Thousands of Christians and Muslims gathered for a demonstration of national protest on March 12, 2019, in New Delhi, to demand an end to discrimination and legitimate rights for Dalits and outcasts. As reported to Fides News Agency by Mary John, president of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), organizer of the event: “The time has come for the status of ‘Scheduled Castes’ to be granted to Christian Dalits and Muslims.”
The demonstration was attended by political leaders, members of Parliament, bishops and church leaders, Dalit leaders not only Christians and Muslims, human rights activists.
A.C. Michael, a human rights activist and a Catholic secular leader, defines “an absurdity that some groups of Indian citizens, among the most disadvantaged, are denied the right to access reserved places in schools or in workplace, or access to other benefits, established by law, only because they practice the Christian faith and Islam.”
In 1935 the British, who then ruled India, in order to help heal the ancient social discrimination, a systemic problem in India, granted special privileges to the citizens who were part of the lower castes or to the outcasts (the Dalits). These benefits did not depend on the religion professed and therefore included people who belonged to various religions (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs).
However, in 1950 a Presidential Order revised those rights and granted the status of “Scheduled Castes” only to Dalits of Hindu religion, stating that that no person professing a religion other than Hinduism would be considered a “member of a recognized caste.” That order was later modified twice (in 1956 and 1990) including the Sikh and Buddhist Dalits, excluding Christians and Muslims.
“We have been asking to review this discriminating rule for a long time. A civil petition was filed at the Supreme Court of India, contesting the constitutional validity of paragraph 3 of the 1950 Order of the Constitution and is still pending”, Mary John said.
The national Commission for religious and linguistic minorities, a governmental body, conducted a study, on a national basis, on the socio-economic and educational backwardness of Christian and Muslim communities in India, confirming the economic, social and cultural backwardness in a relationship of Christians and Muslims belonging to the lower castes. The Commission recommended extending the status of “Scheduled Castes” to allow them access to rights and benefits that contribute to their development and social promotion. Despite these recommendations, there has so far been no positive action by the government to address the issue, which has been repeatedly reported by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), which brings together Protestant Christian Churches, and other civil society organizations.
“In this context and in the light of the upcoming general elections of 2019, we organized this public demonstration, asking the government of the Union for an intervention in this regard,” said Mary John.
According to official estimates, over 300 million people in India (around 25% of the 1.3 billion people in India) are “Dalits” (or outcasts). They are socially, economically, culturally, politically backward and marginalized. Many Christians and Muslims in India were born into “Dalit” communities and continue to experience the exclusion and stigma of untouchability.