Monday, January 19, 2004

Low-caste Indians seek support

Low-caste Indians sought support to end discrimination with impassioned pleas at the world's largest anti-globalisation meeting.

The so-called Dalits, who are at the bottom of Hinduism's ancient caste hierarchy, gathered from all over India to highlight their problems and draw the attention of more than 100,000 people assembled at the World Social Forum (WSF).

The fourth WSF is being hosted by Bombay, India's financial hub, and is being held in Asia for the first time.

"It is time to build solidarity with other international groups and demand our place on the world arena," said Paul Divakar, a Dalit, addressing crowds at the WSF. "We have to fight not just casteism and Hindu fundamentalism but also globalisation which robs us of our livelihood," he said.

Dalit men and women, sporting bandanas proclaiming "Caste out caste" and jackets emblazoned with slogans like "Life with dignity", broke into applause as Divakar spoke.

Although India abolished untouchability after independence from British colonial rule in 1947, millions of Dalits are still treated as "unclean" in many parts of the country.

The discrimination is particularly deep in India's villages where Dalits cannot live with, pray in the same temple as or even drink the same water as higher caste Hindus.

Marrying outside their community can even mean death at the hands of upper caste Hindus.

The Dalits are hoping the WSF, designed as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum and an annual rallying point for anti-globalisation activists, will live up to its slogan: "Another world is possible".

Last year, the WSF hogged headlines in Brazil, which hosted the previous three WSF events, after it triggered demonstrations worldwide against a then imminent attack on Iraq.

"I want the world to know the kind of atrocities we face everyday," said Navamani Paramasivan, a Dalit who travelled for the first time to a city from her village in southern India.

"I want a better world for my children."

Prashant Malik, a Dalit from eastern India, who was thrilled at meeting marginalised people from countries such as Japan, the United States, Pakistan and Brazil, said: "It's encouraging for us to know we are not alone and others in the world share our sufferings and concerns."

David Haslam, chairman of Britain-based Dalit Solidarity Network, told the Forum the oppressive caste system in India had to be tackled at a global level, the way apartheid in South Africa was opposed by countries around the world.

"The world must outlaw the caste system in India and other countries. We have a long struggle ahead but the movement has started."

Source: Reuters, January 19, 2004


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