The coincidental juxtapositioning of the racist attacks on Indian students in Australia, and the riots that flared across north India last month when members of the Dera Sach Khand, a Sikh sect comprised largely of Dalits, went on the rampage following the killing of one of their community leaders in far-off Austria, once again raises the question: Is racism the same as casteism?
Though racism continues to be practised in many parts of the world, after the end of apartheid in South Africa it has no fig leaf of political or social legitimacy. Formations like the British National
Party (which has recently, for the first time, won two seats in the European Parliament) have racism as their hidden agenda; they cannot openly espouse it but disguise it under the garb of the need for stricter immigration control, and the imperative to preserve the cultural norms of the majority (white) community. The overtly racist Ku Klux Klan in America operates under the cover of anonymous masks.
As an officially sanctioned doctrine, racism has ceased to exist in the world. That it continues to be practised, in Australia and elsewhere, is deplorable, to say the least. But the forces of
liberalism can at least claim a shambolic victory in that they have driven racism underground, made it the criminalised territory of mindless thugs and goons.
While organisations such as Amnesty International have equated casteism (particularly as practised against Dalits) with racism, India’s official position is that the two cannot be compared. In support of this stand, policymakers point out that the Indian Constitution specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste.
How valid is this argument? Tragically, not very. To begin with, the constitutionally-guaranteed policy of reservations (which continues in expanded mode till now) is in itself an admission of the need to protect lower castes from upper caste discrimination. Casteism, particularly as practised against Dalits, continues to be one of the ugliest stains on our supposedly secular and democratic social fabric.
Dalits are routinely attacked, raped, denied entry into temples, and forced to suffer endless humiliations. That ‘token’ Dalits be it Jagjivan Ram, or Meira Kumar, or even the feisty Mayawati have earned prominent positions for themselves in our political sphere only makes
the plight of the vast majority of this brutally downtrodden community all the more agonising.
In many ways, casteism is far more deeply entrenched than racism. Racism is based on the difference of physical characteristics, such as the colour of one’s skin. Such visible differences, however, can be obliterated, or at least mitigated, by economic and other factors. For instance, thanks to Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ which made that country one of the richest in the world, the apartheid regime in South Africa accorded Japanese the status of ‘honorary Caucasians’ who were not subject to Pretoria’s segregatory laws.
There is no difference in skin colour, or in DNA, or in any other physical characteristic, between a Dalit and a Brahmin. Yet the social chasm between the two has remained unbridged for millennia. And will probably remain so in perpetuity, no matter what economic advances
So Indian officialdom is right when it says that racism and casteism can’t be equated. They can’t. For the simple reason that casteism is far more overtly rampant, more widespread and more accepted (at least in India) and more deeply ingrained in our polity than racism is
anywhere in the world.
And there is one particular caste in India which, in some ways, is as equally if not more oppressed than Dalits. It is a caste that is routinely burnt alive, killed in the womb, beaten, sexually violated and often subject to lifelong abuse and deprivation. It is a caste