Thursday, August 14, 2003

Landowners fire on peasants

Lucknow, India - At least 70 Dalits, or lowest caste Hindus, were injured in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh when upper-caste landowners fired on them to settle a dispute, state officials said on Thursday.

Some two dozen Thakurs or upper caste landowners in Tajepur village, in the Mau district of Uttar Pradesh, tried to settle the long-running row with peasants from the Dalit community by firing on them late Wednesday, said state home secretary Raja Ram.

"At least 70 people were injured when the Thakurs and their henchmen opened fire on the large group of assembled Dalits. Seven of them are seriously hurt and we have rushed them to the Benaras Hindu University hospital in Varanasi town," Ram told press.

"The situation in the village is very tense. We have rushed a large contingent of police to Tajepur to keep the peace. We also do not want the caste war to spread," added the top state administrator.

The police have so far arrested seven Thakurs in connection with the firing while the others are absconding.

According to the police, the trouble started because the landowners and Dalits both stake claim to a fertile village plot.

On Wednesday, trouble began when the landowners, protected by gunmen, tried to till the disputed land by tractor.

However, as the number of angry Dalits at the disputed land site grew the Thakurs got worried and resorted to firing.

Polarised by caste

Uttar Pradesh, one of India's largest and most impoverished state, is deeply polarised by caste.

According to a national census conducted in 2001, Dalits account for more than 40% of the province's over 166 million people.

Dalits, once known as untouchables, make up about a quarter of India's billion-plus population and are the bottom rung in Hinduism's 2 500-year-old layered caste system.

Although India banned caste discrimination at independence from Britain in 1947, it persists throughout the country, particularly in villages.

Dalits still lag behind upper castes both socially and economically, though they have emerged as an important factor in politics, as their large numbers mean they can significantly influence elections.

A Dalit woman, Mayawati, who uses only one name, is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

In some traditional areas, lower castes are banned from drawing water from the same wells as higher castes, cannot enter the same temples and are expected to bow and give way when higher-caste Hindus pass by.

Source: News24.com, August 14, 2003

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