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India's premier meets demonstrators, promises action on anti-Christian discrimination

Catholic World News - December 12, 2013

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met on December 12 with Archbishop Anil Couto of New Delhi and a group of other Christian and Muslim leaders who had been arrested the previous day during demonstrations demanding equal rights for minority dalits.

"The prime minister listened to us with all frankness and complete concern for the issue,” the archbishop reported after the meeting. “He has promised to place the issue before the cabinet and do whatever he can in his power to see that the issue is resolved.”

Decades of Christian protests for an end to the discrimination against Christian dalits came to a climax on December 11 when over 400 protesters, including half a dozen Catholic bishops, were arrested. The arrests came after the protesters, including leaders of several religious denominations, broke through police barricades and marched to the parliament shouting, “We want justice.” Dalit--the word means “trampled upon” in Sanskrit—is a term that refers to the low castes that were treated as “untouchables” under the old stratified social system in India. Dalits were confined to menial labor, and expected to live apart from the upper castes. In an effort to remedy past wrongs, in Indian government in 1950 offered a system of “reservation” in which dalits received preferential treatment in applying for school positions or government jobs. But those preferences applied only to Hindu dalits. Later the “reservations” were extended to Sikhs and Buddhists, but Christians and Muslims are still excluded.

Ending that discrimination has been a high priority for the Church in India —especially since dalits account for two-thirds of the country’s 27 million Christians. “We cannot just go on waiting patiently infinitely,” said Father Z. Devasagayraj, secretary of the Dalit Commission of the Indian bishops’ conference.

As the December 11 protest march neared the parliament building, police charged into the crowd of demonstrators, beating some with clubs. Other demonstrators were doused with muddy water, sprayed by the police through water cannons. Still the protests continued until police arrested over 400 participants.

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