GENEVA, March 9 (Reuters) - A U.N. human rights watchdog called on India on Friday to halt racial discrimination against lower castes which it said were victims of arbitrary arrests, rapes and killings, as well as land evictions.
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said the more than 160 million Dalits -- once known as "untouchables" -- should be granted equal access to places of worship, hospitals, water sources and education.
Its 18 independent experts, who issued their recommendations after examining the records of 13 countries including India at a four-week meeting, said that New Delhi should report back on progress in a year.
The committee voiced concern at "reports of arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings of members of the ... (formerly untouchable) ... castes and tribes by the police, and about the frequent failure to protect these groups against acts of communal violence".
It was concerned at "the alarming number of allegations of acts of sexual violence against Dalit women primarily by men from dominant castes ... and about the sexual exploitation of Dalit and tribal women who are being trafficked and forced into prostitution," it added.
Dalits make up around 160 million of mainly Hindu India’s 1.1 billion population. Despite efforts to tackle prejudice, the age-old caste hierarchy still divides society.
The New York-based activist group Human Rights Watch issued a report last month saying Dalits were "condemned to a lifetime of abuse simply because of their caste".
Solicitor-General Goolam Vahanvati, who led India’s delegation to the Geneva meeting, argued the caste system was not racial in origin.
This meant the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination -- which India has ratified -- did not apply to castes, although the constitution banned both race and caste as bases for discrimination, he said.
The U.N. body disagreed, declaring discrimination based on the ground of caste was "fully covered" by the 1965 pact.
India said its National Human Rights Commission had handled more than 70,000 complaints since being set up in 1993, but no violation because of racial discrimination had come to light.