The government insists India must be answerable to none outside its borders on caste-based discrimination and atrocities. With UN sustainable development goals excluding the factor that decides threats and opportunities for most Indians.

Photo: Tehelka Archives

Why do nation states try to treat social issues that transcend boundaries as their “internal matter”? Can the fight to do away with oppressive social hierarchies such as caste that have restricted free choice for individuals in various ways down the centuries be confined to the boundaries of the nation state — especially when the nation state itself is the creation of a much later time?

When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in September, it inadvertently raised these issues once again. According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, it is “an agenda for people to end poverty in all its forms — an agenda for the planet, our common home”. Ostensibly aimed at reducing inequality in all its forms, it’s no surprise that rights movements in India are agitated over the exclusion of caste — the religion-sanctioned ideology and practice of discrimination based on birth that has been central to social organisation in India from ancient times, centuries before the formation of the Republic of India in 1947.

Most Dalit activists are appalled by the absurdity of any agenda to reduce inequality in India (and, as some point out, even in other countries with a substantial Indian-origin population) without addressing caste. After all, caste based atrocities continue to be reported with alarming regularity from all over the country. Yet, activists across South Asia allege that it was on India’s insistence that the mention of caste was omitted in the UN document.

The Agenda for Sustainable Development comprises 17 goals and 169 targets for alleviating poverty, reducing inequality and tackling climate change over the next 15 years. It is part of the plans for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) adopted in 2000. A new phrase that has been brought into the discourse with the 2030 document is “indignity of poverty”. The General Assembly hailed the document as the blueprint for a better future that would “leave no one behind”. After it was adopted, Ban Ki-Moon said, “The 2030 document compels us to look beyond national boundaries and short-term interests and act in solidarity for the long term.”

The agenda document explains the measures to be undertaken and the problems to be overcome as the international community moves towards a world where there is ‘No Poverty’, ‘Zero Hunger’ and ‘Reduced Inequalities’. Clearly, in setting the goals that are to be achieved by 2030, the UN has underlined the need to make growth inclusive.

Goal No. 10 specifically addresses the issue of inequality. It seeks to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all irrespective of age, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status” by “ensuring equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including the thorough elimination of discriminating laws, policies and practices”.

Dalit activists in various South Asian countries allege that it would be impossible to achieve the sustainable development goals in the entire region without addressing caste as a social system that perpetuates inequality and deprivation. In fact, soon after the draft of the document was made public, the Asian Dalit Rights Forum (ADRF) headquartered in Kathmandu had suggested to the UN that caste-based discrimination should be included in the final agenda but the suggestion was ignored.

“‘Leave no one behind’ encapsulates a holistic development framework,” reads a statement issued by the ADRF “However, this framework needs to take into account the situation of Dalits as those vulnerable and are affected by intergenerational poverty due to inherent systems of hierarchy and exclusion that prevent, discriminate and prohibit access to development and rule of law. Dalits have been victims of discrimination and hate crimes for centuries and have been considered as impure and polluting. Significance of caste in social exclusion is indeed recognized by Post 2015 development agenda (working committee) but seems to have failed to make into the Sustainable Development Goals or its Targets (sic).”

Activists from South Asia gathered in New York in the last week of September when the UN was in session, to press their demand to include caste as a factor to be addressed in the document. “India appears to block all efforts to allow caste to be recognised as a major cause for exclusion,” Meen Bishwakarma, an activist who is also an mp in Nepal, told the media. The activist-mp argued that caste discrimination could not be seen only as an internal problem of India, adding that Dalits living in other South Asian countries, too, are historically deprived.

According to a study done by the International Dalit Solidarity Network for the European Commission in 2009, 260 million people are affected by caste discrimination, making it one of the most serious human rights issues in the world today. According to the study, the geographic spread of caste discrimination in practice in various forms is not limited to India, but covers not just the entire South Asian region but also other parts of Asia. Moreover, similar systems of discrimination affect certain sections of the people in some African countries and the Middle East.

Despite caste being one of the key factors behind discrimination against individuals on the basis of birth, just like race in the US, India has consistently objected to treating caste as a question of universal human rights at par with race. This approach had snowballed into a major controversy in 2001 during the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa.

At the time of the Durban conference, the then BJP-led NDA-I under Atal Bihari Vajpayee had taken the official position that treating caste on the same lines as race would dilute the fight against racial discrimination. Activists and scholars studying caste and race, however, argue that both are institutionalised forms of hierarchy based on birth, with privileges and handicaps transmitted down the generations. No wonder India’s opposition to treating caste as a hereditary system of discrimination just like race did not go unquestioned.

Now, the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals has rekindled that old debate. “India has been in denial about caste for too long already in international forums,”Dalit writer and activist Anand Teltumbde tells Tehelka. “To treat caste as India’s internal matter is nonsense, since it affects Indians wherever they are, even outside the country’s borders. A world body such as the UN should have taken into account the social realities of the societies where the caste system prevails, to make itssustainable development agenda a comprehensive one.”

The argument, however, is not easy to clinch as there are among scholars studying caste in India also those who refuse to see it as reflecting a similar social reality as race. During the Durban conference when the issue was being widely debated, New Delhi-based sociologist André Béteille wrote, “Identifying the races in the population of India will be an exercise in futility. It is true that many forms of invidious discrimination do prevail in the contemporary world. But to assimilate or even relate them all to racial discrimination will be an act of political and moral irresponsibility.”

So, even while sociologists debate over the similarities and differences between caste and race as hereditary systems of discrimination, there is no doubt that caste does play a big role in perpetuating inequality in India. So why is India adamant about not allowing caste to be treated by the world as just another issue of universal human rights, such as race in the case of the US?

This refusal not just indicates the unwillingness of the government to be held accountable for its failure to eradicate the caste system, but could also undermine its efforts to meet the other commitment