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India's outcasts make slow progress. Untouchables face deep discrimination, especially in villages

Like millions of other Hindu untouchables, Kamala has long supported India's ruling party. But the domestic, who sweeps floors and cleans toilets for a living, says she is disenchanted with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and weary of his Congress (I) party's ``false promises'' to uplift India's lowliest group.

``They promise so many things when they want the votes,'' says the 48-year-old woman, who is dressed in a ragged sari. ``Still, they are doing nothing for us.''

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According to centuries-old custom, Hindu society is broadly divided into four castes, from Brahman priests through tradesmen and laborers. The untouchables - renamed harijans (``children of God'') by Mahatma Gandhi, the reformist and nationalist Indian leader (no relation to Rajiv) - are considered at the bottom of the heap, below the four main castes.

But though India's estimated 100 million harijans remain outcasts from the rigidly structured Hindu society, they wield a growing political clout. As a bloc, they could be crucial as Prime Minister Gandhi faces a potentially stiff challenge in elections due by the end of 1989.

Just how crucial was illustrated by a parliamentary election last June, in the city of Allahabad. Traditionally, harijans have voted for the Congress. But in June, they helped bring about the crushing defeat of the Congress candidate by rival V.P. Singh; and a harijan-led party, the Bahujan Samaj, ran a strong third.

The results signal Gandhi's slipping support among harijans and other minority groups in the largely Hindu nation of 800 million, political observers say.

``They are drifting away every day,'' says Yoginder Makwana, the only harijan in Gandhi's Cabinet. ``They think the promises being given to them by the Congress (I) are not being fulfilled.''

To woo them, Gandhi will have to address their deep grievances. After independence in 1947, the government launched massive development efforts, called by some ``the world's largest affirmative action program,'' that have improved the lot of some harijans in cities. But the benefits have not trickled down to the 85 percent in the countryside.

India's goal of ending discrimination against untouchables ``remains largely elusive,'' says a 1987 government report.

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In rural areas, harijans are still the victims of brutal caste wars and atrocities. In July, they were reminded of the prejudice that bars them from the mainstream: A prominent right-wing Hindu leader spoke out against allowing untouchables into temples, prompting an unsuccessful attempt by social activist Swami Agnivesh and a group of harijans to march on a temple in Rajasthan State.

``Untouchability may be banned, but this system prevails in much of rural India,'' says Swaraj Singh, an associate of Swami Agnivesh.

In some states, harijans live in constant threat of attack from small landowners or low-caste Hindu laborers. The government says there are more than 15,000 atrocities against untouchables every year; political observers say the number is far higher.

In cities, there is growing resentment, especially among middle-class Indians, to the ``reservations system'' under which a quota of government jobs and school and university admissions is set aside for harijans. In 1985, there were five months of rioting in Gujarat State against what protesters called ``reverse discrimination.'' Outrage was triggered by preferential medical school admissions to harijans and other disadvantaged classes.

``These students' parents got in 30 years ago by saying they were backward,'' says a New Delhi businessman whose daughter was vying for admission to Delhi University. ``They're no longer backward, but their children are getting in for the same reason.''

The reservations system also has spawned abuses. Many higher caste Hindus pretend to be from backward classes in order to land a job. Petty government officials sell the sought-after certificates that designate the holder as a backward caste and entitle him to government benefits. And, eyeing potential votes, politicians vie to get low-caste groups included in the largesse for harijans.

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