The discrimination faced by low-caste Hindus in India is similar to the suffering of blacks under apartheid in South Africa, India's prime minister said Wednesday, adding that the country's Muslim minority also faced prejudice.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking at a conference to highlight social and caste-system injustices in predominantly Hindu India, called on the government to do more to improve the lot of India's lowest-caste citizens, known as dalits, or untouchables, and other minorities.
"Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid," Singh said, referring to the strict segregation of races that South Africa once practiced.
Hinduism divides people into social castes that determine their prospects for educational, economic and social advancement. The untouchables are generally at the lowest rung of society. The ancient system has been officially outlawed, but discrimination remains rampant.
Singh's comments come amid an ongoing row in India over affirmative action programs to assist lower-caste groups.
India recently passed legislation reserving seats for lower-caste members at government-funded educational institutes.
This has drawn sometimes violent protests from higher-caste students who claim such moves compromise the quality of the educational system and jeopardize chances of being accepted on merit.
The prime minister also said that his government was committed to ending the "inequities and imbalances" faced by the country's large Muslim minority.
Singh said that while some minority groups have done well in the country "other minorities, especially the Muslim community in certain parts of our country, have not had an equal share of the fruits of development."
A recent government study has looked into the social, economic and educational status of the country's Muslims and found they are lagging in most fields.
Hindus make up about 84 percent of India's total population of more than 1.1 billion, while Muslims account for 13 percent and Christians 2.4 percent, according to the latest census figures.
Relations between Muslims and Hindus have often been tense since India's bloody partition and the creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan following independence from Britain in 1947. The two countries have since fought three wars.
Singh has spoken out against discrimination faced by Muslims in the past, only to be accused by the Hindu national Bharatiya Janata party of appeasing the group for political gain.