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Caste System is Also an Issue in Durban - 2001-08-31

The caste system in India has become a major issue at the World Conference Against Racism. The Indian government did not want to discuss the issue, but they may not be able to avoid it.

Scores of protesters stand in a circle, drumming and chanting, outside the cricket stadium in downtown Durban. The drummers are from India, and they have come to insist that the caste system not be ignored at the World Conference Against Racism.

They are handing out headbands and buttons demanding equal rights for those who belong to the lowest caste, the so-called "untouchables," the Dalits.

This woman, who gave her name only as Vimele, explains there is still blatant discrimination against Dalit people in India. "Dalit people cannot enter the temple," she says. "And if you go to a teashop, they have a separated tea shop."

Separate living areas, separate burial grounds, and restrictions on their movements. Vimele says these are some of the hardships Dalits face every day.

Vimele came to Durban with the Tamil Nadu Women's Forum. She says Dalit women confront even more discrimination and harassment than men.

Officially, discrimination based on caste has already been banned in India. But another delegate from Tamil Nadu, Joseph Raj, notes that changing the laws has not changed the system. "In the documents, constitution and the law, they prohibited discrimination," he says. "But in practice it is there. We have mechanisms within our country, but it is failed to protect our rights."

Mr. Raj is pleased with the amount of popular support he and his colleagues are getting in Durban. He points to the large number of non-Indians roaming the conference grounds wearing headbands, jackets, and buttons supporting their cause.

He and other campaigners want the Indian government to address the issue at the U.N.-sponsored conference, which begins Friday. And they want India to put an end to caste discrimination for good.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan briefly touched on the matter during the meeting of non-governmental organizations. He said delegates at the U.N. conference will need to address discrimination based on caste - but he failed to use that word to describe it. He simply referred to discrimination based on origin or work, which is commonly seen as a euphemism for caste.

An activist pressed him further on the matter, but Mr. Annan did not respond. That prompted an angry outcry from some members of the audience.

Getting public support for the Dalits' cause in Durban may not translate into a solution for caste discrimination. But it seems clear that the activists have accomplished at least one of their goals. They have put the issue in the public eye on a global scale.