10 July, 2006
“Racism and Castiesm discussed at the World Peace Forum” By Jai Birdi Chair, Ending Racism Casteism Working Group for World Peace Forum and Indira Prahst, Race and Ethnic Relations Instructor, Department of Sociology, Langara College.
The World Peace Forum held recently at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver provided an excellent opportunity to not only raise and debate issues related to peace and social justice, but it also provided a medium for diverse groups to come together, network, find common grounds and build bridges for achieving greater equality. One of the key plenary for the forum that attracted speakers and delegates from all diverse backgrounds was on ending racism and casteism not only on the Indian sub-continent, but also in countries outside of India. Examples of such discriminatory practices within the groups was highlighted by Judy Hanazawa who spoke about the practice of casteism in Japan and the Burakumin people; by Yogesh Verhade of the Ambedkar Center for Justice and Peace and Rajesh Angral of National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights spoke about the caste-based discrimination and Moussa Magassa of Africa working group spoke about Africa.
Among some of the issues raised was how India continues to function as a “democracy of a few, for a few, by a few”. A variety of cases were presented to illustrate that India has done little to abolish human rights issues. Article one on the elimination of discrimination based on sex, religion, casteism and Article 45 where up to the age 14 every child has a right to education have not been fully implemented. Also discussed was the urgent need to stop the process of becoming a “Devadasi” (sex worker) which is still prevalent as a profession and continues to be “sanctioned” by religion. This practice robs girls from leading future lives in dignity and has serious health implications: reproductive track infections, sexually transmitted diseases and some reports cite that 78% of women go through frequent abortions or give birth to children who too will undergo the same deplorable cycle as their mothers- facts which are often silenced. Some disturbing figures of prostitution cited were: 10 million in Bombay, 9 million in Calcutta, 7 million in Delhi and 3 million in Agra. According to a World Bank report for 2005-2006, India has half of the world’s child labour victims which represent one of the seediest aspects of global stratification. These figures which are reported in the mainstream media are presented without its proper context of “human commodification”. The consequence of this is “compassion fatigue” where we cast a blind eye and turn to the next page. But the harsh conditions MUST be exposed to remind people of these fierce violations of human rights to motivate more people to act NOW not in the next Millennium! One of the speakers pointed out that “the people in India are looking for a REAL democracy not a society in which children and the impoverished continue to lose their rights to be human”. By year 2015 the United Nations member’s states have “pledged to meet the development goals”.
Other discussions brought awareness around the institutional discrimination that exists in Canada in the policy on the Old Age Pension program of Canada which benefits seniors migrating from the European countries and discriminates against seniors from Asian and other lower income countries that have to wait for ten years before they are entitled to receive the benefit. The presentations on the Chinese Head Tax, the Japanese Internship and the Komagata Maru incident focused on the effect these institutional practices had on the survivors and their descendents. Jas Toor (whose grandfather Mr Puran Singh Janetpura was one of the passengers who was imprisoned upon arrival in India from the Komagata Maru) and Jasminder Ghuman also a descent from the families of the Komatamaru exposed some of the facts involving the Komagata Maru tragedy of 1914. “Under the guns of HMSC Rainbow, the Komagata Maru ship was forced to leave Canada and all the passengers except the returning passengers were sent to the torturous journey back to India by the Canadian government”. Toor claims that this tragedy has been the “direct result of the exclusionist racist immigration policy of the Canadian government of that time, which contradicts the Canadian values that Canada proudly portraits and champions globally today”. In a recent telephone interview, Toor firmly said that “we are hopeful to receive a formal apology from the government and redressing the situation to open dialogue with the victims families and the community and to find out from the community what they want in their memory be it in the form of a monument and/ or part of the education curriculum “.This Canadian immigration policy no doubt is a disturbing example of “racial doctrines” and racist immigration in action where the “Indo-Pakistanis” at the time were viewed as a threat to the Canadian value system.
