A special conference held at the U.S. Congress last Thursday addressed the human rights issues surrounding Indias caste system, expressing concern over the serious exploitation of some 200 million Dalits, particularly those following the Christian faith.
The conference, titled "Indias Unfinished Agenda: Equality and Justice for Victims of Caste System," was the first time Congress has held a hearing on the plight of the Dalits, according to Nanci Ricks, executive director of the Dalit Freedom Network, which sponsored the event.
Christopher Smith, Republican Representative of New Jersey and Chairman of the conference, said that the hearing was important because it provide[d] opportunity for leaders in the struggle for human rights for India's Dalits and tribals to describe the situation in India and to focus international attention to a problem that has oppressed millions of people."
"As the world's largest democracy, India must radically improve this terrible situation," Smith added, according to a report last Friday by Agence France Presse (AFP).
In India, four distinct social classes prevail in Hinduism's 2,500-year-old caste system. Beneath the four main castes is a fifth group, the Dalits, whose name means "the oppressed" but are more widely known as the "untouchables."
In a statement released by the U.S. Congress, Smith said noted the poor treatment of the Dalits, who he said, are treated as virtual non-humans and suffer pervasive discrimination and violation of their human rights."
According to Smith, Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, and forced to work in degrading conditions. Most Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities for better employment or education.
"We must not lose sight of India's serious human rights problems," Smith said.
The Indian government "condones, ignores and in some instances, has even promoted... massive catalogues of human rights violations," he added.
The representative gave an account of the problems documented in three current reports from the U.S. State Department: the 2004 Human Rights Report on India, the 2005 Report on Trafficking in Persons, and the 2004 Report on Religious Freedom.
According to the 2004 Human Rights Report on India, Dalits continued to suffer from torture and rape by police and other government agents, forced prostitution, women and children trafficking, child labor and among others, said Smith.
Security force officials who committed human rights abuses generally enjoyed de facto legal impunity, the report added.
Concerning religious freedom, India has been condemned by the United States for discriminating religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims. The 2004 Report on Religious Freedom said India was often lax in protecting religious minorities from attack of religious extremists, and in punishing their persecutors, according to Smith.
As a result, among the Dalits, those who possess Christian faith are particularly unprivileged. Since 1950, Indias constitution allowed preference towards "Scheduled Castes" which included Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits, who are eligible for free education and a reserved proportion of government jobs. Christian Dalits, however, are excluded from the benefits.
Smith highlighted that Dalit converts to Christianity and Christian missionaries are particularly targeted in terms of violence or discrimination.
He said that Christian missionaries have been operating schools and medical clinics for many years among the Dalits, improving their lives significantly. But Hindu extremists accuse them of disturbing the traditional social order.
"Some Hindu groups fear that Christians may try to convert large numbers of lower-caste Hindus, using economic or social welfare incentives, Smith explained. Many acts of violence against Christians stem from these fears, and most go unpunished."
According to an article featured in Agape Press, Gospel For Asia founder K.P. Yohannan said current Indian laws give Dalit Christians virtually no rights whatsoever.
"The Hindu fundamentalists in India know if these benefits for the Dalits are given and nothing is going to stop it; that means there will be mass exodus toward the Christian faith and that is what the problem is. They are against [that]," said Yohannan, who was a key speaker at a rally in 2001 at which Dalit leaders urged their people to leave Hinduism and its oppressive caste system.
Among the 25 million Christians in India, an estimated 18-20 million are Dalits. Although the Christian community is growing, it remains a small minority - just 2.4 percent of the national population of 1.05 billion.
According to the U.K.-based human rights watchdog Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a pending case for extension of full civil rights to Christian Dalits has been brought before Indias highest court.
CSW reported that the hearing originally scheduled on Aug. 25 was postponed after state Attorney-General Milon Bannerjee asked for more time to study the matter.
After the postponement, Christians presented a petition to the government, asking for "urgent insertion of a discussion about their situation." Among the petition's signatories were Franklin Caesar of the Christian Dalits of Tamil Nadu, the National Forum of Dalit Christian Rights, the All India Catholic Union, the All India Christian Council, Voice of Dalit International, and other Christian church and pro-Dalit organizations across the country.
As of now, the Supreme Court of India is due to review the case on Oct. 18. The recent conference held by the U.S. Congress was held days prior to that important hearing.