India's New Gov't Vows to Protect Minorities

India's recently re-elected United Progressive Alliance government will enact a comprehensive law to deal with communal violence and help ensure adequate protection to minorities, including Christians.

"My ministry will make all efforts to ensure that the communal violence bill, which has been pending since the last government, is passed," minority affairs minister Salman Khursheed said.

The bill, in the wake of recent anti-Christian violence in the Indian states of Orissa and Karnataka, seeks to implement measures that would prevent acts leading to communal violence, enhance punishments and make provisions for speedy investigation.

"The Bill has been under inter-ministerial consultation and dialogue," Khursheed said. "We will definitely make efforts to see that it is passed by this government as it is something that needs to be done. We are going to have detailed discussions with all the ministries concerned on the issue as it requires a combined effort."

Such a bill has been long anticipated by Christian leaders in India, baffled by several incidents of barbarous attacks carried out by radical Hindu groups, mostly on baseless allegations. While attacks have subsided since last August, three more houses of Christians were burned on Sunday, adding to the hundreds that were destroyed last year.

After the wave of violence in Orissa and Karnataka, the Christian community had called upon Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and members of the National Integration Council (NIC) to take political steps to curb hate crimes.

Top community leaders had suggested that the Communal Violence Bill be enacted and that the government draft comprehensive relief and rehabilitation policies.

Among measures being implemented, the Indian government will set up an equal opportunity commission for the "close monitoring of development plans" in an effort to promote communal harmony.

"My government will continue to accord the highest priority to the welfare of minorities," President Pratibha Patil said Thursday.

The promises come as human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide launched on Wednesday the "Inclusive India" campaign, calling for full social inclusion for India's minorities.

The campaign calls attention to the tens of millions of citizens who suffer severe social exclusion because of their caste, tribe or religion. Christian Solidarity is calling for justice for victims of religiously-motivated violence, for an end to discrimination based on caste, for reform of unfair legislation, and for foreign corporate investors to engage with minority issues.

On the issue of reservation – a form of affirmative action – for Dalit Christians and Muslims, minority affairs minister Khursheed said setting up a quota was not the only solution to empowerment.

Although he said he would "examine the issue," the minister was tight-lipped on whether the new government would come up an immediate solution to the concern of Dalit Christians and Muslims, who have yet to receive SC status (which gives formal recognition under the Constitution of India) even after the Mishra Commission recommended extending the reservation to all Dalits irrespective of religion.

Paragraph 3 of the 1950 Constitutional order restricted SC privileges only to those who profess Hinduism. It was later amended to include Sikhs and Buddhists but the privileges were not extended to Christians and Muslims.

"Reservation is not the only answer to social welfare although it is definitely time-tested and popular answer for welfare and empowerment," Khursheed said.

The minister asserted that the new government was "committed to giving attention to the minorities."

Christians are hoping the new government will carry through on their promises.

"I take great pride in being a citizen of India, the world's largest democracy and a leader in the South Asian region," said Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council. "However, I long to belong to a society in which religious and caste identity have no bearing on one's prospects and on how one is treated. The election results and the newly-formed government offer India an opportunity to re-affirm her commitment to justice, religious freedom and equality."