More than 2,000 years ago, Hindu priests, in what is now modern-day India, divided society into four distinct castes. The four original castes have now been subdivided into about 3,000 categories. Caste distinctions remain strong. Many lower-caste Indians - known as Dalits - say those distinctions reinforce discriminatory practices. Dalit activists recently sought to highlight the issue of caste at the United Nations-sponsored World Conference Against Racism. There are deep divisions in India about whether caste practices are racist or not.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Kishan sweeps and cleans up after others. Kishan is a Jamadar, a member of a sweeper caste. Every day he sweeps and cleans four small apartment buildings and the streets that surround them in a middle class neighborhood of New Delhi. Kishan says nobody forces him to sweep and clean. He is, after all, a government employee. But, he says nobody else outside his caste would do the job.
"There are some traditions that cannot be broken and this is a system that has been here for generations. We cannot break it; otherwise there will be a breakdown," said Kishan.
Although Kishan says he will sweep and clean for the rest of his life, he says he does not want his children to follow him as sweepers. He says many other Dalits or low-caste Indians have now moved up the social ladder to prestigious government jobs, even positions in Parliament. Kishan says the caste system remains in place, but it is changing.
However, it is not changing fast enough, says Ravi Nair, who heads the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi. Mr. Nair, who is a veteran human rights activist, calls India's caste system racist.
"Quite clearly, caste is a form of racist behavior, because, like racism, this is an issue dominance by one group against another," argues Mr. Nair. "Secondly, if I was born into a Dalit community - irrespective of whatever vertical mobility that I had because of my class background - I would still not be able to change my caste hierarchy in the social pecking order, and because of that, it definitely is racist behavior in the terms of how one community has dominance over another."
Attorney General Soli Sorabjee strongly disagrees. Mr. Sorabjee says India's constitution is clear on the matter, "that racism cannot be equated with caste discrimination. That there is caste discrimination in India despite several affirmative action provisions in the constitution and in law is undeniable because of non-implementation. There is color discrimination in the United States despite judgments of the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Civil Rights Act. So, no one is denying the fact that unfortunately, there is discrimination based on caste, but caste and race are entirely distinct," he explained.
Martin MacWan is with the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. He says the debate over whether India's caste system is racist that surfaced at the U.N. conference on Racism in South Africa is just the latest skirmish in the larger battle over Dalit rights.
"It is about power," said Mr. MacWan. "And, if you see very clearly the violence on Dalits is increasing because there is a symbiotic relationship between the assertion of rights and violence. If you keep quiet and live through everything that is showered on you, there is perfect peace and law and order maintained in this country. The moment you ask for minimum wages, or you elected as a village head, and you want to sit in the chair, oryou want to protest against violations the trouble begins," he said.
Martin MacWan says there are about 200 million Dalits in India and they are slowly asserting their rights. However, Mr. MacWan says it will be generations before lower-caste Indians like those who sweep the streets of New Delhi become fully accepted in society by their upper caste neighbors.