies, the World Social Forum will showcase arts of the low castes, including an evening of "Dalit tribal fusion music."

Source: Channel News Asia, January 12, 2004

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