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India's Dalit Christians may come in from the cold

Election campaign has seen parties pledge to end discrimination over welfare benefits

Umar Manzoor Shah, New Delhi

Umar Manzoor Shah, New Delhi

Published: April 21, 2019 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: April 22, 2019 05:23 AM GMT

India's Dalit Christians may come in from the cold

A security official stands guard as people queue to vote on April 18 in India's elections. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)

Ending the denial of social welfare benefits to Dalit Christians, who hail from a group formerly known as untouchables, is among the undertakings given during campaigning for India's national parliamentary election.

For almost seven decades, political parties have ignored the demands of Christians of Dalit origin for welfare measures enjoyed by others, particularly Hindus.

"This has been a long-pending demand of the Catholic Church and we are happy some political parties are now raising this issue and making this part of their election manifestos," said Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary-general of the Indian bishops' conference.

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He was referring in part to a statement by Chandra Babu Naidu, chief minister of India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh, who told representatives of various churches that he would end discrimination based on religion.

Naidu has been consistent in supporting Dalit Christians, but some critics see his latest statement as a ploy to weaken political rival Jagan Mohan Reddy, who enjoys the support of many Christian Dalits.

A non-binding resolution was passed in the state legislature on Feb. 6 asking the federal government to respond positively to Dalit Christians' demand for welfare benefits.

Naidu's regional party is an ally of the Indian National Congress party, archrival of Prime minister Narendra Modi's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP has been accused of ignoring Dalit demands on the welfare issue since it came to power nationally in 2014.

Bishop Mascarenhas, in relation to Naidu's offer, sounded a note of caution, stating that equality rather than special provisions was being sought.

"We want the law to be equal for all," he told ucanews.com. "Christians do not want money or any other financial doles. All we want is security and dignity as equal citizens of the country as guaranteed in the constitution."

India's constitution provides for the uplifting of socially and economically weak sections of the population by allowing quotas in jobs and educational institutions as well as direct financial support for students.

But Christians of Dalit origin are denied many benefits on grounds that their religion does not follow the Hindu caste system.

The discrimination began in 1950 when a presidential order restricted benefits to Hindu Dalits. In 1956 Dalit Sikhs were added and in 1990 benefits were extended to Dalit Buddhists, although these religions also speak for an egalitarian society without caste.

A petition challenging the presidential order of 1950 has been pending in the Supreme Court since 2011. The court is examining whether these benefits should be extended to Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin.

The Indian National Congress party and its allies are working to unseat the BJP government in New Delhi in a seven-phase election that began on April 11 and is scheduled to conclude on May 19.

A political party based in northern state Uttar Pradesh — Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party — on April 6 endorsed the long-standing demand for benefits of Christians and Muslims.

Andhra Pradesh state's chief minister has promised a special government package to build churches and houses for pastors.

Allen Brooks, a spokesman for Assam state's Christian Forum, said Dalit Christians live in the same poor social and economic conditions as Dalits of other faiths. "One wonders why they are punished for accepting Christianity as their faith," he said.

Brooks told ucanews.com that it was a positive development that among the promises of access to good roads, universities and jobs, politically empowering Dalit Christians is now finding a place in poll manifestos.

Another Christian leader, Joseph Dias, said besides allowing quota benefits for Dalit Christians, the government should financially assist deserving Christians.

"The Christian community is left out in India," he said, adding that poor Christians like Muslims should have separate financial corporations to take care of them.

Dias said he wanted the government to fund poor Christians to conduct pilgrimages to the Holy Land just as Muslims are assisted for their pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

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