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`Untouchables' still India's outcasts

DESPITE A substantially reformed economy and a swelling middle class, India's permanent victims, the so-called Untouchables, remain as despised and ill-treated as ever.

In a report published yesterday on the 108th anniversary of the birth of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Untouchables' greatest champion, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental organisation based in New York, said the abolition of "untouchability" in 1950 has done little to improve conditions for the outcasts.Their political mobilisation since the early Nineties has provoked a fierce backlash from caste Hindus, resulting in massacres and rapes.

HRW urged the World Bank and other international lenders to build anti-discrimination measures into the projects they fund, and recommended that India's aid donors and trading partners raise issues of caste violence and channel funds into the education and training of the victims of oppression.

"Dalits", the favoured term for Untouchables which HRW renders as "Broken People", are part of the scenery, even in the heart of the modern Indian city. As always throughout history they do the dirty work: sweeping the streets, cleaning lavatories, carting away rubbish.

The caste system, which Human Right Watch calls "the world's longest surviving social hierarchy", still demands the abasement of its humblest members - or rather non- members, for the essence of untouchability is that the "ritual pollution" of the Dalits puts them beyond the pale of Hindu society. The Untouchables have separate villages and wells. They are barred from temples and cannot share food or crockery with caste Hindus without "polluting" them.

These ideas retain a fierce grip on Hindu sensibilities because, as the report explains, caste remains "a defining feature of Hinduism". More than 160 million Dalits continue to be oppressed. When this is challenged, the consequences can be dire. In Tamil Nadu in 1997, a Dalit was elected to the presidency of a village council. A high-caste group retaliated by murdering six local Dalits, including the man who had been elected, whom they beheaded.

In Bihar, the militancy of landless Dalit farm labourershas prompted upper-caste militias to murder more than 400 Dalits in the past five years.

The report said: "`Untouchability' is not an ancient cultural artefact, it is human rights abuse on a vast scale."

t India's fragile coalition government lost a key partner. The former movie star, J Jayalalitha ,withdrew the support of the 18 MPs of her party, based in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Hindu nationalist BJP-led government, now 14 months old, faces a vote of confidence in parliament, which reconvenes today.