Protesters demand rights for dalit Christians and Muslims outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi, on August 10. (Photo by Ritu Sharma)
About 100 protesters gathered in New Delhi to demand special rights for dalit Christians and Muslims, including quotas for places in educational institutions and government jobs, as enjoyed by their Hindu counterparts.
Marking what they call “Black Day,” the demonstrators, including Catholic priests and nuns, waved black flags and shouted slogans outside the Sacred Heart Cathedral in the capital Aug. 10, demanding the government immediately resolve the issue.
Black Day is observed by dalit Christians across India every Aug. 10 because of a 1950 presidential decree that day denying special rights to non-Hindus.
The Indian constitution guarantees a reservation of government jobs and places in educational institutions for dalits (former “untouchables") and other underprivileged classes.
However, Christian and Muslim dalits are denied these benefits on the grounds that their religions do not recognize the caste system.
“There is no untouchability in any religion but it exists in the soil of India. Indian Christians live in a society where people are discriminated against on this basis,” John Dayal*, a member of the National Integration Council, told ucanews.com.
The council consists of senior politicians and leading figures and looks at addressing problems resulting from castes and sectarianism.
“A dalit cannot admit he or she is a Christian. If they do, they will lose their job, scholarship or place in the university they gained for being a dalit,” Dayal said.
At present, 12 state governments and union territories have recommended that the federal government grant special rights to dalit Christians and Muslims. Most national and regional political parties also support the move.
Protesters in New Delhi demanded access to special rights for dalit Christians and Muslims Aug. 10. (Video by Ritu Sharma)
However, the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) is opposed to granting special rights to dalit Christians and Muslims, saying it would encourage religious conversions.
Federal minister for social justice Thawar Chand Gehlot called the demand “unconstitutional” last October.
“They left the Hindu fold to escape the scourge of untouchability as it did not exist [in Islam and Christianity]. Their conversion solved the problems they faced as Hindus so they should not ask for caste status,” he said.
Protesters in Delhi said the government is sending out the wrong message by not agreeing to their demands.
“The government has ignored our demands. This is religion-based discrimination,” said Ali Anwar, a parliamentarian.
Fr Z. Devasagaya Raj, secretary of the office for dalits and lower classes of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and one of the protest organizers, said the government is showing a lack of understanding about the needs of minority religions.
He added that the government is not presenting the right argument when it says only the Hindu religion has the caste system.
“They do not understand the social realities of dalit Christians. I hope that they will have some sense of justice,” he said.
He also pointed out that the government is wrong in thinking people will convert to Christianity and Islam if dalits from these communities are granted special rights.
“By saying this, they are undermining their own religion. People do not convert on a whim," he said, adding that people don’t change religion unless they are convinced by the faith.
Christian leaders estimate that at least half of India’s 23 million Christians are of dalit origin.
* John Dayal is a member of ucanews.com's board of directors and also an occasional op-ed contributor.