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Saturday, 11 August, 2001, 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK
India caste row deepens
low caste hindu women
Low caste Indians still face widespread segregation
The National Human Rights Commission in India has refused to cooperate with a special committee formed to consider racism ahead of a UN-sponsored world conference on the issue.

The commission said it felt its independence would be challenged if it worked with the committee.

Correspondents say the commission - which will be an observer at the UN's World Conference against Racism - may be trying to distance itself from the Indian Government over the issue of caste-based discrimination.

Indian village
The caste system is rigidly observed across India
The government has been opposing attempts to put the caste issue on the agenda of the conference when it opens in Durban, South Africa, later this month.

It says the Hindu caste system is based on social, not biological or ethnic differences, and is therefore outside the scope of the conference.

Some who support inclusion point out that the full title of the conference also includes xenophobia and related intolerance and that some theories about the origin of the caste system suggest it could have evolved from different racial groups.

But BBC correspondent Jill McGivering says that is a controversial argument and one the Indian Government seems unlikely to accept.

Others in favour of inclusion say the conference should cover discrimination on the grounds of birth - which might include caste.

Huge underclass

About a fifth of India's population form the lowest part of the caste system, often grouped under the term dalits.

The government has passed a range of legislation designed to increase their opportunities - including set quotas for dalits in political bodies, government jobs and education.

But campaigners say these laws have made little difference and, especially in village life, dalits still face inherent discrimination and oppression.

Many villages are still segregated along caste lines - and even primary school children are divided in the classroom according to caste.

Caste-related violence is also a persistent feature of daily life.

Government officials say they are already taking necessary steps to integrate dalits into mainstream society and that raising the issue in Durban would not help their cause.

The BBC's Jill McGivering
"There's fierce debate here"
Shiv Vish-vanathan, Developing Studies Centre, Delhi
"What is being challenged is sovereignty"
See also:

08 Aug 01 | South Asia
Couple hanged for forbidden love
23 Feb 01 | South Asia
Indian 'apartheid' condemned
07 Mar 00 | South Asia
Court rules out caste differences
28 Sep 99 | South Asia
Dalits' political awakening
08 May 00 | South Asia
Arrests over India caste deaths
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