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India shuns calls to talk caste with U.N.

There are about 3,000 castes and more than 25,000 subcastes in India
There are about 3,000 castes and more than 25,000 subcastes in India  

By staff and wire reports

NEW DELHI, India -- Caste discrimination is not the same as racism and should not be discussed at an impending international racism conference, Indian officials say.

India has rejected calls to air the issue August 31, when the United Nations World Conference Against Racism starts in the South African city of Durban.

"We believe that the caste issue is not linked to the main subject of this conference, which is racism," Minister of State for External Affairs Omar Abdullah told a news conference Thursday. "You cannot equate casteism with racism."

Caste discrimination is officially against the law, but Amnesty International says it is still practiced here. Untouchables in India face torture, arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial execution, the organization says.

Untouchables, or Dalits -- also known as outcastes and Harijans ("god's people"), sit at the bottom of the 3,000-year-old Hindu system of social hierarchy. Numbering 160 million, they represent 16 percent of India's population of 1 billion.

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At a conference of academics and jurists in New Delhi in May, many argued caste can be more discriminatory than race because it is inflicted by birth, sanctified by religion and glorified by tradition. The arrangement outlaws members of different castes from eating together or marrying each other, among other prohibitions.

Just how persistent castes can be was underscored earlier this month when two teenage lovers in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh were hanged from the roof of a house by their parents who opposed their intercaste relationship.

Four social classes provide the simplified structure for the enormously complicated system of thousands of castes and subcastes within Indian society.

The higher classes are traditionally linked with noble pursuits, while the lower castes are deemed servants.

While the government has made moves to improve the lot of the lower classes -- outlawing official caste discrimination in India and reserving places for Dalits in all sectors of society -- Indians and global groups agree they fare badly.

At a national conference in June, a number of organizations said discrimination still exists at the social level, despite legal safeguards and government programs.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh, who chaired the June committee reviewing the system, concluded that improvements were needed, but added that "this was not a matter for any international initiative or intervention."

A Website for India's Dalits has taken a different stance. India, according to the site, "is struggling to keep its experience of racism and intolerance out of international scrutiny."

It also branded the national closed-door meeting in June an "eyewash."

"If the government of India conducts public hearings such as the one held in Hyderabad . . . the international community will laugh at our hypocrisy," the Website said. "The masses who are victims of the caste system will lose confidence in Indian democracy."

'Untouchability a crime'

Caste clashes
Depite government measures, inter-caste relationships are generally not tolerated  

Neighboring Nepal has taken a different position, vowing to outlaw discrimination against lower-caste Hindus and pledging to pass a law ending the centuries-old system.

"Effective from this day the practice of untouchability and any discrimination based on it will be considered a crime punishable by a severe sentence," Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba told Parliament, announcing his new government's policy.

He did not say what the punishment would be.

Deuba, who came to power last month after the resignation of an unpopular prime minister and the massacre of Nepal's royal family, said his cabinet reached the decision as part of a package of sweeping reforms and proposed bills.

The Himalayan kingdom, one of the poorest countries in the world, remains strongly tied to the Hindu caste system and believes its king is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

The surprise move to ban untouchability was hailed by the opposition as a powerful step to further push Nepal out of its global isolation and choking poverty.

Reuters contributed to this report.

• National Human Rights Commission - India
• World Conference against Racism

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