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Discrimination Against India's Outcastes Remains Endemic

Rights activists in India say the country's centuries old caste system continues today despite legislation passed more than a half century ago making the practice illegal. The Dalits, an ethnic group formerly known as "untouchables," faced the worst discrimination under the system. About 21 percent of the Dalit population lives in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state.

Nearly one in five Indians, about 170 million people, are Dalits, the group which lies outside the four-tier caste system of Hinduism. They are often referred to as "outcastes". Discrimination against them was outlawed in 1955. But rights advocates say it is an act that mainly exists only on paper.

Activists say attacks against Dalits often occur with the knowledge of the authorities who are supposed to protect them.

Rajni Tilak, a Dalit activist, says while the laws have changed, the mindset of Indian people has not.

Tilak acknowledges a political will in India to end such discrimination, but she says the prejudices against Dalits runs deep and cannot be eradicated in just a few years.

A recent survey found that in 38 percent of government schools, Dalit children are made to sit separately at meals. In 20 percent of schools, Dalit children are not even permitted to drink water from the same source as other students.

Charan Singh dropped out of school after he was publicly humiliated by his teacher 38 years ago.

Singh says his teacher physically assaulted him with the leg of a chair because he did not pay his school fees on time. Other late-paying children, who were not Dalits, were let off with a warning. He says Dalit children are still made to sit at the back of classrooms and are neglected by teachers.

Dalits, who traditionally engaged in such undesirable work as handling animal carcasses or cleaning latrines, were shunned by high castes because their occupations were regarded as "polluting" and their uncleanliness thought to be contagious.

Charan Singh says in certain villages in Uttar Pradesh grocers will not accept money directly from the hands of Dalits.

In other villages, he says, Dalits are harassed for wearing new clothes. Some are forced to wear a bush of leaves behind them so that while walking their footprints will automatically be swept away.

Dharam Kabir, a teacher, says his wedding procession was forced to disband by non-Dalits in his village.

Kabir says that his family had arranged for a grand procession for his marriage. However, just when he was about to leave home to join his bride, some high-caste villagers came to complain that a Dalit should not have such a showy wedding.

Charan Singh goes from village to village in India, trying to convince his fellow Dalits that education is the main key to their progress. The song writer and poet, sets his lyrics to the tune of popular Bollywood songs to attract people to his gatherings.

This song laments the fact that Dalits remain in the darkness of oppression and illiteracy while the world has advanced so much.

When a Dalit, Kumari Mayawati, was elected Chief Minister of the state four years ago, Dalits felt they would see some improvement in their condition. But Chandra Pal Bharti, who has served on a local community board in Ghaziabad, says the state's top politician has taken their support for granted.

Bharti says Mayawati is more interested in gathering votes of the high caste Brahmins to stay in power and for her quest to become prime minister. He says although Dalits are still in the same position as when Mayawati came into office the community will keep supporting her because she is one of their own.

Dalit activist Tilak says while India is launching missions to the moon, Dalits are still cleaning gutters.

Tilak says a gutter cleaner, even if he wants to get another job, is forced to continue performing such demeaning labor. She says India should use its information technology resources to reach those who need it most. At present, she laments, only those who already have an advantageous position in society are benefiting from India's high-tech resources.

The Dalits of Uttar Pradesh are getting more attention suddenly from politicians. With national elections expected later in the year, both the governing coalition, led by the Congress Party, and the major opposition party (the BJP) are setting up committees and holding hearings from this month to look at the situation of the Dalits in the state. But many Dalits say if past history is any indication, they do not expect any significant improvement in their lives once the election is over.