Caste and Race: Two sides of the same coin?
The attack in a Sikh temple in Vienna and the subsequent clashes in Punjab have brought renewed focus on the internationalisation of what many Indians see as a domestic problem.
In August 2001, I heard Martin Macwan, a human rights activist, talk about raising the issue of caste at international forums, specifically in the context of the U.N. race summit in Durban that year. The move was however opposed by the government.
Macwan spoke movingly about how fellow activists had been killed while agitating for their rights.
Nearly a decade later, the debate on how to tackle caste still rages.
Those who want to highlight the issue on international forums, like at the Durban Review Conference at Geneva last month, see no problem in linking it to race since racial discrimination is a widely prevalent practice that helps people understand other kinds of discrimination as well.
Media reports say the Indian government remains opposed to this.
They argue that the focus on race leaves out caste only because Europe’s experience has had more to do with race, and this should not be a reason for ignoring caste discrimination.
Both race and caste involve inequality and prejudice based on birth and descent.
Moreover, as the Vienna incident shows, with the Indian diaspora present in more than a hundred countries and numbering in millions, caste itself has been internationalised and is not a solely Indian concern.
Some say India’s commitment to international conventions and human rights is undermined if the plea of dissimilarity is used to put off raising the issue.
Others say race and caste cannot be equated.
They feel that different races cannot be identified in the diversity of the Indian population and therefore the issue of racial discrimination is irrelevant to India and cannot be likened to caste discrimination which is unique to Indian history and social experience.
In fact, anthropologist Andre Beteille argued that stating caste or any other kind of discrimination in terms of racial discrimination would be unscientific.
He said this may give a new lease of life to the concept of race.
Besides the Indian constitution bans discrimination based on caste, race, language or sex. After all, India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh is ruled by a Dalit woman and many call this an example of India’s success at tackling the issue.
Should caste be treated as race? Is the Indian government’s stand justified?