The First World Convention of the Dalit International Organisation being organised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 11th and 12th October, 1998, has given to itself an important theme: 'A New Vision Towards a Casteless Society'.

A fresh evaluation of the effects of the caste system on the human condition in India, can be of great assistance to those in government and beyond, who are engaged in mitigating the harm caused by it.

Over the centuries, India's society stood divided into four castes and further segmentised in a vertical heirarchy of sub-castes, with the so-called "untouchables" forming the base. This human construct was sought to be justified metaphysically by the theory of karma. More importantly it was used to perpetuate a form of stratified exploitation, with the greatest weight falling upon the lowest rung and, in particular, on the women in that rung.

With the dawn of India's many-splendoured renaissance in the nineteenth century, the clear-eyed representatives of that awakening saw that untouchability was an insult to human intelligence apart from being totally unacceptable in terms of human rights and social equity.

These pioneers drew inspiration from the supremely sagacious and compassionate precepts of Gautama the Buddha. That millennial Teacher quickened an altogether new and liberating re-definition of premises that had conditioned Indian society. Human conduct, not caste, as a mark of one's personality became a new paradigm.

Other voices of reason as well as of compassion, emerged through the length and breadth of India, such as those of Swami Vivekananda, Sri Narayana Guru and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule. These led the way to a realization that the dismantling of discriminations in the name of caste must accompany the political redemption of our colonially dominated people.

India's political struggle for independence came, inevitably, to have an external as well as an internal agenda, namely, political independence and social reform. Mahatma Gandhi wrote in Young India as early as in 1920: "I consider untouchability to be a heinous crime against humanity." Gandhiji sensitized members of the privileged sections of the Hindu community to do their duties towards those relegated by tradition to "lower" caste status. His nationwide crusade for this cause, is now part of history. So has been Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's continuous call for a casteless society based on political, social and economic democracy. It was, however, given to Baba Saheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkar to galvanise the Dalits to a realization of their rights - human, social, cultural and political -- and pose a fundamental challenge, to the caste-ridden society.

Since the time of the Buddha, Dr. Ambedkar's role was the most significant one in undermining the foundations of the caste-system in India. The Indian Constitution of which he was one of the principal architects bears eloquent testimony to this.

Independent India has taken well-considered steps to right this ancient wrong. Under Article 17 of the Constitution of India, untouchability stands abolished and its practice in any form forbidden. Untouchability is now an offence punishable in accordance with law. Even more positively, under the Directive Principles of State Policy, Article 38 of the Constitution provides that the State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting, as effectively as it may, a social order which provides for their social, economic and political well-being. Article 46 of the Constitution of India requires the State to promote with special care, the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, protecting them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.

Pioneering efforts have been made during last five decades in India to promote the educational, economic and social development of those belonging to weaker sections, with special emphasis on dalits. The Government of India's flagship scheme for the educational development of dalits has been 'Post-Matric Scholarships' which has motivated dalit students to pursue higher education in last fifty years. About two million students are provided scholarships under this scheme.

Article 16 of the Constitution of India enables the State to provide for reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward classes of citizens which is not adequately represented in the services under the State.

Much more, of course, remains to be done both in letter and spirit to heal the scars of this centuries' long exploitation. One hears, ever so often, of powerful sections of society, especially in rural India, defying the law. The transition to social equality affects vested interests which therefore seek to resist the change and retard the implementation of progressive legislative and administrative policies and programmes. Considerable work has to be done in securing the rights and benefits accorded by law to the Dalits, and also in extending further these rights and benefits to the economic and political spheres of life. Baba Saheb Ambedkar's slogan for the Dalits - viz. "educate, organize and agitate" is still relevant. India is a vibrant democracy which affords ample scope for this kind of Dalit activism. Dalits are nearly 25% of the population and they command, thanks to universal adult suffrage, a crucial proportion of votes in the elections.

Therefore their destiny lies, in the ultimate analysis, in the hands of Dalits themselves organized socially and politically within India.

While the State has taken the lead in bringing about a new social order, the real and abiding initiative must rest with the people themselves. Persons of Indian origin overseas, particularly those who have personally experienced the inequities of caste system and have done well abroad can play a major role in supporting the efforts of their brothers and sisters at home. Their talents, resources and commitment can provide an additional impetus to the constructive channelisation of dalit aspirations. Concretely they can initiate and support schemes for the educational, health and economic development of Dalits and other weaker sections in India just as NRI's in general can invest and contribute to the economic advancement of India. It may be mentioned that apart from State policies and social movements, it is technological forces and economic changes that are breaking down entrenched caste barriers in society.

I hope that the Convention will, through a healthy debate and positive suggestions, catalyse the transformation of society. The Dalit International Organisation with its deeply felt aspirations and inter-continental character can help the cause of social equity in India through constructive and empathetic involvement in the elevation of the condition and status of Dalits.

(K.R. Narayanan)

October 11, 1998
New Delhi