In India, Christian protest demands equal rights for dalits

In India, Christian protest demands equal rights for dalits

Amid heavy rain, more than 5,000 Christians and church leaders marched in New Delhi on 1 August and staged a five-hour sit-in near the Parliament building, demanding an end to the decades-old discrimination against Christian dalits.

The protest was organized by the National Council of Dalit Christians, supported by the Catholic church and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) that groups 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches.

“The government is crucifying us,” said dalit Roman Catholic archbishop Malayappan Chinnappa, who flew in from Chennai, addressing the sit-in attended by over a dozen bishops, members of the Indian parliament and prominent church leaders.

“Dalit” refers to low castes treated as “untouchables” under the caste system, which assigns social roles according to the caste one inhabits from birth. Dalits often perform menial jobs such as scavenging and latrine cleaning and are often victims of violence, according to human rights reports.

The government in 1950 reserved 15 per cent of the places in schools and government jobs as well as free education for Hindu dalits, while excluding non-Hindu dalits.

Though these privileges were later extended to Sikh dalits in 1956 and Buddhist dalits in 1990, protests by the Christian dalits have gone unanswered.

“The constitution and the courts also have failed to uphold our fundamental rights,” said Chinnappa, drawing applause from the protesters who had travelled as far as 2,000 kilometres.

“We have been denied justice for 60 years,” lamented Alvan Masih, general secretary of the Church of North India, addressing the protesters.

Several speakers called for boycotting the next national election, due in 2014, unless the government ended discrimination against Christian dalits.

“This is not only a cry for justice but a struggle for upholding the dignity and equality [guaranteed] under the constitution,” said the Rev. Deena Bandhu Manchala, World Council of Churches program executive for just and inclusive communities, addressing the ecumenical protest, which also included Muslims.

By Anto Akkara, Ecumenical News International

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