Sovereignties, the World Conference against Racism 2001 and the Formation of a Dalit Human Rights Campaign
Dag Erik Berg
This paper examines how the World Conference against Racism in Durban 2001 intensified an old debate in India about caste and race. The controversy arose after the ‘National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights’ wanted to present caste discrimination in Durban as equivalent to racial discrimination. The Indian government protested, and distinguished sociologists entered the fray by claiming that race is a western concept which cannot be compared to caste, strengthening the official position. Conceptual logic became central to the debate. First, the position represents conventional knowledge, which reflects the anti-colonial attempt to define race as being irrelevant to India. But, secondly, the scholarly discourse acted to exclude oppression from the debate in clear contrast to the Durban agenda on racism and intolerance. The debate showed, broadly, how Durban represented a transformative potential by connecting global racism discourse to the moral status of an embedded postcolonial state. Further, the paper argues that the dominating conceptual focus reflects a paradigmatic individualism, which informs the scholarly approach to modern caste formations. While individualist approaches exclude Dalit rhetoric as subjective, they do not sufficiently acknowledge that the exclusionary logics inflicted on Dalits in modern bureaucratic institutions is a racial dynamic. To shed light on the Durban controversy, the paper outlines the larger background to caste in India and provides examples of Dalit discourse. It also presents the formation of the human rights network and controversial issues regarding the way they define themselves as NGOs, Dalits and Christians. These attributed properties were fundamental for the debate(s). Durban cannot be seen as an episode with tangible empirical impact. Rather, the debate was an intense moment in an ongoing historical argument about hierarchical practices and equality in India as well as about its moral status in the global community. In December 2006, however, at an international conference in New Delhi, the Prime Minister of India compared the Dalit situation to apartheid.
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