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Protesters march through Delhi in support of Dalits

Former 'untouchables' denied equal access to education, jobs

<p>A Dalit woman sleeping in the street. File picture: Wikimedia Commons</p>

A Dalit woman sleeping in the street. File picture: Wikimedia Commons

  • Ritu Sharma, New Delhi
  • India
  • August 13, 2014
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About 200 demonstrators gathered in New Delhi on Tuesday to protest against the treatment of Dalit Christians and Muslims.

Wearing black ribbons and holding black flags, the protesters shouted slogans against the federal government and demanded immediate action to resolve discrimination against the ethnic group. Organizers said they were planning a larger protest to demand quotas for non-Hindu Dalits for government jobs and educational opportunities.

"The fight against this discrimination needs to be taken to the streets. We need to raise people, not a handful, but hundreds and thousands. Only then the government will wake up," said Alwyn Masih, general secretary of the Church of North India synod.

Masih said that the protest needs to be carried on a wider scale, similar to the protest that took place last December in Delhi, when police used water cannons on dozens of bishops, priests and nuns who were protesting the treatment of Dalit Christians.

"It is time that the leadership should be ready to take the brunt and lead the masses to demand justice from the government," he said.

Christian Dalits are denied rights, which they say violates constitutional provisions that allow quotas in educational institutions and government jobs for the social advancement of Dalits, once considered "untouchable".

More than 60 percent of India's 25 million Christians are Dalits and their conversion has not changed their social or economic status, Christian leaders said. Moreover, discrimination of people on the basis of religion is also against the constitution, they said.

The Indian constitution guarantees a reservation of government jobs and places in educational institutions for underprivileged classes, but Christians and Muslims among these classes are denied such benefits on the grounds that their religions do not recognize the caste system.

Anwar Ali, a Muslim parliamentarian, was skeptical over the commitment of the newly appointed Indian government run by the Pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janta Party to resolve the issue. The party has always been against granting such quotas to Muslims and Christians.

"The government is afraid that more Hindu Dalits will convert to Christianity or Islam if these privileges are granted, dwindling the number of Hindus and making them a minority in the country," Ali said.

Ali said he does not expect the government to move favorably in the matter. "Only a massive demonstration can make the government listen. But we should also remember that our six-decades-long demands have fallen on deaf years."

Fr Z Devasagayaraj, secretary of the Indian bishops' office for Dalit and tribal people said that the Church was planning to approach regional parties in the states to put pressure on the Indian government.

"Major regional parties in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Bihar have come out in our support and we are trying to reach out to more and more such parties," he said.

The protest was organized by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the National Council of Churches in India, the Church of North India and the National Council of Dalit Christians.

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