Supporters congratulate Ramdas Athawale who has been made Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment in a recent Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Photo by Bijat Kumar Minj)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reshuffled his cabinet to include more ministers of lower caste origin that Church officials say has nothing to do with social concerns but is an example of political point scoring.
"If the government was serious about the advancement of Dalits, why did it fail to have them in the ministry in the beginning when it came in power two years ago?" said Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops' office for Dalits and indigenous people.
Modi expanded his cabinet on July 5 by inducting 19 new ministers from 10 states, five of them Dalits.
The Sanskrit term Dalit means trampled upon and denotes the former untouchable castes within Hindu society. They are often the target of oppression and persecution.
Newcomers to the Hindu-nationalist party-led government also include a Sikh and a Muslim.
Father Ranjit Tigga, head of the Department of Tribal Studies of the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute said both the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the umbrella body of pro-Hindu groups — Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — have been trying to secure the Dalit vote for the party to boost its popularity.
The BJP, for a long time "took Dalits for granted," he said. "But the election results from Delhi and Bihar states showed that they need to take them seriously."
He said that the timing of the reshuffle shows that the BJP is targeting Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat states where state elections are due in 2017.
In order to come to power in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state of 199 million people, the BJP has to unseat a party that came to power speaking for Dalit welfare. Dalit votes are crucial in the state where some 80 percent people are Hindus, most of them from lower caste origins.
Mukti Prakash Tirkey, editor of a weekly on Dalit and tribal affairs published in New Delhi said, "the exercise shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party is wooing Dalits."
Dalits have largely voted for the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh in the last two decades.
The federal government now has 16 ministers from Uttar Pradesh, the maximum from any state in an apparent bid to keep voters there content, media reports said.
One new addition to the Indian Cabinet is Ramdas Athawale, who has been made Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment. He told ucanews.com that "I am committed to work for the Dalits and low classes of society."
Father Raj said that while Athawale is an able Dalit leader he can only hope that these ministers "will become the voice of the voiceless." He also expressed hope that the Dalit ministers also speak for the rights of Christian Dalits.