On the occasion of the birth anniversary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (April 14 ), ARVIND SIVARAMAKRISHNAN reflects on caste and international discussions on the issue.

If major civilisations make contributions to world history, then the Indian civilisation's contributions include caste, caste discrimination, caste segregation, and caste-motivated brutality; the anniversary of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's birth, April 14, provides an occasion to look at some of the ways governments respond to caste discrimination.

It appears too, that wherever substantial numbers of people of Indian descent settle, caste discrimination appears. Even the British House of Lords was sufficiently exercised about caste discrimination in the United Kingdom to debate it for specific proscription when the new Equality Bill, now the Equality Act 2010, recently came before them. Although this time the House of Lords did not include caste specifically, the government's earlier statement that the Equality and Human Rights Commission had been asked to research the issue drew the peers' rebuke that the Commission in fact said they had not been asked to do the relevant research; the government were also accused of consulting only with upper-caste groups of British Hindus.

My former tutor, a distinguished British professor of philosophy, would not have been surprised by the government's reluctance to include caste in its anti-discrimination laws. I recall his saying, “The British and the Indian ruling classes understood one another perfectly.” His father had been in the Indian Army between the wars, and he himself only rarely revealed how much he knew about India.

Another British friend told me once of an involvement he had had with a girl at his college. Well into the relationship she suddenly told him she would never marry him, as he was of a low caste. They had parents from the same region of India, they spoke the same South Asian language, and they were both young Britons. But she drew the shadow line.

Many apartheids

I recall too, listening to an acquaintance in the Oriental Plaza in Johannesburg as he savaged the now-extinct apartheid régime, raising his voice for the benefit of a couple of stone-faced Afrikaner huisvrouwen who were browsing along the shelves. The young man's aunt, the shop manager, said quietly, “We have our own apartheid, with caste and religion and family.” That reminded me of an earlier conversation with a relative, in which I remarked that in some industrialised countries it could be difficult to tell people's class or occupation from their dress, manner, or speech, especially outside working hours. My relative froze, terrified that his children, destined for U.S. doctorates and gadget-filled mortgages in acceptably white-majority American suburbs, would get involved with ‘unsuitable' people during their studies abroad. That particular relative might have problems if asked whether President Obama's daughters were ‘unsuitable'.

The Government of India, for its part, tries to prevent international discussion of caste. At the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, Indian representatives insisted that caste is not race, that India has legislated against caste discrimination, and that caste as an internal matter must not be discussed at such conferences. The conference adopted the phrase “discrimination based on work and descent.”

India's intransigence, however, continues. In response to the Strategic Management Plan prepared for 2010-11 by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), the Government of India notes the Plan's references to caste and adds that as the document was not negotiated the Indian mission in Geneva has been instructed to take the matter up with the UNHCHR. The 160-page document contains only three references to caste. One is a general comment that caste is one form of discrimination in the Asia-Pacific region, another is the inclusion of caste among UNHCHR's thematic priorities for the year, and the third is the observation that caste discrimination is endemic in Nepal.

Furthermore, at the 2009 Durban Review Conference, India rejected a comment on descent, saying it “lacked intellectual rigour” and ignored the drafting history of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The Convention's history, however, shows that when it was first drafted in 1965 India's representative both suggested the term “descent” and said the Convention would apply to scheduled castes. In 2009, India succeeded in getting the term “discrimination based on work and descent” removed from the conference outcome document, though an earlier U.N. statement that caste is covered by CERD presumably still stands.

India's position is at best incoherent. The government's periodic report to CERD for 2006 reconfirms its opposition to any equation of caste and race by saying the Indian Constitution distinguishes between the two, and that race had been included in the Constitution because of the “moral outrage of the world community against racism” after the Second World War. This outrage, however, was not shared at the highest levels of government. A former civil servant has publicly described the way the then External Affairs Minister Y. B. Chavan and an aide violated India's own sanctions against South Africa by allowing Indian trade with the apartheid state through the Bank of Bermuda in the mid-1970s.

Domestically, Indian government statements, including replies to MPs, often list the legislation prohibiting caste discrimination as though that eo ipso proves effective action. A single example serves to undermine that. The National Crime Records Bureau's records for the period 1995-2007 show that under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, the police registered 441, 424 crimes, but field-survey estimates suggest that the recorded figure is about one third of the actual figure; for Scheduled Tribes it is about one fifth.

Widespread

The proposition that caste is solely an internal matter for India is untenable. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, has said publicly that globally, caste discrimination affects 260 million people; about 170 million of them are in India. In contrast to India, Nepal, until 2007 a Hindu state by constitution, regards caste discrimination as indistinguishable from racial discrimination, and has confirmed that it will work through the U.N. to counter caste discrimination; the European Union has made a similar commitment. The pity is therefore all the greater that India is so dismissive of international cooperation and so unwilling to take the lead over what the Prime Minister himself has called a blot on humanity.