Exaggerations from Durban

The U.S. government exaggerated the Zionism question to avoid a discussion on reparations at the Third UN World Conference Against Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Other Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa (August-September 2001). One hundred and sixty-three countries joined together to discuss the problem of racism and of redress, but the U.S. stand at Durban and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center just as the conference ended, ensured that all talk of race and reparations would go nowhere.

The Indian government, who looked terrible before the world community, can breathe a sigh of relief that the world will not forget the words of its head delegate Omar Abdullah. Reports of caste oppression, he said before the world community, are "highly exaggerated" and those who speak about the trials of the oppressed castes produce "misleading propaganda" based on "anecdotal evidence."

Abdullah, son of Dr. Farooq Abdullah and therefore scion of Jammu and Kashmir's first political family, was first the Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry in Vajpayee's right-wing cabinet during the Kargil war, but he is now Union Minister of State for External Affairs. A man who would prefer to play squash and tennis was sent to block, for the first time, any discussion of caste at an international arena.

Why did the BJP block a discussion of caste at Durban? First, because it did not want "the world's largest democracy" to look bad before the world, and therefore not secure a permanent seat to the UN Security Council. Second, because it wanted to mollify its dominant jati constituency (the UP elections, so central to Indian parliamentary democracy, and the importance of a possible alliance with the Dalit party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, is a moot question, mainly because the BSP is so averse to an alliance with the socialist, mainly Backward Caste, party of Mulayam Singh Yadav).

And, eager for an alliance with the U.S., delegate Abdullah noted that the conference should not be "mired in the past." It must, "of course be focused, constructive and forward-looking. We do not wish that we confine ourselves to recriminations for historic wrongs." The bill of unpaid wages of centuries is here reduced to the bitterness of oppression. The U.S. State Department must be happy with Abdullah and other such unpaid agents in India.

But the dalit issue was forcefully on the agenda, despite the machinations of the government. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the only national political party to oppose the governmentís obduracy on caste, and its position enhanced space for the dalit organizations. People from across the world who attended the NGO forum wore buttons that said, "Cast Away Caste" and "Caste is a Form of Racism." Dalit organizations from across India lobbied the Indian delegation over paragraph 73 of the draft document, whether to allow that discrimination "based on work and descent" is racism. Ruth Manorama and Martin Macwan, both of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, led a strong contingent of Dalits at the marches and in the hallways, while R. Thirumavalavan, convener of the Dalit Panthers and MLA from Tamil Nadu, circulated a document on caste as racism. These social forces, untrammeled by the sophistry of Abdullah and the Indian government, did succeed in making caste an international issue. No exaggeration there.

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