Religious ''Untouchables'' in India Unite for Affirmative Action

At a seminar held last week in New Delhi, which addressed freedom of faith for Dalits in India, Dalit movements of various faiths expressed support for Christian and Muslim Dalits who are demanding equal rights.

The seminar took place as the Supreme Court of India is in the process of considering whether or not to give affirmative action benefits to Christian and Muslim Dalits.

Presently, only Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu Dalits are eligible for affirmative action. The government has yet to extend the same protection to Christian and Muslim Dalits.

The questions being considered on the afternoon of March 9 were the same as the title of the seminar: "Do Dalits have Freedom of Faith? Do Dalits have Protection of the Law?"

Udit Raj, is an activist for the Justice party, which seeks to unite Dalits and religious minorities in India. At the seminar, he declared that Dalits should enjoy freedom of faith and not suffer discrimination for it.

"Choosing one's faith is a basic human right," he affirmed.

He continued: "India is a democracy, and all its citizens, especially the weaker sections, should never be denied the right of choice of their faith and the state should not discriminate among its citizens on the basis of religious affiliation."

Presently, Dalits who choose to convert to Christianity or Islam are automatically excluded from affirmative action programs.

But according to writer Jaspal Singh, who also attended the seminar, a change in religion doesn't guarantee a change in status or freedom from discrimination.

To explain his views, he related a few stories where Sikh Dalits still had to have separate cremation grounds and places of worship from other Sikhs. He lamented the unaltered position of Dalits who converted to Sikhism, saying, "The trauma of caste discrimination crossed religious boundaries."

Pasmanda Muslim Samaj leader Ali Anwar was also present. He has fought to expose the plight of lower caste Muslims and maintained at the seminar that Muslim Dalits were trying to assert their rights.

Panelist John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union, also attended the seminar. This former journalist and human rights activist told a story that mirrored that of the others. He said it was a tragedy that remnants of caste-based discrimination persisted among Christians.

His exhortation for the Church's role in the lives of Dalits is to empower them through education and social development. Like all the others, he said that Christian Dalits wanted "freedom from the unjust discrimination based on faith."

He added, "untouchability is a humiliating and shameful malady caused by deep-rooted prejudice, which does not disappear with the change of faith."

For that reason, he is committed to supporting affirmative action for Dalits in the private sector.