This is something I wrote for a website I contribute to; it was to mark the 21 March International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, through a South Asia lens.
On 21 March 1960, 69 protesters were killed in an act of police brutality in Sharpeville, South Africa, when they stood against apartheid. To honor the legacy of the dead, in 1966 the United Nations declared 21 March the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Given the conventional understandings of racial categories that persist in the world today, with their focus on supposedly genetic groupings, it may difficult to see how 21 March would, or should, be marked in South Asian calendars. Is there a concept of ‘race’ in South Asian societies, and, if so, do phenomena exist that we can call ‘racial discrimination’? One of our goals at Intolerance Tracker is to draw out the intersectionality of oppressions in the subcontinent and reveal the linkages between motives for and forms of exclusion and violence across not only national boundaries, but ideational ones as well. How does a globalized concept like racism help us describe and critique intolerance in the South Asian context?
Members of marginalized groups in India certainly thought themselves that the descriptor of racism being applied to forms of discrimination in the region had a significant power and importance, and in 2001 ushered this debate into the national mainstream. That year, the UN hosted the World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. At the conference, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) raised the issue of caste-discrimination, much to the chagrin of the Indian government. To the government, casteism was an ‘internal’ matter, dirty laundry not to be aired in international forums, and definitely not at forums that would allow a linking up of local experiences and understandings of bigotry with global solidarities. However, to the NHRC and others invested in the conference’s outcome, chiefly Dalit activist groups, caste-based discrimination had clear similarities with race-based discrimination, even if some groups stopped short of equating caste with race. While the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action produced in 2001 did not address caste-based discrimination, it did include provisions censuring discrimination based on ‘descent’– a term that Dalit activists believed was capacious enough to encompass casteism. Despite continued efforts to get the UN to recognize casteism as on par with racism, the 2009 Durban Review conference again failed to specifically address caste in its recommendations and report.
Nevertheless, the struggle of Dalit groups to integrate caste and casteism into global frameworks of race and racism over the decades, even as they were branded as anti-national for doing so (sound familiar?) is compelling. For one, it throws up interesting questions for those of us committed to naming and combatting intolerance across South Asia– how can we situate intolerance in South Asia in broader, global currents of exclusionary ideologies and practices? What other oppressions ‘look like’ racism in South Asia– for instance, could one link the essentialization and demonization of Pakhtuns in Pakistan to processes of racialization? What about the ongoing legacies of prejudice and violence against social groups that were designated as ‘Criminal Tribes’ under colonial rule? And if we begin to find race and racism, as it were, in South Asia, what implications does that have for the battle against intolerance?