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Show of strength by Dalits at World Social Forum

Shouting slogans and singing to the beats of drums, 1,500 Dalits swarmed Mumbai's industrial outskirts where the World Social Forum is being held.

india Updated: Jan 16, 2004 20:34 IST

Low-caste Hindus who have rallied across India for a month, made a show of strength on the streets of Mumbai on Friday as they marched to a world anti-globalisation forum to demand rights in a country where they are "untouchables."

Shouting slogans and singing to the beats of drums, 1,500 Dalits swarmed Mumbai's industrial outskirts where the World Social Forum is being held after a brief demonstration in the heart of the city, India's financial and entertainment capital.

A banner read "Dalits will make another world possible."

The march culminated a month of Dalit rallies in villages which started from four corners of India.

"There is anger because of the humiliation we suffered," said Paul Divakar, head of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

"This is the starting point of our transformation. The caste system has changed a bit but the attitudes are the same," Divakar told AFP. "There is space in Indian democracy and we will legitimise that space."

Activists said they expected thousands of Dalits to take part in the World Social Forum, but organisers of the meeting said they had lost track of the exact number of people streaming into the site.

Divakar said the movement hoped to gain visibility through the World Social Forum, where tens of thousands of activists from 130 countries are due to debate and demonstrate against the world's economic and political order.

"Then we will assert ourselves and finally realise our rights."

More than 138 million Indians are Dalits, formerly known as "untouchables," and by tradition are not allowed even to use the same dishes as the upper castes.

Caste discrimination was banned under the 1949 constitution and a number of Dalits have risen to prominent positions, most notably K.R. Narayanan, ceremonial president of India from 1997 to 2002 and a scheduled speaker at the World Social Forum.

But by the estimate of US-based Human Rights Watch, Dalits are still the victims of 100,000 crimes a year.

Urmila Pahan, 40, a Dalit participating in the rally, said the caste system still reigned in the minds of the Indian elite.

"At the forum we want to show how Indian society treats us. Even when the constitution of the country guarantees equal rights," Pahan said.

"Look at how many Dalit women are being raped. When they rape they forget untouchability," she said. Cases of attacks on Dalits by higher-caste Hindus are often reported in Indian newspapers.

She said globalisation, the main foe at the World Social Forum, took away the resources of tribal people and Dalits and drove them into poverty.

"Some time ago we used to be the masters of jungles and villages. The multinational companies came and took away our land. Now we are on the streets," Pahan said.

First Published: Jan 16, 2004 20:34 IST