Annan ignores Dalit activists' plea

DURBAN, AUG. 30. The United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan, today declined to respond to the demand from the Dalit activists that the issues of caste and untouchability should find a place on the agenda of the World Conference Against Racism, opening here tomorrow.

The occasion was Mr. Annan's plenary with the NGO Forum, where the issues of caste and untouchability in India and elsewhere in South Asia have figured and continue to figure prominently. Mr. Annan's listing of people still suffering discrimination took note of the Roma, the Sinti and people of African descent in the U.S., but did not mention any other people. During the questions that followed, one person identifying himself as an untouchable from India, asked Mr. Annan how this ``evil'' could be eradicated. Mr. Annan did not respond. Later, another person pointedly asked why the issues of discrimination against the Dalits did not find a place in the listing of the sources of discrimination or sources of multiple discrimination in the WCAR's Draft Declaration. To this too, Mr. Annan did not respond, except to say that he had noted that his interlocutor had made a statement.

At this point, there were noisy interruptions from the Dalit activists as well as some others. This drew the following admonition from Mr. Annan: ``You come here to listen to each other, not to behave as you are doing.'' To further noisy protests, he only said that he had heard what the questioners had to say and the message will be passed on.

The Dalit activists to whom this correspondent spoke after the Plenary were quite upset over the failure of Mr. Annan to respond to their pleas. One of them described Mr. Annan as arrogant.

Others maintained that the questions had been framed badly. Ms. Smitha Narula, an activist who has been speaking on the issue in the South African media, said she had no comment to make because she was not present.