A Catholic bishop in south India has admitted that Dalit Christians were being forced to forsake their faith due to continued discrimination against them under Indian laws.
Responding to decades-old discrimination against Christian Dalits, Bishop Anthony Poola of Kurnool in southern Andhra Pradesh state told a seminar at Hyderabad on July 1 that “the Government is acting as missionary agent of Hinduism.”
“An estimated five million Christians have left their faith due to this continuing discrimination,” said Poola at the seminar organized by state unit of National Council of Dalit Christians and attended by several prominent people, including federal cabinet minister Gulam Nabi Azad.
Dalit, which means “trampled upon,” refers to lower castes treated as “untouchables” in Indian society who perform menial jobs while living in segregation from upper castes in rural areas.
In 1950, the government gave Hindu Dalits “Scheduled Caste” status, making them eligible for free education and government jobs in an effort to improve their social standing.
Scheduled Caste status was extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and to Buddhist Dalits in 1990, but has been denied to Christian Dalits, who account for two-thirds of the 27 million Christians in India.
Christian churches have demanded change, but have been ignored by the government. Hindu groups oppose the inclusion of Christian Dalits in the Scheduled Caste category, fearing mass conversion to Christianity.
“Hundreds of Dalit Christians have been forced to assume a double identity,” said the Rev. Raj Bharat Patta, a church Dalit worker and until recently executive secretary of the Dalit commission of National Council of Churches in India. “This is because the Dalits cannot avail themselves of Scheduled Caste rights if they make public their Christian identity.”
Some Dalit Christians have “twin names like Mary in the church and Rajkumari in schools,” said Patta, who is now general secretary of the Student Christian Movement of India.
Church groups are preparing for a national campaign and massive Christian rally in New Delhi later this month to protest against the continued discrimination against the Christian Dalits.