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by Anto Akkara EWTN News

NEW DELHI (CWN) -- The Indian government's move to extend special statutory benefits to Christians of low caste origin failed March 12 when the Speaker of Lok Sabha (the lower house of the federal parliament) disallowed the "backdoor" introduction of the Dalit Christian bill on the last day of the 10th federal parliament.

Shivraj Patil, Lok Sabha Speaker, stalled the government's eleventh-hour move to extend Scheduled Caste benefits to Christian "dalits" on election eve, explaining that the government had not followed the mandatory seven-day notice to the Speaker and two-day notice to parliament members.

"Dalit" in Sanskrit means "trampled upon" and refers to low castes (officially called Scheduled Castes) once treated as "untouchables" in India's caste-ridden society. Scheduled Castes (SC) are entitled to free education, preference in government jobs (with 15 percent of the positions reserved for them), and a special quota of seats in the country's legislatures. All these efforts are aimed to improve their socio-economic status.

A 1950 constitutional amendment made Hindu low castes eligible for SC benefits. These statutory benefits were extended to Sikh dalits in 1956, while Buddhists were added to the SC list in 1990.

However Christian Dalits, who comprise more than 60 percent of India's 21 million Christian population (with Catholics accounting for 15 million) are denied these statutory benefits on the ground that Christianity caste discrimination does not occur within Christianity.

Most opposition parties-- with the exception of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-- welcomed the government's effort to extend SC benefits to the Christian Dalits, although some questioned aloud whether the move had been made with an eye on the forthcoming elections. But the Hindu revivalist party challenged the very rationale of the legislation.

This opposition had nothing to do with the procedural problems the Speaker mentioned. BJP members objected to the bill in principle, arguing that SC benefits "cannot be extended to a community which is not expected to have castes."

However, even Christian leaders acknowledge that conversion to Christianity has not led to change in the social status of low castes. "Christian low castes continue to suffer the same social and economic disabilities as their brethren professiing Hindu or other faiths," asserts Father Lourdusamy, who heads a committee on the castes for the Indian bishops' conference.

Father Lourdusamy, himself a Dalit, admits that caste consicousness is yet to be wiped out among Christians. There are still caste-based cemeteries in some places, and high-caste Christians are still reluctant to marry dalit Christians. Although they comprise moe than 60 percent of the Christian population, Dalit Christians account for only 3 percent of clergy.

Father George Pereira, deputy secretary general of the bishops' conference, described the parliamentary action on the bill as "most deplorable" and charged that "it shows the insincerity of the government."

"The Christian community had placed high hopes in the government but it has betrayed the trust we have shown," said Father Pereira. "I don't think the government is serious about the Christian demand," agreed Peter Marbaniang, a member of parliament for the ruling Congress Party and president of the All India Catholic Union, the national Catholic lay network.

Marbaniang, representing northeastern Shillong, told us that he had "personally" met the prime minister at least ten times, as well the federal welfare minister, and asked repeatedly for the introduction of the Dalit bill. "But they never did anything until the last moment," he reported.

As a result, this Catholic leader in the ruling Congress party cautioned that his party will have to pay "a heavy price for ignoring the four-decade-old Christian demand" in the forthcoming general elections scheduled for April and May.

Father George Pereira, the deputy secretary general of the bishops' conference, said that "maybe the government wanted to impress the voters, as the bishops have given a clear call to voters to vote only for political parties which support the Christian demand."

At their biennial meeting, held in February, the bishops had issued an aggressive strategic guide for the nation's 15 million Catholics to vote only for parties and candidates who stood for the poor and the oppressed sections of society. That was an unprecedented move; in earlier years the bishops' directives has stopped at asking Catholics to support political parties which were not antagonistic to Christian faith and interests.

In a fax message to the prime minister, the bishops' spokesman warned that "the grieved Christians will manifest their anguish and displeasure in the forthcoming elections if you do not anounce an ordinance as soon as possible and render justice to Christians."

Father Pereira pointed out that while Christians cannot win parliamentary seats of their own, their votes can determine the fate of several candidates, especially in southern India with its high Christian Dalit concentration.

Critics say the strong Church reaction to the parliamentary drama is a follow-up to the Indian churches' intensive country-wide campaign during November of 1995, when a series of protest demonstrations across the country included a one-day closure of the 20,000 Christian educational institutions and a mass fast by the bishops.

The inauguration of the Christian campign on November 18 was a media hit, with Nobel Peace laureate Mother Teresa participating in the all-religious prayer meeting at New Delhi's Sacred Heart Cathedral. But following criticism by a section of the media about her participation in the Chritian campaign, Mother Teresa called a press conference to distance herself from the political struggle. The political leaders spearheading the Christian crusade for justice for Dalit Christians complain that Mother Teresa "let down both the Church and the Dalits."

Despite the campaign, the Christian demand for end to religion-based discrimination in a secular polity remains unheeded. The majority Hindus, who make up 82 percent of India's 900 million population, apparently fear massive conversion of low-caste Hindus to Christianity if the Christian demand is granted.