Human Rights Watch today sharply criticized efforts by the Indian government to exclude caste-based discrimination from discussion at a major U.N. conference on racism.

At the just-concluded Asia regional preparatory meeting held in Tehran on February 19-21 for the upcoming World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the Indian government tried to block members of the Dalit ("untouchable") community from getting descent-based discrimination on the agenda of the conference. The World Conference is to be held in South Africa from August 31 through September 7.

"We find it odd that the largest democracy in the world should try to stop discussion of a serious human rights abuse that affects 240 million people in Asia," said Smita Narula, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for South Asia and participant at the Tehran meeting.

The Indian government argued that to discuss caste was to "dilute" the conference's focus on racism. But under the major international treaty on the subject to which India is a party, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, "racial discrimination" very clearly applies to any "distinction, exclusion or restriction" based on "descent" -- as well as on race, color, or national or ethnic origin.

"This is simply a question of Indian officials not wanting to admit having serious international human rights problems at home," said Narula. "But Dalit representatives at the conference argued that precisely because the issue has been sidelined, silenced and ignored in India and Nepal, they need international attention and support." The World Conference in South Africa, she said, was the ideal place to expose what many have come to see as South Asia's "hidden apartheid."

In several South Asian countries, Dalits may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes. They may not use the same wells, visit the same temples and churches, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms, and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste. Dalit women are frequent victims of sexual abuse. Dalits are routinely abused, even killed, at the hands of upper castes that enjoy the state's protection.

The Indian government also drew fire from NGO representatives by trying to stop discussion of caste at an NGO meeting that took place before the official government preparatory meeting opened. According to participants, the government sent an Indian member of parliament and a member of the legislative assembly, as well as several other people who had clearly received a government brief, to attend the the NGO meeting and argue the government's side.