An international conference on discrimination in India's caste system, held in New Delhi, has called upon the Indian government and the international community "to end this crime against humanity."

The New Delhi conference, organized by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), also demanded that the issue be put on the agenda of the United Nations conference on racism, to be held in South Africa at the end of August. Some delegates claimed that the Indian government was taking action to ensure that the caste system was kept off the U.N. conference agenda.

The main victims of the caste system are India's 180 million Dalits, whose status is considered so low that they do not even have a caste. Dalits, along with tribal people, are officially referred to as members of "scheduled castes and scheduled tribes."

Caste prejudices against Dalits are widespread in India. In many areas Dalits live in segregation from the upper castes, even though India's rich classes rely on the labor of the scheduled castes. Many menial and degrading tasks are reserved for Dalits.

"The participants of the Global Conference strongly condemn caste (occupation and descent based) discrimination and the practice of untouchability—which is the source of immense human suffering and the cause of gross human rights violations," said the declaration from the conference, held from March 1 to 4.

Sponsored by three dozen Indian and international groups, the conference was held "in preparation" for the U.N. World Conference Against Racism—Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance" (WCAR). Several church groups, including the National Council of Churches in India, sponsored the New Delhi conference.

"Our objective is to create greater visibility globally on the Dalit issue," Martin Macwan, NCDHR coordinator, explained to the 200 delegates, 40 of them from abroad, at the start of the event.

"We are saddened by the fact that the nation and state disown [us]," said Macwan, a Catholic layman and prominent Dalit activist.

After four days of intense debate, the conference declaration "condemned the attempts of the government of India to oppose the inclusion of caste-based discrimination in the agenda of the WCAR." The declaration urged "other governments to support the inclusion of caste-based discrimination in the WCAR agenda."

The declaration also criticized India's refusal to comply with the finding of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) which stated "that the situation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes falls within the scope of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination" to which India is a signatory.

"Untouchability is a crime against humanity," according to the conference declaration, which added: "Caste—as a basis for the segregation and oppression of peoples in terms of their descent and occupation—is a form of apartheid and a distinct form of racism affecting victims equally irrespective of religion."

The conference declaration was based on a series of testimonies presented by Dalits at the start of the conference. One of the most eloquent was from an 11-year-old boy, Sanjay Dangia from the state of Gujarat in western India, who lost the sight in his left eye two years ago. "In my enthusiasm to watch the TV, I went too close to the dhaba [roadside eatery] and the [upper-caste] shopkeeper put lime paste in my eye," he told the conference delegates. (In villages run on caste lines, Dalits are not permitted to go near members of the upper castes, and many food stalls have separate dishes for upper and lower castes.)

Another Dalit, Gummalla Nandiraju, from West Godavari district in the state of Andhra Pradesh, southern India, told the conference participants that his father Kannaiah—who worked at the office-residence of an upper-caste sarpanch (village head)—was beaten to death in July 1999 by a relative of the sarpanch because he had mistakenly put on the sandals of the relative when he left the residence.

"Though my father apologized, they did not listen to him," said Nandiraju, adding that "one of the assailants was a teacher."

Nor was the ordeal over, Gummalla Nandiraju said. His father's alleged killers, released on bail, had attacked Gummalla's brothers in public, abusing them for "daring to challenge upper castes."

"I myself have come here risking my life," Nandiraju told ENI after addressing the conference. "They might attack me once they come to know that I have publicized these incidents at this conference."

Related Elsewhere

Past Christianity Today articles about India's Dalits include:
Churches Angry that Indian Census Ignores 14 Million Christian Dalits | Only Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist members of "untouchable" caste being counted. (Mar. 2, 2001)

Justice Delayed for Dalits | Christian untouchable is murdered, but police stall investigation. (Oct. 19, 2000)

Study of Indian Clergy Exposes Inequalities in Church Leadership | Many low-caste and rural Indians are Christians, but few have positions of influence within the church. (Oct. 9, 2000)

Thousands Mourn Death of 'India's Father' | Evangelist Bakht Singh led a fruitful life of teaching and founding churches (Sept. 22, 2000)

India's First Dalit Archbishop Holds 'No Grudge' Over Predecessor's Attack | Once "untouchable" Dalits make up bulk of country's Christians (May 11, 2000)

Hindu 'Untouchables' Threaten Mass Conversion in December | Two hundred families using Christianity as political pressure tactic (Dec. 1, 1999)