Remarks by Devanooru Mahadeva in Seminar On Racism, Racial Discrimination

[Remarks by the chief guest: Shri Devanoora Mahadeva in the Seminar On Racism, Racial Discrimination held on 3rd August, 2001. Organized jointly by National Law School of India University and National Human Rights Commission.]

I am a member of the National Committee on Racism constituted by the Government of India. But I am placing here before you my personal opinions.

First of all, I would like to remember with gratitude the United Nations that, persisted in its effort to bring an end to the Apartheid and Racial Discrimination laws of the South African Government, and also India, which took an active part in this effort. With the cessation of the Apartheid laws in South Africa the dignity of the Whites who had dwarfed themselves by giving a legal shape to racial discrimination and segregation was enhanced. It became possible for the Blacks who had been the victims to breathe freely and it was a step towards equality.

The Third World Conference of the United Nations on Racism and Racial Discrimination is going to be held at Durban in South Africa. This conference instead of using the term Race in the restricted sense, indicative of physical characteristics as used by popular anthropologists, has rightly conceived it in the broad sense. That is, the conception of the conference is that there is only one race – the human race. It has also paid more attention to the removal of institutional discrimination within the human race. Discrimination by descent has also been included under the purview of the conference.

The untouchables were thrown outs of even the system of four varnas when it existed; the untouchables were the ones who were thrown out of the caste system as outcastes. Therefore the problems of the untouchable community in India, which, has been excluded from the social system because of birth and has been subjected to discrimination, distinction, exclusion, prevention and restriction and also they were imposed to take up ‘lowly professions’; naturally these issues have to be discussed at the World Conference. But the Government of India is not agreeable to this and is arguing that ‘discrimination by descent’ has to be interpreted as pertaining to only race related discrimination in the narrow, restricted sense bound to physical characteristics as it is used by popular anthropologists. If we accept this argument of the Government of India, we would be rejecting the United Nations’ concept “there is only one race – the human race”. This is the crisis before us.

Let us keep aside for the moment these debates on terms. When we compare Apartheid, the discrimination caused in South Africa by colour and colonization with untouchability, the discrimination prevalent in India, arising out of the caste-system, the similarities between the two are shocking. Some of the rules and laws enacted by the White South African government between 1948 and 1990 in order to subject the Blacks to prevention, discrimination, distinction, exclusion, restriction and segregation are as follows:

  • Law segregating the dwelling and schools of the Blacks.
  • Law preventing marriage between Blacks and Whites.
  • Law barring the entry of blacks from public places such as hotels and clubs.
  • The rule that the Black should possess a pass.
  • The law dividing the Blacks into three distinct groups, very much like the division of the Indian untouchables into sub-castes.
  • The abolition of political rights etc.

Didn’t very similar laws and rules prevail in India during the reigns by Kings? Weren’t the laws of the Indian Kings meaner towards the Untouchables than any apartheid laws? Apartheid laws made provision for at least separate schools for the Blacks. In India it was a punishable crime for the Untouchables and Shudras to obtain education. In the past, administration meant the strict and total adherance to and imposition of the Varna system and the Caste system.

Because the South African apartheid was a recent and raw wound, we can still see it bleeding. Thousands of Blacks were massacred for protesting against the discriminatory apartheid laws. Tens of thousands of people had to rot in prisons. When the protest intensified even the congregation of few blacks became a punishable crime. In short, whatever can happen when the law itself turns into a criminal, happened. Whenever I think of this horror, I feel that the repression, cruelty, violence and the killings which may have taken place in ancient India to throw out an entire community of people from the varna and caste system and make them accept and comply with untouchability were repeated in South Africa recently in the form of Apartheid.

Perhaps you know the Khedda operations used for trapping elephants. In it, they dig a huge ditch in the forest and make it invisible by covering it up with sticks, leaves and branches. Then, they create a loud noise forcing the elephant to run towards the ditch.
Unable to see the ditch, the elephant falls into it. Then, they put shackles round the trapped elephant and the elephant thus chained is lifted up and tamed through beating and torture. The tamed elephant then forgets its natural character and becomes the humble servant of the one who tames it. Servitude itself becomes its nature. The elephant called the Black in South Africa was pushed into the ditch and chained. Attempts were made to tame it through violence and torture. But this elephant, the African Black could not be tamed. Perhaps, it had to face greater torture for not becoming tame enough.

The elephant called the Indian untouchable has been tamed. Since it was tamed in the ancient times, we do not see the cruelty of it all. Even the one who tamed it doesn’t remember today that he did so. The one who is tamed doesn’t remember that he has been tamed. Discrimination has spread within society and has now become a natural custom. Which of the two is more tragic? How do we describe this? Shall we say Apartheid was Untouchability in its first phase or shall we say that untouchability is the great-grandfather of apartheid?

