I came to Durban feeling privileged to take part in a historical milestone in human evolution: The World Conference Against Racism. My first impression, to be honest, was not very optimistic about this international event, as I was affected by the opinions and speculations of my colleagues and adults back in Sri Lanka as well as a result of
my own perception, that this Conference would be yet another "talk show, melodramatic, and full of hype".
An incident on the first day in Durban, however, changed this pre-conceived notion: my meeting with Kesh. Kesh was an easy name to keep in mind. He looked just like any Asian, or a Nepali to be precise. But what struck me was the manner in which he spoke, and how he carried himself. Aloof with a very poignant fear and at the same time with
hostility lighting his eyes. He would speak low and would look very vigilantly and cautiously around. And the most amazing thing I noticed in him was his high disorientation towards strangers.
It all fell into place when I found out that he represented the Dalit community of Nepal - the sons and daughters of the soil. Their brown skins, black hair, and their steadfast independent personalities, didn't make them any less Indians let alone a humans The Dalit, meaning oppressed, make up 20 per cent of the population in India.
Kesh was my introduction to the faceless image I've always had of this segregated and downtrodden group in Nepal and India, for in the next two days, the Kingsmead stadium was swarming with Dalit representatives, their foreheads adorned with bandanas that said "Dalit rights are human rights".
My interest in these 'untouchables' began then. The caste system to which India has strictly adhered has heightened the violations against human rights towards Dalits even after 53 years of independence.
The regional Convener of Dalit Human Rights in India, lawyer V. Baskaran, was shared his experiences, views, and the lobbying process of the Dalit community at this event, with me. "Dalits in India are put as low as a segregated group of people even as to carry human waste," he began.
He added that they are even oppressed by the judiciary. His substantiation was an incident two years ago in India where a new Brahmin judge cleansed the seat previously occupied by a Dalit judge with holy water before sitting in it. In addition to this incident, the elected president of the village Panchayat had been murdered three years
ago. His crime: being an elected representative; and being a Dalit. Baskaran gave me a handout from the Human Rights Forum for Dalit Liberation, which flashed daunting statistics of human rights violations: Every hour, two Dalits are assaulted, three Dalit women are raped, two are murdered and two Dalit houses are burned down. Baskaran also
stressed the psychological trauma instilled in the minds of his kind as a result of the atrocities committed against them.
Although the quota system ensures 18 per cent job opportunities for Dalits, Baskaran said that they get all the lowest-paid jobs. But judging by the kind of knowledge and the perceptive ability of most Dalits who came to Durban, I asked Baskaran, himself a lawyer, if this was really true. According to him, he and a handful of Dalits are the
"Even in schools Dalit children get a lot of pressure by the upper-caste children, the big shots call our children names, harass and traumatize them," he said as I went on to ask about their education and about the younger members of their clan. According to Baskaran, their philosophy, as opposed to the deity worship of the
Hindus, is based on the worship of working or labourer female gods or goddesses, which is rejected by the Brahmin Community.
Off and on amid the Palestinians' shouts for freedom and their protests and demonstration, which made the Kingsmead compound roar, the drum beats and the calls of the Dalit people were heard distinctly, and the intermingling of these two voices made me imagine the height of their glory if their objectives were met. When asked about the
capacity or the probability of any kind of a resolution to their problem through the WCAR, (which was my initial concern) Baskeran said: "We are here to make the international community aware of the atrocities caused to a segregated group of people in India and Nepal alike. We are here to show the UN that casteism is the most superlative
form of racism. And we are here to make sure that casteism is in the document. "Baskaran is hopeful of achieving his and his clans' objective on the ground the UN has accepted that casteism will be discussed at the conference as stated in paragraph no.195 of the draft document.
I understood then that however much skepticism there is about effectiveness of WCAR with regard to the grassroots communities of the world, these people still have hope for achieving their goal: Salvation.
I couldn't help but notice the vehemence with which Baskaran concluded our discussion: "We are oppressed, downtrodden, neglected , unprotected and we are strong. That is how we have survived this long. Over the centuries are more to come. We are strong and we are here to make our voices heard to the world so that the world can help us
to survive even more."