Caste system is racial discrimination: UN rights panel

GENEVA: UN Human Rights Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has controverted India’s stand at its recent Geneva hearings that the caste system is not racial discrimination based on descent.

In its concluding observations, CERD, which consists of reputed international experts in international law, academics, sociologists and diplomacy, arrived at the conclusion that India’s denial is not correct, and that there is alarming discrimination in practice against Dalits and Scheduled Tribes, as well as minorities who have converted from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam to avoid discrimination.

CERD, however, complimented the Union government for its legislation and constitution to counter whatever discrimination there is, and the efforts made by the Indian delegation to explain its stand in its 35-page report on racial discrimination, submitted after a 7-year wait.

India’s stand in the report is that its caste discrimination falls within the scope of article 1 of the convention on racial discrimination. Indian laws ban discrimination of any kind. Despite the exchange of views with the Indian delegation, CERD maintained that “discrimination based on ‘descent’ includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights.” Discrimination based on the ground of caste is therefore fully covered by the convention.

Some comments to the Indian delegation by experts was one by Prof Sicilianos the India rapporteur: “The reason why we are talking about caste all the time is that it is difficult to know why India refuses to discuss this.” He questioned: “If India is really committed to social cohesion is it not conceivable that you may use every single instrument at your disposal to assist you?

Why see the convention as a threat instead of assisting you in achieving social cohesion?” The committee pointed out with appreciation the declaration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where he likened the practice of untouchability to apartheid in South Africa, at the Dalit minority international conference in December 2006.

The observations were made after detailed perusal of India’s report, and a two-day interaction with the members of the Indian delegation, which were mostly cordial and illuminatory, but unfortunately marred by word-sparring and confusing statements by a member of the Indian delegation on customs in the caste system — that the Indian society is not constructed around and does not function on the basis of caste and that poverty and other social problems affected many castes; that those who are born in a caste are proud to be part of that caste; and that children of inter-caste marriages are casteless “unlike race when black marries white.”

CERD has observed that there is de facto discrimination against the Dalits and Scheduled Tribes, who cannot defend themselves, and who are disadvantaged in practice in jobs, education, affirmative action (despite legislation), elections, political participation and compensation. Their lands tend to be appropriated by upper caste neighbours, while they don’t get any protection from the police, and they are even sexually exploited, some CERD observers felt.

CERD says that there is “social acceptance of caste-based discrimination and racial and ethnic prejudice” particularly in rural areas. CERD calls for its eradication by intensifying public education and awareness-raising campaigns, incorporating educational objectives of inter-caste tolerance and respect for other ethnicities, as well as instruction of the culture of scheduled castes and scheduled and other tribes, in the National Curriculum framework, and ensuring adequate media representation of issues concerning scheduled castes, tribes and ethnic minorities, with a view to achieving true social cohesion among all ethnic groups, castes and tribes of India.

SHEILA MATHRANI, TIMES NEWS NETWORK  MARCH 30, 2007

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