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Thursday, 6 September, 2001, 08:35 GMT 09:35 UK
Indian groups raise caste question
Lower caste villagers, Bihar
Lower caste Indians are fighting for a voice
India's independent National Human Rights Commission has raised the issue of the caste system at the UN conference on racism in Durban.

The argument is still going on over whether or not any reference to caste will go into the final conference documents.

[Equating] casteism with racism... makes India a racist country, which we are not

Indian minister Omar Abdullah
But both sides in the argument, the Indian delegation and lobby groups for low caste or Dalit rights, have welcomed the human rights commission's statement as supportive of their views.

Justice K Ramaswamy, who spoke on behalf of the human rights commission, is a senior Indian judge.

His commission is an official body but independent of government.

Main focus

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt in Durban says the fact that he dedicated almost the whole of his statement to the issue of caste has delighted the Dalit activists who want to keep it on the agenda.

The Indian Government has said Durban is not a proper place to tackle a domestic issue.

Condemning the caste system would equate "casteism with racism, which makes India a racist country, which we are not", India's junior foreign minister, Omar Abdullah, said.

Durban conference
Looking to get caste on the Durban agenda
But Justice Ramaswamy said: "The Commission is of the opinion that the exchange of views on human rights matters, whether at the national, regional or international level, can all contribute constructively to the promotion and protection of such rights."

The racism conference provided a singular opportunity to deal openly and courageously with vexed issues of discrimination and inequality, including those which persisted in India, he said.

At the same time he praised the legal and constitutional measures that India has in place to prevent caste discrimination.

And he said that the concern should be with making these work in practice, not with forms of words.

Word play

In fact the forms of words are now the main issue in Durban. Any explicit reference to caste was removed from the final texts before they ever got here, at the Indian Government's insistence.

At the moment references are still there to discrimination based on work and descent.

Caste violence in Bihar
The dalits are often the targets of violence
This is still a coded reference to caste since its victims are the descendants of families who traditionally do dirty jobs like slaughter men, leather workers, refuse collectors and lavatory cleaners.

But the references are still in brackets, that is they are not yet agreed.

The Indian Government wants to remove at least the word 'work' which would leave only a reference to descent.

The Dalit rights group argue that since all race is about descent that would render the reference completely meaningless.

Dalit activist Jyoti Raj
Ultimately it is the question of 260 million people's dignity
See also:

06 Sep 01 | Africa
Impasse at racism conference
11 Aug 01 | South Asia
India caste row deepens
08 Aug 01 | South Asia
Couple hanged for forbidden love
28 Sep 99 | South Asia
Dalits' political awakening
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