NEW DELHI – Hundreds of Dalit Christians and Muslims held a march in New Delhi demanding to include them in government’s reservation programs determined for disadvantaged groups of other religions.
Some 500 Christians and Muslims who belong to former untouchable communities came together in New Delhi on March 12, two days after the schedule for the April-May general elections were announced.
“The country is in election mood. We want to put across our demands to the government that they consider the rights of our Dalit Christian and Muslim brethren,” said Father Devasagaya Raj, secretary of the Indian bishops’ office for Dalit and socially disadvantaged people at the gathering.
Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin demand that they be given social welfare benefits meant for the uplift of Dalit people. Both communities have been denied these benefits since 1950 because the government says their religions do not follow the caste system.
“Six decades is not a small period [that] we have been suffering this injustice,” said Father Raj. “There is a limit for everything. We have decided that we will support a political party who will put our demands in their election manifesto.”
Buddhism and Sikhism also do not approve of the caste system, but they both were included after the government accepted their argument that a mere change of religion does not change a person’s socio-economic situation.
“We were about 1000 people. We are making an appeal to all parties ahead of the next general election, which we will also send in writing,” Fr Z Devasagayaraj was quoted by AsiaNews as saying.
The rally, he noted, “was an ecumenical protest. We had the support of all Christian Churches, Catholics and Protestants together. With us, Muslim Dalit leaders have also spoken out. Muslims suffer the same discrimination and exclusion that we have been suffering for centuries. It’s a shame!”
“Most of the political parties have promised to consider our demand but no one has kept their word when they come to power. We want a firm promise now,” Father Raj said.
Four Catholic bishops were present as were members of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), an umbrella organisation for various Dalit Christian group; the National Council of Churches in India (Protestants and Orthodox); and the Muslim All India Jamiat Ul- Hawareen (AIJH).
From a legal point of view, Christian Dalits are excluded from the benefits granted to the outcastes of other religious groups in terms of quotas in education, jobs and politics.
The Indian Church has always protested against this exclusion of converts to Christianity and has fought to see the right to study and work extended to the poorest groups in society. In February, the bishops reiterated the urgency to implement programmes aimed at outcastes.
Fr Devasagayaraj notes that “Discrimination against former Christian untouchables goes against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, against the Indian Constitution, which states that all citizens are equal, and against international treaties that affirm freedom of religion.”