The Supreme Court of India announced that the equal rights of Christian Dalits will be re-examined, following a nationwide rally joined by some 50,000 last Saturday.
On Monday, a three-judge Bench of the Indian Supreme Court scheduled a hearing in February 2006 to debate on whether to grant Christian Dalits with the certain benefits as the Dalits who follow other faiths, according to the India national newspaper the Hindu.
The Bench, which is comprised of Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, Justice C.K. Thakker and Justice R.V. Raveendran, has further appointed an independent Commission to study the matter, the Hindu reported.
According to the U.K.-based human rights watchdog Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the current Indian Constitution since 1950 allows preference towards "Scheduled Castes" which included Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits, to be eligible for free education and a reserved proportion of government jobs.
Human rights agencies have criticized such policy as exploiting equal rights and discriminating based on religion. They therefore demanded the reservation of equal benefits for Christian Dalits as well.
According to the Telegraph India, the petition by the Center for Public Interest Litigations, which led to the hearing on the issue, stated, "Dalits among the Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are given the SC/ST (Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes) benefits but the same is deprived to Dalits among Christians. This is violation of the provisions of the Constitution guaranteeing equality before law and also [that] citizens would not be discriminated [against] on the basis of religion."
In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly postponed the scheduled hearing - first from Aug. 25 to Oct. 18 and then from Oct. 18 to Nov. 28.
Two days before the latest scheduled hearing, a National Rally for Dalit Christian Reservation was held in Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), India. The event, organized by the All India Christian Council (AICC) and the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, received the full backing of CSW. It was estimated that 50,000 Christian Dalits jointed the rally, which proved to be a successful outcry.
Joseph D'Souza, International President of the Dalit Freedom Network and President of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said prior to the rally, "To deny Dalit Christians benefits because of their religious affiliation is to discriminate against them on the basis of religion and deny them fundamental constitutional rights."
In a statement from AICC obtained by AsiaNews regarding the result of the rally, it is reported that the leaders joining the rally blamed the Hindu fundamentalist parties BJP for continuously using all possible attempts to block Dalit Christians rights.
Participants showed full support for such joint mobilization of all religious and political leaders for the rights of Christian Dalits. They called for nationwide prayer with social organization, Dalit leaders and non-Christian groups, according to the statement.
"This meeting is but the beginning of a movement to agitate [for Dalit rights]. The time for waiting is over; fifty years are long enough," DSouza added.
According to the Hindu, the Supreme Court of India has appointed the Justice Raganath Mishra National Commission for Linguistic and Religious Minorities to study the issue before the next hearing on the third week of February.
Solicitor-General Gopal Subramaniam, who will present the progress of the Commission to the Court, said to the Hindu that the Commission had visited seven States to ascertain the views of the State Governments on the Christian Dalits equal rights.
The Commission will also interact with related non-governmental organizations and the communities, and conducting research on whether members of the SC suffered the same disabilities even after conversion, according to the Hindu.
Currently, the Court would not comment on the issue until "information is supplied." The Commission is expected to finalize its recommendations by April 2006; only then would the Government address the issue, the Hindu reported.