'Untouchable' elected India's first woman speaker

India's parliament elected on Wednesday its first woman speaker, who is also a member of the low-caste Dalit community, an event hailed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a "historic occasion".

Meira Kumar, 64, was elected unopposed by a voice vote in India's 543-seat lower house of parliament, which includes 59 women MPs.

"For the first time a woman member has been elected speaker and that too a woman from the Dalit community," Singh said after Kumar had taken her seat of office.

"In electing you... we members of parliament pay tribute to the women of our country and the great contribution that they have made," he added.

A five-term MP, Kumar was a career diplomat who entered politics in 1985. In the April-May national polls, she was elected to parliament from the impoverished eastern state of Bihar.

Kumar had described her nomination as a "historic moment" for the country and an "overwhelming moment" for herself.

Her name was put forward by the Congress party following its resounding general election victory, which guaranteed that the party's nominee for speaker would be elected.

The task of the speaker in India's often volatile parliament can be an onerous one.

Rather than debate a bill that they oppose, MPs often storm the well of the house in large numbers and disrupt proceedings until the speaker is forced to adjourn the session.

Speaking after her election, Kumar urged lawmakers to express opinions and address their differences in a "gentle manner."

Earlier this week, premier Singh had urged MPs from all parties to observe a "new beginning" and allow parliament to function smoothly and without unnecessary interruption.

Political analyst Neerja Choudhury said Kumar's nomination was a "conscious decision" on the part of Congress to strengthen its support base among India's 160 million Dalits, also known as "untouchables".

In recent years, many Dalit voters have switched their support to regional parties with a specific "Dalit agenda" of alleviating the problems faced by India's lowest castes.

Shunned by higher castes, Dalits generally perform the lowliest occupations, including scavenging on rubbish dumps, and are the poorest in terms of income, literacy and land.

Naming Kumar as speaker "also projects the Congress as pro-women," said political analyst and author Rasheed Kidwai.

He recalled that the Congress in its previous term in office had been instrumental in elevating a woman, Pratibha Patil, to the post of India's president.

"With Sonia Gandhi heading the Congress, there is a concerted effort to woo voters along gender lines," Kidwai said.

"She seems to have the desired qualities of amiability, patience and commitment to fair play," the Hindu said.

A Siberian tiger cub is seen with its mother at a zoo in China. REUTERS/China Daily