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India's age-old caste bias isn't going away, even with a historic election

SHABBIRPUR, India — India is witnessing its first-ever election contest between candidates from the lowest Hindu caste for the country's highest post, the presidency.

Monday's vote between lawyer-turned-politician Ram Nath Kovind and former diplomat and five-time member of parliament Meira Kumar — a duel described as "Dalit versus Dalit" in the media — is taken as a sign of how India is moving toward a more egalitarian society.

But one need not travel very far from the capital to get a sense of just how emancipated India's most oppressed really are.

Shabbirpur, a village about 170 kilometers north of New Delhi, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, recently saw caste clashes that killed two people, injured dozens and left nearly 50 homes destroyed.

The violence erupted in May after Jatavs, a Dalit sub-caste, objected to a rally by upper-caste Thakurs to honour Maharana Pratap, a medieval king.

The Jatavs were angry that officials had earlier stopped them from recognizing one of their own revered leaders with a bust on the property of a local temple.

Half-burnt houses, collapsed roofs, smashed TV sets and destroyed motorcycles were left in the wake of the clashes that engulfed the Dalit quarter of the Thakur-dominated village.

"This country attained freedom 70 years ago, but the Dalit is not free yet," says Shivraj, a 61-year-old whose home was damaged.

"Discrimination, exclusion, intimidation and assaults are part of our daily lives. We are not considered Hindu, nor equals, or even human."

"We hear it's an all-Dalit contest, but it makes no difference to us," Shivraj says of the indirect elections in which the ceremonial position of president is chosen by federal and state lawmakers.

"The parties are just trying to appease Dalits with an eye on their votes," he continues. "Will the new president even have powers to stop atrocities against Dalits?"

India's caste system initially segregated people according to profession, then later by bloodline. It is considered the world's oldest system of social hierarchy, dating back more than 3,000 years. The priestly Brahmin caste were at the top of the ladder while Dalits were at the bottom.

Only a small percentage of India's 200 million Dalits have posts of power or affluence in the country of 1.3 billion.

Despite decades of affirmative action policies and laws to protect them, a vast majority of Dalits remain landless laborers, sweepers and scavengers. They face violence and discrimination borne of caste bias, particularly in rural areas.

According to Human Rights Watch, the treatment of Dalits is akin to a "hidden apartheid," as lower castes endure segregation in housing, schools and access to public services.

In Shabbirpur, Dalits accuse the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules at both the state and federal level, of backing the upper-caste Thakurs and failing to act against the culprits.

"The armed men got into our houses in broad daylight and beat us and set fire to our homes," says Dal Singh amid the rubble of his former residence, complaining that the perpetrators are allowed to "roam free."

The underlying local tensions have their roots in complex political equations.

Jatavs, a dominant Dalit sub-caste, are opposed to the BJP. Traditionally, the BJP has been an upper-caste party with origins in Hindu nationalism, which many Dalits and Muslims view as a threat to their way of life.

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