INDIA: March and message highlight plight of Dalit Christians

March 17, 2010

Churches in India are calling for equality and justice for discriminated and marginalized communities in a Lenten campaign that has started in the world's second most populous nation.

It has a message that cites the words of Jesus in Mark's Gospel (15:34), who, when he had been crucified, cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

"The cry of Jesus strengthens the voiceless and powerless communities, for it gives courage to be expressive and to voice out their pain," says the fourth Lenten reflection of the National Council of Churches in India, a grouping of 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches.

"In our times today, when the doors of hope are closed from every corner to communities that have been dying under the rubric of discrimination and oppression, to cry out one's frustration is also to invoke hope," said the Rev. Raj Bharath Patta, secretary of the NCCI Commission on Dalits, in the Lenten reflection released on March 10.

Patta told Ecumenical News International on March 11 from the NCCI headquarters at Nagpur in central India, "Just as Jesus was helpless and crying out from the cross, the Dalits and other oppressed communities are crying out for justice."

Dalit literally means "trampled upon," and refers to low castes treated as "untouchables" in caste-ridden Indian society. Discrimination against Dalits is outlawed by law but exists in practice. They do menial jobs, while living segregated from higher castes in rural areas.

In 1950, the Indian government made Hindu Dalits eligible for free education, and established a quota for them in government jobs in order to improve their social status. While these statutory benefits were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and to Buddhist Dalits in 1990, they are denied to Muslim Dalits and Christian Dalits.

Patta's Lenten reflection followed a March 6-7 seminar in New Delhi on, "Building Inclusive India: Overcoming Social and Religious Discriminations." It was organized by the National Coordination Committee for Dalit Christians, a joint activity of the NCCI and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

The NCCI official noted, "Like the state, the churches are also accountable for the discrimination faced by the Dalits within our structures."

Meanwhile, police in southern Tamil Nadu state stopped the concluding leg of a month-long, 800 kilometers Dalit Christian march through the state to draw attention to the continued discrimination against them.

Local residents said that when the march reached the state capital, Chennai, on March 5, police arrested about 50 "walkers" along with 2,000 others. They included priests and nuns led by three senior Catholic bishops, who had joined the demonstrators on the final leg of the march, which was due to end with a rally in the city.

News reports said the police made the arrests on the pretext that the march through the city would have caused a traffic jam. After holding the marchers for some hours, the police are said to have transported them to the rally venue in the evening.

"We are shocked that this is the way the government is responding to the legitimate democratic struggles of the peace-loving Christian community," the Rev. Cosmon Arokiaraj, executive secretary of the CBCI Dalit Commission, said after the police action.