NEW DELHI — The campaign to end the discrimination against dalit Christians took a dramatic turn in India as Christians threatened to turn against the secular Congress Party that has ruled the country for 50 of the last 60 years.
The resolution was part of the observance of “black day” Aug. 10 to mark the 61st anniversary of the state-sanctioned discrimination against Christian dalits.
“Dalit” literally means “trampled upon” and refers to low castes in India treated as “untouchables.” Dalits eke out a living by carrying out menial jobs while living in segregation from upper castes in rural areas.
“If the government does not concretely act upon our demands … we will be forced not to support the Congress Party anymore,” warned a memorandum from churches and Christian groups from across the country that was dispatched to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Aug. 10.
On Aug. 10, 1950, the federal government enacted special legislation paving the way for the constitutional discrimination against dalit Christians. For 60 years, the government also listed Hindu dalits as a “scheduled caste” and made them eligible for free education and quotas in government jobs and legislatures to improve their social status.
While the scheduled caste privileges were extended to Sikh dalits in 1956 and Buddhist dalits in 1990, they have been denied to Muslim and Christian dalits, which account for nearly two-thirds of the 27 million Christians in India. Christians account for 2.3% of India’s 1.2 billion people.
Despite intermittent protests led by the Christians against the so-called undeclared apartheid against Christian dalits, successive governments have ignored the Christian demand. Hindu groups oppose the inclusion of Christian dalits in the scheduled caste category, fearing mass conversion to Christianity.
“In many places, the bishops themselves led the ‘black day’ protests,” said Father Cosmon Arokiaraj, secretary of the Dalit Commission of Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), from Lalgudi in southern Tamil Nadu state, where he led more than 1,000 Christians to mark the protest.
The countrywide protest of more than 100,000 people, wearing black badges and raising black flags, followed the July 25-28 hunger strike and march to Parliament in New Delhi. The protest was attended by nearly 50 bishops — most of them Catholic.
Frustrated by the indifference of the government to the dalit Christians’ pleas for justice, the public meeting at the end of the march to Parliament on July 28 saw prominent dalit Christian leaders calling for voting against the ruling party that has been traditionally favored by Indian Christians.
A memorandum to Singh, who heads the federal coalition government led by the Congress Party, stated: “The dalit Christians who have been consistently voting for the Congress [Party] … have become disappointed and disillusioned. They feel that the Congress government has let them down and betrayed their hopes.”
The memorandum, signed by Church officials, members of the National Council of Churches in India, and a network of dalit Christian activists, cited the report of a key commission that confirmed that dalit Christians are “living in abject poverty and squalor, engaged in demeaning occupations to keep body and soul together, and bereft of sanitation, medical aid and other facilities.”
“To deny them the constitutional protection … solely by reason of change of faith or religion is to endanger the very concept of secularism and the raison d’etre of reservation,” the Mandal Commission noted.
The Mandal Commission was appointed by the federal government in 1979 “to identify the socially or educationally backward” communities and to consider the question of legislative seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination, and used 11 social, economic and educational indicators to determine backwardness.
The implementation of the recommendation of the Mandal Commission in 1990 had led to widespread protests and violence by students from dominant upper-caste communities who were opposed to raising caste-based quota from 22.5% to 49.5% in educational institutions and government jobs for Other Backward Communities (OBCs).
At a public gathering at the culmination of the more than three-mile procession Aug. 10, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Indian bishops’ conference, described the continued neglect of the Christian demand for equal rights as “blatant discrimination.” The cardinal flew in from the Vatican specifically for the occasion.
“This is nothing but a contradiction of the secularism guaranteed by the constitution. How can a secular state discriminate against a section of the people on the basis of religion?” Cardinal Gracias said.
When asked for his reaction to angry Christians threatening to boycott the Congress Party, Cardinal Gracias said this showed “the anguish and frustration of our people.”
“If the government wanted, it could have ended this discrimination long ago,” said Franklin Caesar, a dalit Catholic whose petition against the discrimination has been pending in the federal Supreme Court since 2004, Aug. 8.
“Each time the [Congress-led coalition] government is asked to make its stand clear on the issue by the Supreme Court, the government adopts evasive tactics,” said Caesar, who moved to New Delhi from southern Tamil Nadu to fight the case effectively.
Despite all major political parties except Hindu-nationalist BJP endorsing the Christians’ demand, Caesar pointed out that the federal government is reluctant “to take the political risk by conceding our demand, as it could be exploited politically by the BJP.”
“The Congress [Party] wants the court to give the verdict in our favor so that they can bring in necessary amendments. Unfortunately, we are the losers in this political game,” said Caesar.
“It is now clear that the Congress Party itself is the obstacle to justice to the dalits. The government is more worried about the political fallout than the suffering of our people,” said Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi. “This is really frustrating. I have gone in over a dozen delegations, to the prime minister, the president [of India] and other senior ministers. Each time they would make solemn assurances, but nothing has happened so far. Since we are a minuscule minority, they are taking us for a ride.”
Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.