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Dalits mobilising

By Gail Omvedt

The Hindu
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 issues.

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.