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India's `untouchable' Christians push for protection

NEW DELHI — Franklin Caesar Thomas was one of India's millions of unlucky souls, born into a Dalit, or outcast, family that is the lowest of the low in this nation's rigid caste system.

His parents converted from Hinduism to Christianity, hoping for an escape. They sacrificed and saved to send their son to college for separate degrees in mechanical engineering and law.

Still, he was a Dalit, an “untouchable.” He was thrown out of a restaurant in his home town of Thirukattupalli, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for daring to sit near upper-caste Hindus.

“A grocer assaulted me for touching his hand as I gave him money for my purchase,” recalled Thomas, 45, a lump rising in his throat. “I told him I was an educated man, but he still thought I had made him `unclean.“'

A constitutional change passed more than a half-century ago was meant to provide some protection from discrimination for Hindu Dalits. But it doesn't cover those who, like Thomas, are converts to Christianity or Islam.

Known as the Presidential Order of 1950, the constitutional clause assumes that non-Hindu religions do not have a caste hierarchy, and therefore do not need protection. However, the order was amended in 1956 to include Sikh Dalits, and in 1990 to cover Buddhist Dalits — neither of which has a caste hierarchy.

Thomas is now a co-petitioner in an ongoing case before the Supreme Court of India that challenges protections for “Scheduled Castes” that guarantee welfare benefits and 15 percent of government jobs and seats in educational institutions. Seats in parliament and state assemblies are also reserved for the “Scheduled Castes” in proportion to their population.

As Thomas sees it, what is available to Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist Dalits should also be available to Christian or Muslim Dalits because it is their social class — not their religion — that dictates their treatment by society.

The Indian government was scheduled to consider the Dalit Christians' petition last month, but the hearing was delayed — again. The petition was first filed in March 2004.

“The hearing is reaching the same fate every day since then,” Thomas complained.

Last year, the government-appointed Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission recommended deletion of the 1950 order. But a final hearing “has been deferred four times since then because the government sought to consult other panels each time,” Thomas said.

The Rev. Cosmon Arokiaraj, who handles Dalit issues for the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, accuses the government of “delaying tactics.” He also said the ruling Indian National Congress party had “cheated” the nation's Christians by campaigning on the issue and then dropping it.

Party officials, however, deny they made any pledge.

“We have not promised anything, but we feel that Dalit Christians should get the rights, except the reservation (of seats) in the legislature,” Yogendra Makwana, the chairman of the party's Dalit front, said.

Joseph D'souza, international president of the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN), suspects the government's reluctance is due to strong objections raised by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the nation's main opposition party.

The fear is that many more Dalit Hindus would convert to Christianity if Dalit Christians were granted their demands — which in turn could inflame tensions between Christians and Hindu nationalists that have turned violent in recent weeks.

“There is no untouchability in Christianity,” said Satya Narayan Jatiya, a member of parliament from the Hindu opposition party who heads the party's Dalit front. “Why should Dalit Christians be included in the Scheduled Castes?”

Millions of Dalits have converted to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism in recent decades. An estimated 70 percent (about 17 million) of the nation's 23 million Christians are Dalits.

Thomas says his struggle is not just against the government, but also some Christian churches. Of the nation's 12,500 Catholic priests, only about 800 are from Dalit origins, he said, and fewer than 10 of the country's 169 Catholic bishops are Dalits.

In the town of Trichy in Tamil Nadu state, a wall separates upper-caste and Dalit graves in a Christian cemetery. “Some churches do not offer Holy Communion to Dalit Christians,” he said.

With the government's continued delays, and the five-year term of the United Progressive Alliance coalition government nearing its end, Thomas said Dalit Christians are beginning to lose hope.

“The hearing is likely to be deferred yet again,” he said. “… Will we ever get our rights?”