By Gail Omvedt
27 May, 2003
A three day international
Dalit Conference in the coastal Canadian city of Vancouver, inaugurated
by the former President, K. R. Narayanan, brought together Dalits and
their sympathisers from all over the world and cast a new challenge
before Indian political parties seeking to woo Dalit votes in the upcoming
elections. The Vancouver Declaration demanded a rightful share for Dalits
in India's wealth, institutions, and capital with specific reference
to Dalit women and called on all corporations, including multinationals,
to recognise their social responsibilities. This reflected debates and
meetings of the recent past in which we can see a genuine internationalisation
of the anti-caste movement.
Though an international conference
was held in Malaysia in 1988, the first real thrust came with the United
Nations-sponsored World Conference on Racism held in Durban, South Africa,
in 2001. With the support of a few NGOs and energetic mobilisation by
Dalits including many based in north America through email
and other sources, Dalits and their sympathisers pressed their demands
for treating caste as an ongoing reality, a major source of discrimination
and oppression. Against major opposition from the Indian Government,
Dalits succeeded at Durban in bringing their case to the international
arena, forging alliances with disparate groups from African-Americans
to the Burakumin in Japan. The official WCAR did not accept Dalit demands,
yielding to the official Indian Government position in this respect.
However, in a more recent
meeting of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
in August 2002, discrimination based on "caste and analogous systems
of inherited status" was focussed on and a document adopted to
challenge the global dimensions of caste discrimination and similar
forms of social hierarchy. This is considered a major step forward not
only by Dalits but also by representatives of other oppressed groups.
The major step forward in terms of policy, however, was taken at the
Bhopal conference, held on January 12-13, 2002 the first Indian
Government response to the issues raised at Durban bringing together
some 250 delegates from all over India as part of an enthusiastic gathering
that totalled nearly 2000, including Dalits from Madhya Pradesh. While
sponsored by the Madhya Pradesh Government under the leadership of Digvijay
Singh, the initiative was taken by Dalit activists and the document
finally accepted was chosen by the conference delegates without Government
intervention. Its recommendations focussed on "diversity"
the share in resources and wealth which the Vancouver Declaration
talks about, ranging from land to every Dalit family and providing a
major percentage of Government contracts to Dalits as a first step in
what is sometimes called "reservation in the private sector".
These are beginning to be implemented by the Madhya Pradesh Government,
often against strong caste Hindu resistance particularly on land
Following Bhopal, another
important challenge was expressed to the intellectual defenders of caste
when Professors Eleanor Zelliot and Gary Tartakov, two major U.S.-based
academic sympathisers of Dalits, organised a full-day symposium on "Challenges
to Caste" as a pre-conference event on October 10, just before
the massive three-day South Asia academic conference held every year
in Madiscon, Wisconsin.
Two other events at the same
time also brought forward the new academic thrust one, a conference
at the University of Iowa which brought together Dalits and African-Americans,
and the other, a symposium on October 18 on "Caste and its Discontents"
at the Columbia University, a major centre of academic studies on South
Asia in the U.S. Considering that academic studies on India and abroad
are increasingly dominated by upper-caste expatriates from India, these
events represented a major step forward, though the programmes did not
have the direct political implications of either Bhopal or Durban. In
some ways, the agenda both at Durban and Bhopal suffered from some limitations.
At Durban, the framework
of specific U.N. language in particular, having to fit caste
within the framework of "race" (many argued afterwards that
indeed "caste" could be considered a broader concept)
was in some ways hampering. In turn, the Bhopal conference, focussed
primarily on economic issues, did not discuss culture though
the delegates at the conference frequently brought up issues of cultural
and religious identity. This was not only related to the "Hindu
identity" politics prevailing in Uttar Pradesh; the drafters of
the Bhopal document also defend this with the argument that disassociation
of caste from economic opportunity will represent the most major step
forward under current conditions.
The Vancouver conference,
however, discussed both cultural and economic issues. On the agenda
were many of the issues being endlessly discussed throughout India in
regard to caste: the problems of atrocities, of Dalit women; the question
of social justice and transformation. Sessions were also held on Dalit
literature, "Interfaith discourses for Dalits' development"
and "Ideology and Vision of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Shri Guru
Ravidass." These sessions were chaired by Paul Diwekar, Vimal Thorat,
Chanan Chahal and R.K. Nayak, while the chairperson of the conference
itself was K.P. Singh, a political scientist now based at the University
of Washington in Seattle.
In fact, the very holding
of the conference was made possible largely due to the contributions
of the Shri Guru Ravidass Sabhas of Vancouver and other Canadian cities.
This indicates an important reality of Indian life abroad: the role
of religious institutions in providing a community life, a basis for
what many call "social capital." This has been heavily lacking
among those few Dalits who have made it to the U.S.
Canadian Dalits have been
in some ways in a stronger position than Dalits in the U.S. simply because
there has been much more working class immigration. In the U.S., most
Dalits are doctors, engineers or even businessmen; few are in the academic
world, with Dr. Singh being one of the major exceptions. Some changes
are gradually taking place here, with institutions such as the Ford
Foundation sponsoring Dalit students doing Ph.D. abroad, and with even
the Madhya Pradesh Government having committed itself to sponsoring
10 Dalits and Adivasis for post-graduate study in the U.S.
Only in some places in Canada
has something like a Dalit community developed, and strikingly, this
has been made possible by the religious integration and motivation provided
by the Guru Ravidass institutions. Ravidass himself was one of many
radical `bhaktas' who challenged caste identity and Brahmanic priestly
monopoly during the 15th to 17th centuries in India a period
long after the defeat of Buddhism. While in most cases, the radicals
were absorbed in the general cooptation of `bhakti', this did not happen
so thoroughly with Ravidass, and the Ravidass movement has developed
a strong sense of anti-Hindu identity. In Canada, freed from much of
the economic and political hegemony of the upper castes, institutions
like the Guru Ravidass Sabha have flourished.
Thus, the development of
a new Dalit pride as well is pushing forward a growing self-confidence
reflecting itself at the level of social and political organisation.
In India, and the world as a whole, while politicians like Mayawati
symbolise the new cultural-moral self-confidence of Dalits, and those
like Digvijay Singh are pushing forward the economic agenda, Dalits
themselves are calling for action on all fronts, a cultural-economic
and political revolution.