Protesters bang drum for Christian Dalits' rights

March through Indian capital aims to 'wake up' government to group's lack of social benefits
Protesters bang drum for Christian Dalits' rights

An artist from Tamil Nadu performs at a New Delhi demonstration on Dec. 4 demanding social benefits for Dalit people that are denied to them because of their Christian faith. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj)

Beating their drums, some 200 socially poor Dalit people marched through the streets of Indian capital New Delhi on Dec. 4 in a novel form of protest to demand that they be given social benefits denied to them because of their Christian faith.

Participants in the "the drum, dance, demonstration" played their drums near parliament to demand that the government withdraw a 1950 presidential order that said only Dalits of Hindu religion should be given social security benefits meant for Dalit people's advancement.

"Government comes and goes, and we get only false promises. Several protest rallies and marches in the past were useless. Now we play our drums to wake up the sleeping government," said Father A. Arputharaj, a protest organizer from Pondicherry and Cuddalore Archdiocese in Tamil Nadu.

The Indian constitution has special provisions to assist Dalit people's educational and social advancement with financial aid and reserved seats in jobs and educational institutions. But Dalit Christians and Muslims are denied these rights on grounds that their religions are caste-free.

The 1950 order was twice amended to include Dalit people of Sikh and Buddhist religions for these benefits. "But Dalit Christians and Muslims continue to suffer because of discrimination based on religion," Father Arputharaj said. "The government refuses to hear us, so we chose a louder medium to make them hear us."

An estimated 30 percent of India's 28 million Christians come from Dalit backgrounds but they speak different languages as they are scattered across India.

"We are united and will fight until we get our rights. It is the best time to raise our voices as the general elections are due next year and the winter session of parliament is scheduled to start on Dec. 11," said Father Arputharaj.

The protest was organized by the Dalit Christian Artists Coordination Committee from Tamil Nadu in collaboration with the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

A case challenging the constitutional validity of the 1950 order has been pending in the Supreme Court of India since 2004.

Dalit leaders say different government commissions that studied the issue have recommended enlisting Dalit Christians and Muslims for statutory benefits.

Some Christian leaders like A.C. Michael have told ucanews.com that governments fear that allowing reservations for Dalit Christians and Muslims will make them unpopular as the move would reduce the share of majority Hindus.

Pro-Hindu groups are opposed to allowing benefits to Dalit Christians as it might encourage Hindu Dalits to become Christians. Many suspect what blocks Dalit people from becoming Christians is the fear of losing the benefits, Michael said.

Dalits, or the former untouchables, are the lowest caste within Hindu society. Although large numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam to escape the rigid caste system, social prejudice against them continues in their new religions too, Father Arputharaj said.

"They are doubly oppressed now. They continue to suffer social neglect and government neglect," said Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, secretary of the Indian bishops' Office for Dalits and Indigenous People.

"We are also trying to contact regional political parties to put our demand in their election manifestos."

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Muslim leader Ali Anwar told ucanews.com that it is a sad situation that successive governments have not heeded the cry of poor Christians and Muslims.

Anwar, a former member of parliament, said Dalit Christians and Muslims should "unite and fight because alone we are weak." 

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