The election of the Indian Parliament’s new speaker is great cause for celebration, according to the head of a prominent Asian missions group.
Though Meira Kumar is a Hindu, Gospel for Asia President K.P. Yohannan says her election as the first woman and first Dalit speaker this past week was a “huge event” for India for two reasons.
"Traditionally, the most neglected people in the world are women, and the women who are treated the absolute worst are Dalit women,” he explained after Kumar was elected unopposed as the Speaker of Lok Sabha.
"Now the most despised people in the most abused people group have a voice in one of the world's largest government bodies – the Indian Parliament," he added.
Approximately 250 million Indians (a full 25 percent of the population) are Dalits and seventy percent of India's 25 million Christians come from the "untouchable" background.
Though caste discrimination was outlawed soon after India's independence from Britain in 1947, it nevertheless remains an influential force in Indian society, and the government sets quotas for jobs and university spots for different castes.
Dalits - the lowest rung of India's complex caste system - are often assigned to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being isolated, publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped. Several such cases of human rights abuses still occur in various parts of the country.
Regarding Kumar’s appointment, Alexa Papadouris, advocacy director for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, echoed Yohannan’s sentiments, stating that it “is a boost to the erosion of identity-based discrimination in India.”
“She follows the late former President, K. Narayanan, and the current Chief Justice, as a very important figurehead for India’s Dalit population,” he said.
Aside from having been a five-time Member of Parliament, Kumar has served as India's Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment and also – prior to her political career – a diplomat representing India in Spain and the United Kingdom. She also served on the country's Ministry for External Affairs.
"She is already a great political force, yet it is still amazing that a Dalit woman was elected to this powerful position," Yohannan said. "Now she holds great power, so when the issues involving human rights or the downtrodden people groups come up, she will be the one to decide if the issue will be heard.
"We will be praying for her as she makes decisions that have the power to radically transform the lives of the millions of Dalits in India," Yohannan concluded.
As speaker, Kumar presides over India's powerful lower house of Parliament, or Lok Sabha. The body opened its first session Monday.