India, a pioneer in protecting its marginalised classesJul 12th, 2009 | By editor | Category: Readers Say, Viewing News
With the attacks on Indians in Australia becoming an issue impossible to ignore and dismiss as chance incidents, a tangential question that arises is whether Indian society is itself racist or not.
According to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the U.N. has laid down in Article 1 that racial discrimination is “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin” which affects the right of any individual to live on a par with others.
The problem arises when we consider the term ‘descent’, which may bring the caste system under the purview of the definition. The sociologist Andre Beteille has termed this inclusion “scientifically nonsensical” as ‘race’ is a concept defined on the basis of biological, genetic inheritance, and with discernible physical characteristics, while ‘caste’ has remained only a social concept all through.
Till now, though, caste discrimination remains unrecognised as racial discrimination, despite the two U.N. Conferences in Durban during which the subject was discussed in immense detail. Article 15 of the Indian Constitution declares that there shall be no discrimination by the State and, under the grounds of discrimination, caste and race are separately mentioned. Thus, it is evident that race and caste may overlap occasionally, but the two terms are definitely not congruent.
In the face of counter-allegations that India is itself racist, the arguments thus prove that India can definitely not be termed so. Admittedly, though, Indian society is casteist to a large degree. However, casteism and racism both imply biases operating in a society. Among Australia, the U.S. and India, the latter was the first to ensure the right to adult franchise to all its citizens.
The right was ensured to all individuals when the Constitution was adopted in 1950, and has been in place ever since. Under the Australian Constitution in the early 20th century, citizens had the right to vote provided that their state granted them that right, but based on the government’s interpretation of the law, aborigines were excluded. It is interesting to note that it was Mitta Bullosh, an Indian-born British subject, who challenged this interpretation and paved the way for aborigines to be listed in the electoral rolls!
Finally, only in 1965, all citizens of Australia were granted the right to vote when Queensland ratified the Commonwealth Electoral Act. Yet, till 1984, it remained illegal under the archaic Commonwealth law to encourage indigenous Australians to register to vote.
In the U.S., although universal adult suffrage was a right in theory, the massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans, especially in the Southern states, was overturned as late as 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was enforced.
India, in comparison, has been a pioneer in protecting the interests of its marginalised classes. The Government accepted the Kalelkar report recommendations in 1956 by passing the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Orders (Amendment) Act.
It was only in 1961 that African-Americans received the benefit of affirmative action (reservation), when Kennedy passed an order granting the same. Aborigines, though, are accorded just preferential land rights in some regions, but affirmative action policies are non-existent in Australia.
On the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) website, it is proudly displayed that in 2008, Marion Scrymgour became the first indigenous female deputy chief minister. Our own Mayawati became the first Indian Dalit female Chief Minister in 1995, and that too of India’s largest state! Her juggernaut rolls on, and she is now Chief Minister for the fourth time around.
It is conceded that all Australian States do have anti-racism laws in place, an example of which is the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, 2001, enforced in Victoria, though they appear to be rather inept in dealing with the problem at hand.
This is not surprising in light of the fact that Australia is the only western democracy not to have a bill of rights enacted by the Parliament or any Fundamental Rights defined in its Constitution!