Analysis

With eggs on it face, India defends caste system

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Indian government defending the caste system at the UN has shamed the whole country. Despite the casteism eloquence of the Indian high caste representatives, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has clearly and unequivocally recognized caste-based discrimination as a human rights violation. The UNHRC threw out India’s opposition on this score, and New Delhi was also snubbed by the tiny and backward Nepal which broke ranks with brahmanical powers on the shameless caste system and refused to shy away under the excuse of caste being a culturally sensitive issue.

In fact, Nepal emerged as the first country from South Asia -- the region where untouchability has been traditionally practiced -- to declare support for the draft principles and guidelines published by UNHRC four months ago for “effective elimination of discrimination based on work and descent” -- the UN terminology for caste inequities. India has always worked against efforts to combat caste discrimination and has tried to prevent internationalization of the caste problem. Much to India’s embarrassment, Nepal’s statement evoked an immediate endorsement from the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, a South African Tamil. Besides calling Nepal’s support “a significant step by a country grappling with this entrenched problem itself’’, Pillay’s office said it would “like to encourage other states to follow this commendable example’’.

India’s position looked rather funny when seen in the context that in 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had compared untouchability to apartheid. Adding to India’s discomfiture, Sweden, in its capacity as the president of the European Union, said, “caste-based discrimination and other forms of discrimination based on work and descent is an important priority for EU’’. If this issue continues to gather momentum, UNHRC may in a future session adopt the draft principles and guidelines and, to impart greater legal force, send them for adoption to the UN General Assembly.

The draft principles specifically cited caste as one of the grounds on which more than 200 million people in the world suffer discrimination. “This type of discrimination is typically associated with the notion of purity and pollution and practices of untouchability, and is deeply rooted in societies and cultures where this discrimination is practiced,’’ it said. The latest session of the UN Human Rights Council has challenged India’s 13-year-old position on caste. This is because of Nepal’s unexpected endorsement of a proposal to expand the definition of descent-based discrimination to include caste.

Though India succeeded in its efforts to keep caste out of the resolution adopted by the 2001 Durban conference on racism, the issue has since re-emerged in a different guise, without getting drawn into the debate over where caste and race are analogous.

Even though India outlawed such discrimination in its 1950 Constitution, has passed laws against the practice since then and has set up programs of affirmative action, it is a bitter and unveiled truth that the law is rarely enforced and caste discrimination remains endemic in India.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 October 2009 on page no. 9

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