An Untouchable Subject?
Indian Government Wants Caste System off U.N. Agenda

Start streaming audio Listen to Michael Sullivan's second report.

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Start streaming audio Listen as Martha Ann Overland scrubs the caste right out of her house.

Aug. 29, 2001 -- In India's crowded cities, where you can't help but rub up against strangers, it's possible to be an "untouchable," and yet go largely unnoticed -- and unhated. It's a different story in the villages, however. There, where the majority of the population still lives, India's ancient caste system still holds sway. Many villages are strictly segregated by caste, and the untouchables -- or Dalits -- are often forbidden to drink from upper-caste wells or to worship at their temples.

Gandhi called them the Harijan -- or God's children. More than 50 years ago, India outlawed discriminating against them. Nearly 20 percent of the seats of India's parliament are reserved for them. Government jobs and places in India's schools are also reserved for them. Despite all this, discrimination still persists.

actors dramatize caste discrimination
Community educators present Dalit suffering through drama in Kagnlvakan.
Photo: The World Council of Churches
But is discrimination by caste the same as racism? The Indian government says no, and has objected to it's being brought up at the UN Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.

But activists and human-rights groups insist that, even if discrimination against the Dalits is intra-racial, the effects are nevertheless the same.

There are about 160 million Dalits in India. In Hinduism's caste system, they are the lowest of the low, having been assigned at birth to their social status. Dalits are outside the four main caste divisions in India: the priestly, or scholarly, caste; the warrior caste; the merchants; and finally, the laborers. The Dalits are considered "untouchable" because their status often doomed them to menial jobs that included handling human waste and animal carcasses. Many of them are also doomed to a life of ill treatment.

Some activists believe the government's wish to avoid heavy-handed enforcement of anti-discrimination laws is the reason the government wants caste off the table in Durban. If the conference takes up the issue, "they will then be forced to take on a much more affirmative action program than what they have been doing so far," says Ravi Nair of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center.

Indian Attorney General Soli Sorabjee insists that the only reason India wants caste discrimination kept off the agenda is that it will distract participants from the main topic: racism. Caste discrimination in India is "undeniable," he says, "but caste and race are entirely distinct."

Other Resources:

Berkeley anthropology professor Alan Dundes -- "the Freudian Folklorist" -- offers a unique theory for why the caste system persists.

Or maybe genetics are the reason as this recent study suggests.

Human Rights Watch has a comprehensive report on caste discrimination in India


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