If the apartheid laws of prevention and discrimination are allowed to prevail for thousands of years and allowed to become practices by taking the support of religion and scriptures, perhaps that itself will become untouchability. If one has to point out the difference between the two, one difference stands out. In apartheid it was possible to identify the victim because of the difference of colour between the Whites and the Blacks. But in the practice of untouchability it was difficult to identify the victim because everyone, the perpetrator and the victim, had the same physical characteristics. This is why; the customs and practices, which were created to identify the untouchable, seem to have crossed all limits of discrimination. In India an entire discipline of knowledge evolved in order to identify the victim untouchable by his dress, language, gait, distance and food. Let me give an example. This is a report from the November 4, 1936 issue of Mumbai Samachar. “In a place called Uttapalam in Malabar, one Shivaraman, aged 17 years belonging to the Ezava untouchable caste, went to a shop owned by a caste Hindu to buy salt. He asked for salt in Malayalam. According to the customs of Malabar only caste Hindus can use the word ‘UPPU’ for ‘salt’. Being an untouchable he should have used the word ‘Pulichatan’. The shop keeper, angered by this thrashed Shivaraman soundly and he died.” There are a thousand such incidents.

Why rake up the past, one may ask. We cannot say that discrimination ended in South Africa as soon as the apartheid laws were withdrawn in 1990. The havoc of discrimination created by discriminatory laws persists in the society there even today. People usually practice customs and traditions more effectively than the laws of the land. In India, it is far more horrifying. For example, even though there is a law banning the untouchables carrying night soil on their heads, doesn’t the practice still exist today? We can only say that the government, which is guilty, has absolved itself of its crime by withdrawing the discriminatory laws. Don’t you think, if the government hides the discriminatory practices prevalent in society, it would be guilty of hiding a crime.

In South Africa because there are documents for Blacks who underwent loss and suffering it is possible to seek compensation. In India, the problem of compensation may never arise. Even then, I feel that India faces greater challenges in solving the problem of untouchability because we have committed the sin of killing our conscience and abusing god, religion and scriptures in order to make discrimination a part of our unconscious psyche. Here religion has also been a culprit. Roman law declares that a slave is not a human being but Roman religion does not accept that law. In India we have a history of religions themselves sanctioning discriminatory laws. Recently, the Shankaracharya, the religious head of the Puri Math, argued as though untouchability is a scientifically valid truth. He has thus converted a guilt into a virtue. Perhaps, such a mentality gave birth to the saying “The Madiga died and so the ritual impurity decreased”. Perhaps the same mentality did not allow union to lead to unity in India even when marriages took place between different varnas. It made the child of a brahmin female and a shudra male an untouchable and cast it out of the society and thus made separateness persist.
Just see for comparison. In the United States, there are instances of Whites willing money for the sake of the education of Blacks. In the Negro year book, published in 1931 we find references to a Garretson who gave 15 lakh dollars, Harkness who gave 12.5 lakh dollars and Tatton who left 1,60,600 dollars for the education of the Blacks. In addition, the Church also came forward to help in educating Blacks. It is estimated that religious and humanitarian institutions spent 13.5 crore dollars for the education of the blacks between 1865 and 1930. Of this, 8.5 crore dollars were donated by the Whites.

One cannot imagine such a thing in India. In a letter written in 1932 to Thakkar Bapa of the Harijan Sevak Sangh, Dr Ambedkar makes a plea that he should motivate the caste Hindus to allow the untouchables inside their homes at least by making them their servants (as the Whites did to the Blacks). Though this plea seems so painful, in the context of the Indian society this is a step towards progress. Even today, in the rural areas the entry of the untouchable into the homes of caste Hindus is only a dream. In rural India, covering three fourths of the nation, the rules and practices of prevention, discrimination, exclusion, distinction, restriction and segregation of the untouchables who are cast out society are still a living reality. When the untouchable community takes a small step towards equality and dignity, it arouses intolerance and violence, murder and arson erupt. This is the terrible condition in which we live.

Mother India has become impure by nurturing untouchability in her womb. The sooner she is purified, the better for us. For this to happen, the government of India, as a first step should give up playing a popular anthropologist, accepting the UN spirit that there is only one race – the human race.

Dr Ambedkar and Gandhiji were of the same opinion on one issue. Both of them thought that untouchability is not the problem of the untouchables. The untouchables are only the victims of untouchability. That is, the problem lies with those who practice untouchability. But in present-day India, the sensitive writers, artistes, journalists, thinkers and honest people who constitute the conscience of India are keeping quiet thinking that untouchability is the problem of the untouchables. This makes me sad.

Devanoora Mahadeva
# 53, A & B Block
11th Cross Navilu Road
Kuvempu Nagar
Mysore – 570 023