End Caste. Ending Caste-Based Discrimination is not Enough.
For long years now Dalit rights and human rights organizations and various people’s movements have been challenging ‘caste-based discrimination’. I strongly believe and advocate that the movements should be focused to end and eliminate the very system of caste. To say that we stand against ‘caste-based discrimination’ presupposes that we are okay with the caste system without its discriminatory practices. It does not require much reading of facts and opinions to conclude that the caste system rests squarely on practicing and perpetuating a hierarchical structure of ‘high’ and ‘low’, on a system of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’. It is amply clear that the system of caste was institutionalized as part of the hegemonic agenda of the dominant castes.
To take an example, the feminist movements in India, and elsewhere, are very clear that as they fight against gender-based discrimination, the larger agenda and mission is to end patriarchy – the very system that produces the discrimination. Similarly, the Dalit rights movements need to now channelize their energies in annihilating the very system of caste.
When I presented this thought a few hours back at the International Consultation on Caste-Based Discrimination organized by the International Dalit Solidarity Network in Kathmandu, an overwhelming number of activists agreed that this indeed is the right way ahead. Why then, it is important to explore and understand, is this not the popular discourse amongst the reformers, activists and academics?
There are several reasons for this:
It is imperative that any movement that is aimed at challenging rights violation, begins by highlighting the atrocities, discrimination and violence that is caused by social, political or structural causes. So, in the process of articulating the importance of protecting the rights of people who are at the receiving end of such violations, it is natural that the prominent discourse is that of ‘ending discrimination’. However, if were to continue to do this narrow discourse, it will be detrimental to the very agenda of promotion of human rights.
When I have proposed this larger agenda of ‘ending caste’, several Dalit activists, organizations and academics have expressed a fear that ending caste may also end the affirmative actions (known as reservations in India). Yes it will! But isn’t that the ultimate goal? Aren’t we very clear that affirmative actions are merely remedial measures? If we agree that it is remedial then we must also accept that remedies cannot become another system. On a practical plane, caste has to be dismantled first and then the dismantling of the affirmative actions should follow. In other words, affirmative programs, special statuses and protections should continue when the society has proved beyond doubt that we have indeed become a casteless society.
Popular electoral politics around the world, especially in India and south Asia, is based on community, caste and other identity affiliations. It is very common for electoral candidates to woo people from their own communities/caste groups. In fact this method of nominating candidates, campaigning and voting has become a norm and therefore escapes scrutiny and challenge. Dalit politicians are, unfortunately, not any different in this regard. And it is quite likely that this call for a caste-less society will be a big challenge to all political aspirants who are used to the short cut of garnering votes based on their caste identities.
I believe that if we are truly committed to an equitable society that stands for social justice, and are committed to the practice and promotion of human rights principles, we have no choice but to strive and struggle for ending caste.