India's Parliament elects first woman speaker

NEW DELHI – India's Parliament on Wednesday elected its first-ever female speaker, the daughter of a former deputy prime minister and an untouchable — a member of India's lowest caste.

Meira Kumar, 64, was elected unopposed and immediately assumed her post. She replaces Somnath Chaterjee, a member of the Brahmin caste, India's highest. He belonged to the Communist Party of India Marxist until he was expelled following a dispute with party leadership last year.

Lawmakers thumped their desks to cheer Kumar as she was congratulated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.

She is the daughter of Babu Jagjivan Ram, a former deputy prime minister and a prominent leader of the Dalits — known also as the untouchables — who sit on the lowest rung of India's complex caste system.

A lawyer by training, she has been elected to Parliament five times and has also served as social justice minister. She gave up her job as a career diplomat to enter politics.

As speaker, Kumar presides over India's powerful lower house of Parliament, or Lok Sabha. The body opened its first session Monday.

The speaker's job is a difficult one in India's often rowdy Parliament. Previous speakers were often forced to issue sharp reprimands or walk out when members shouted slogans and bickered, especially over contentious legislation.

Kumar's election is seen as a political move that will likely boost the Congress party's image as pro-female and a supporter of the rights of the lower castes. The party chose Pratibha Patil as president — the country's first female head of state — in 2007.

But women's rights activists welcomed the election.

Ranjana Kumari, the director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research, said it was "indicative of greater acceptance for women's leadership."

India has had other women in positions of power — most notably Indira Gandhi, who was elected prime minister in 1966 — but women still face a great deal of everyday discrimination.

Daughters are often considered a burden — mostly because tradition requires a bride's family to pay the groom's family a large dowry of cash and gifts. Their education is also often neglected, and many do not get adequate medical treatment.

The Hindu caste system divides India's people into four hierarchical groups, with hundreds of sub-castes within each, most drawn along occupational lines. Disputes between different castes are a common cause of violence.

Caste discrimination was outlawed soon after India's independence from Britain in 1947. Nevertheless it remains an influential force in Indian society, and the government sets quotas for jobs and university spots for different castes.

A Congress-led coalition won national elections that ended May 16, capturing more seats than most analysts predicted.

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