Other discussions focussed on “racial profiling” and exposure around various forms of discrimination towards immigrants from the Middle East and Asian on both personal and institutional levels as a result of current global threats and acts of terrorism. It is here where the introduction to Paul Dhillon’s upcoming film, My Sweet Amerika, provided excellent visual stimuli to the aftermath of 9-11 where Muslim and Sikhs were targeted for the crimes that they were not even a part of. In a recent follow-up discussion with Dhillion about his film he said, “the film adds to the whole subject of discrimination and about the anti-immigrant feelings following 9/11. At the opening of the film there is a dialogue about violence between a Muslim newspaper publisher in conversation with the main character a Sikh grocery person Bobby Singh. There is also direct reference to The Air India Bombing when one of the characters says “your Sikh brothers have also used violence in the past”. Dhillon says that “this dialogue exposes some of serious issues we are facing in the world today especially when violence is used for a religious or political cause resulting in the religion getting tainted with that violence even though it has nothing to do with it. Therefore, my goal was to also bring out this Sikh man’s voice who denounces violence and who lives by the spirit of Sikh faith”. The film is current and very relevant in the geopolitical context of today following the recent Toronto arrests of threats of terrorism. On that note, Dhillon makes an interesting observation and says “the problem in Canada is that an outside look has now been brought in and has more application since it has become local”. The film “My Sweet Amerika” shows how stereotypes can reinforce existing perspectives about cultural and religious groups and the cumulative effect such errors in perception can have in producing real consequences. This is a very effective means to convey messages and spark dialogue about the subject of discrimination- an upcoming film about anti-racism that is sure to be thought provoking.
The evening session of the plenary unfolded with a dinner sponsored by Radio India and Guru Ravidass Sabha followed by showcasing casteism and racism through the Cultural Arts: poems, songs, drums, and a short play by the following individuals or groups: drums were played by Steveston Youth Group; songs were sung by Ameena Mayer and Kamlesh Ahir; poems were read by Sadhu Binning, Kagan Goh, Charlene Sayo, and Alnoor Gova, and Imtiaz Popat. Ajmer Rode’s play Rebirth of Gandhi (a short version) was played by Mark Embacher and Gurcharan Dhua. A special surprise guest was the dynamic and humorous Anita Majumdar performing a piece of her upcoming performance in July called “Fish Eyes”. Upon asking her what message she wanted to convey through her performance she said” I believe the message of my Fish Eyes performance at the Forum was to illustrate the misconceptions we as individuals have about one another based on skin colour. We see this through the character of “Kalyani Aunty”, an older woman belonging to “race” with brown skin and an Indian accent, but when you get to know her, you see she’s a living, breathing individual who exists beyond the confines of her stereotype”. In moving towards solutions to issues of racism Anita says ” I think acknowledgement is a major step to tackling racism”.
The forum was concluded with the recognition that we have more in common than our differences and the need to continue to forge bonds with diverse communities. Overall here was consensus that racism can only be resolved by attacking at its source on the evel of the mind, values and institutionally. This led to the passing of seven resolutions so we can move forward towards a concrete action plan for greater justice:
1. We reject systems of discrimination based on hate including racism and casteism .
2. We advocate for a just redress for the Chinese Head tax and the Komagata Maru.
3. In the post 9-11 climate, we strive for justice and civil liberties for immigrants and refugees
4. We resolve to break the cycle of fear, ignorance, and internalized racism and casteism that are reproduced by systemic and institutionalized racism
5. We resolve to advocate for equal access to services such as health care and pensions (Old Age Pension for all Canadians regardless of race or what the country the senior has migrated from.
6. We advocate for greater monitoring of media, the music, and the popular culture to ensure that the content to any cultural, racial, or caste group is not derogatory and does not harm the dignity of marginalized groups.
7. We resolve to build on the dialogue that is started at the plenary and further develop strategies by organizing a national or international forum focused on racial and internalized discrimination.