2nd September 2001
Caste cloud over racism talks
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NEW YORK— The matrimonial classifieds in ethnic newspapers run by expatriate Asians reflect some of the cultural mores of transplanted communities proving that caste is alive and well-and living in the United States.
The classified ads in last week's New York-based "India Abroad" included the following: "Matrimonial alliance invited for North Indian Brahmin boy, fair, never married/engaged. Looking for caring, smart, beautiful, never married Brahmin girl."
A second ad is from a "tall, pretty, slim, Brahmin girl", who is looking for a marriage partner, preferably "a young North Indian Brahmin" who should be "athletic, handsome, vegetarian, teetotaler and a physician practising Internal Medicine."
In the 200 plus classifieds in a single issue of that weekly newspaper, there were only a sprinkling of ads that read: "Caste no bar" to marriage.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has a totally different view of caste, describing it as a form of racial discrimination that should be on the agenda of a rancorous World Conference Against Racism currently underway in the port city of Durban in South Africa.
The organisation accuses India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka of practising racial discrimination based on caste — and in particular, treating "untouchables" as second class citizens.
"Caste-based discrimination blights the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, and the World Conference Against Racism should have the issue squarely on its agenda," HRW said last week.
"Apartheid may have ended in South Africa, but at least 250 million people worldwide are still living in a situation of segregation and servitude."
The criticism is directed largely at India which has been accused of trying to censor discussion of caste, both at the conference and at all preparatory meetings leading to it.
A 73-page draft Programme of Action on racism, which is to be adopted at the Durban conference ending September 7, does not have a single reference to caste-based discrimination.
"India has used political and economic influence over other countries to pressure them into a partnership of silence," says Human Rights Watch."They have sent numerous people to non-governmental meetings who had clearly received a brief to argue the government's side, and have used influence within UN human rights bodies to sabotage any reference to caste in conference documents," it said.
The Indians, of course, are not taking it lying down.
India's official position was reflected in a statement made by the country's Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee who argued that the issue of caste is an "internal matter".
The Indian government has also pointed out that having the caste issue on the agenda would "dilute" UN efforts to eliminate racism.
India's Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh said early this year: "There has regrettably been an attempt by some to dilute the focus of the conference by broadening its scope to bring all forms of discrimination within its ambit. An attempt is being made to ascribe racial connotations to caste."
He also said: "We must ensure that the conference does not lose sight of its focus on racism. Racism should not be confused with discrimination in general."
But caste or no caste, the conference itself continues to be embroiled in controversy.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell has refused to lead a high level delegation to the conference because of two US-opposed issues on the agenda: reparations for past slavery and colonialism, and condemnation of Israel for its racist policies against Palestinians.
A coalition of American civil rights organisations has criticised the US for downgrading the importance of the conference.
"No country should be immune from an examination of its domestic racial problems", says Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR).
The coalition - which includes the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Native American Rights Fund - says it will play "a pivotal role" in leading and mobilising US non-governmental organisations (NGOs) participating in the conference.
"We will go - with or without the United States," Henderson said, point out that the coalition will also shortly release a report identifying the "systemic discrimination" by the US of African-Americans, Latinos, native Americans and Asians.
Henderson reminded that the US has been a strong supporter of compensation for Nazi-era holocaust victims and reparations for Japanese nationals interned in the US during World War II.
Therefore, the US attempt to take reparations out of the conference agenda is "hypocritical," he added.
Asked if any other country opposes the concept of reparations, he said that there have been no formal objections by any particular country, even though some European nations have expressed fears of legal claims over the trans-Atlantic slave trade centuries ago.
The London Financial Times quotes a UN diplomat as saying that slavery and reparations are far more devastating to the US than Israel.
Israel is only a smokescreen.
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