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Indian churches speak against discrimination faced by Dalits

Indian churches speak against discrimination faced by Dalits

NCCI meeting with Heiner Bielefeldt on issues of Christian and Muslim Dalit communities in India. © NCCI

26 February 2014

Member churches of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in India have expressed deep concern over discrimination faced by Christian and Muslim Dalit communities there, demanding protection of the right to freedom of religion in a meeting with Prof. Dr Heiner Bielefeldt, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The meeting attended by a number of church leaders, human rights activists, lawyers, academics, leaders of the Muslim community and representatives of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, was organized by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI).

Bielefeldt is currently visiting India until 27 February on invitation from the civil society organizations including the Indian Social Institute and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

According to a news report of the NCCI, Dr Ramesh Nathan from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights spoke about numerous forms of “untouchability” resulting from the caste system practiced in India. Nathan added that Dalit Christians are most vulnerable to caste-based violence but are not protected by the Prevention of Atrocities Act in the Indian constitution, which is meant to prevent atrocities against the scheduled castes.

The Indian constitution includes Dalits in the list of scheduled castes as the most marginalized communities who need protection. However when converted to Christianity or Islam, these individuals and communities are excluded from these protective and affirmative measures offered by the Indian government.

Haji Hafeez Ahmad Hawari, a representative of Muslim community shared at the NCCI meeting that his nomination to the national elections under the category of “caste with reserved constituency” was rejected because he is a follower of Islam.

Hawari said that he experienced discrimination within the Muslim community as well as in the larger society because he is a Dalit; and yet because of his religion affiliation he could not seek the position reserved in the Indian constitution for scheduled castes.

“Both Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslim are not considered Dalits by our government, and hence, they are denied affirmative action programmes that empower marginalized communities,” said Samuel Jayakumar, the NCCI’s executive secretary for the Commission on Policy, Governance and Public Witness, who chaired the meeting.

“We see this as religion based discrimination against Christian and Muslim Dalits in India,” he said.

Leila Passah, general secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of India also brought to the attention of the Special Rapporteur the “inhumane treatment meted out to the Dalit community by the Indian police, when they organized a peaceful protest in Delhi.”

She said “the police beat up protestors with sticks as Christian and Muslim leaders marched towards the Parliament House to hand over to the prime minster of India a memorandum of demands.”

Around 30 people were injured in this incident and several protestors including church leaders were detained in the police station on 11 December 2013, according to media reports.

Bielefeldt recognized issues of discrimination against Dalits in India, calling religious conversion a test case for freedom of religion. He added that the right to equality has been denied to the Dalit community in India and they cannot be forced to follow a particular religion.

Bielefeldt assured participants in the meeting that the UN human rights mechanism will continue to raise these issues at their forums.

NCCI news release on Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in India

Solidarity with Dalits for justice and dignity

WCC member churches in India