Leaders call for an end to 69 years of injustice without social benefits
Indian Christians of socially poor Dalit groups observed a “black day” to highlight what they call state discrimination that denies them statutory social benefits because of their Christian faith.
Dalit leaders gathered in New Delhi on Aug. 10 to mark the 69th anniversary of then-president Rajendra Prasad signing a 1950 order that only Dalit people belonging to the Hindu religion should be considered Dalits.
“We all know that justice delayed is justice denied. Yes, it is a long wait but we should not lose hope,” Father Vijay Kumar Nayak, secretary of the Indian bishops’ office for Dalits and lower classes, told the gathering.
The presidential order effectively reserved social benefits, specified in the constitution for the advancement of Dalit people, only to Hindus. It was amended twice — in 1956 and 1990 — to include Sikhs and Buddhists, but Muslim and Christian Dalits continue to be excluded from benefits.
For the past two decades, Indian bishops have designated Aug. 10 as a “black day” to highlight the injustice. Father Nayak said the day, or a Sunday near it, is observed with special liturgy and programs in most parishes to make people aware of the ongoing discrimination and injustice.
Dalit groups have been demanding an amendment to the order to include Christians and Muslims for benefits such as free education and reservation of places in higher education and government jobs.
The government maintains that Christians and Muslims cannot have Dalits among them because these religions follow no caste system.
“The injustice has to be taken personally because until it pinches you, you will not realize the pain of our fellow brethren,” Father Nayak told some 200 leaders gathered just a kilometer away from India’s parliament.
Indian bishops organized the protest along with the National Council of Churches (NCCI) and National Council of Dalit Christians.
Dalit leader Vincent Manoharan, convenor of National Dalit Christian Watch, said this was “the longest struggle in the history of Dalit Christians. We have been running from pillar to post” to be considered Dalit people.
He said social and economic poverty do not change with the conversion of faith. “A Dalit is always considered Dalit and socially looked down upon,” he said.
The word “Dalit” means “trampled upon” in Sanskrit and refers to people once considered untouchable and outside the four-tier Indian caste system.
Government data shows that 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this socially deprived group. About 60 percent of India’s 27 million Christians are of Dalit or tribal origin.
Several commissions appointed by the government have recommended granting social benefits to Dalit Christians and Muslims.
In 2007, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, popularly known as the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission, termed the 1950 presidential order “unconstitutional” and recommended the government amend it.
Many believe political parties are reluctant to do so because they fear a backlash from Hindu groups that oppose extending benefits to Christians and Muslims.
They are concerned that such a step will eat into the share enjoyed by Dalit Hindus and fear it will encourage more Dalit Hindus to convert to Christianity, Christian leaders said.
In April 2014, Dalit Christian groups approached India’s top court seeking justice. The next hearing of the case is scheduled for next month.
Presentation Sister Anastasia Gill, a member of the Delhi Minority Commission, told ucanews.com that a lack of unity among Christians is part of the issue.
“We are not united. Had we been united, things would have been different,” she said, noting that in a democracy like India “the number of people making noise is always counted.”
Pradip Bansrior, executive NCCI secretary for Dalit and tribal people, said: “Let our house be in order first. We have to leave our differences and unite as one church and fight for justice.”