165 million Dalits (Untouchables)
condemned to lifetime of abuse

NEW DELHI, India — More than 165 million people on the bottom rung of India's caste ladder are condemned to a "lifetime of abuse" because of a government failure to protect them, two US-based rights group charged yesterday.

"India has systematically failed to uphold its international legal obligations to ensure the fundamental human rights of dalits," said the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and Human Rights Watch in a joint report.

Dalits, once known as "Untouchables," is the term used for those on the lowest rung of India's rigid Hindu caste hierarchy. Shunned by higher castes, they perform the lowliest occupations and are the poorest in terms of income, literacy, and land.

"More than 165 million dalits in India are condemned to a lifetime of abuse simply because of their caste," said the report, Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India's 'Untouchables.

"Entrenched discrimination violates dalits' rights to education, health, housing, property, freedom of religion, free choice of employment, and equal treatment before the law," the 113-page report said. The report was produced ahead of a meeting in late February of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The committee is slated to review India's compliance with the convention in Geneva in late February, the New York-based groups said in a statement received in New Delhi.

The report quoted India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as saying last year that "even after 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and state support, there is still social discrimination against dalits in many parts of our country" and calling "untouchability" a "blot on humanity."

India's prime minister "should now turn his words into action to protect the rights of Dalits," said Smita Narula, director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and co-author of the report.

"The Indian government can no longer deny its collusion in maintaining a system of entrenched social and economic segregation," she said in a statement.