Christians seek political voice in India's Punjab state

Minority Christians are demanding rights and representation in the Sikh-dominated state
Christians seek political voice in India's Punjab state

Sunny Bawa (center), a Christian who is contesting the Indian general election for a seat from Punjab state, says a prayer as he begins his campaign. The state goes to the polls on May 19. (Photo supplied) reporter, Jalandhar
May 7, 2019
Christian leaders in India’s Punjab are making moves to get political attention as the community feels neglected in the ongoing parliamentary elections in the Sikh-majority state bordering Pakistan.

Most political parties have ignored their demands as electioneering heats up in the state for the May 19 polls, the last and seventh phase of national elections that began on April 11.

Christians are a minority and come from socially and politically weaker Dalit castes, while most also work as landless laborers or daily workers, said Albert Dua, who heads the Christian United Federation in Punjab.

“None of the political parties has campaigned among Christians for votes," he said.

The Indian National Congress party runs the state government but its national rival, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has aligned with the local Sikh-dominated Shiromani Akali Dal party to fight for the 13 seats the state is allocated in the national parliament.

The BJP and its allies are not seeking the votes of Christians as they are considered to be against the political ideology of the party to make India a Hindu-only nation.

The Congress party, on the other hand, takes Christian votes for granted because it believes Christians have no other choice, according to Dua, a member of Punjab State Commission for Minorities.

However, one Christian politician has decided to challenge this attitude this time.

Sunny Bawa, 30, who is contesting the Ferozepur constituency, said he worked for the Congress party for 17 years in various capacities but quit when no Christians were given representation in the Congress-run state government.

He said successive governments have also ignored the Christian community’s basic demand for burial grounds. They are also excluded from social welfare benefits meant for poor Dalit people on grounds that their religion does not practice the caste system, he said.

“We are residents of Punjab but we have no graveyards. The benefits of scholarship schemes are not given to Christian children. Even the funds received for the welfare of Christian minorities remain unutilized. Every community in Punjab is having congregation halls but there is no such facility for Christians," Bawa said.

Dua said Christian burials are often “quietly done on private land.” The Sikh religion prefers cremation to burial and farmers refuse to have burial grounds in their vicinity, fearing that they will pollute their farmland and water sources.

Munawar Masih, chairman of Punjab State Commission for Minorities, said Christians are living in utter poverty.

"We have been pressing for a survey of Christians in Punjab so that their poverty can come to the fore and due benefits can be given to them. But it's yet to be done," he said.

Masih said many Christians have stopped using their Christian names on records and use their Hindu names instead so that they can benefit from government schemes meant for Dalit people.

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Christians officially form 1.26 percent or roughly 350,000 of Punjab’s population of 27.7 million, but Christian leaders believe the Christian population is much more than the official census shows.

A survey conducted by the Punjab Christian United Forum claimed the state has some 4 million Christians or 15 percent of the population.

Bawa said governments deliberately record lower numbers to avoid giving Christians their due rights and recognition in decision-making bodies and governments.

Political parties do not want to give any importance to Christians in Punjab “because they don’t consider us anything,” Bawa said.

“This is the case specially with the Congress because it believes Christians have no option but to vote for the Congress," he added.

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