Church groups have hailed the report of an Indian federal commission recommending an end to decades of religion-based discrimination which excluded Christian and Muslim Dalits from affirmative action legislation and have also called for the laws to be changed - writes Anto Akkara.
The report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, presented in the national Parliament on 19 December 2009, recommended de-linking of the official Dalit status from religion.
The commission, headed by the former chief justice of the federal Supreme Court, Ranganath Misra, suggested changing the 1950 legislation, something demanded by Christian groups and Muslims for decades because they said it led to discrimination among Dalits on religious grounds.
"This is a Christmas gift for the Dalit Christians," Dalit Christian activist Franklin Caesar told Ecumenical News International on 21 December. Caesar had submitted to the Supreme Court a petition against the discrimination that singled out Christian and Muslim Dalits.
The federal government set up the commission in 2004 after the country's highest court asked the government to clarify its stand on the status of Dalit Christians, who account for nearly two-thirds of the 27 million Christians in India.
Dalit literally means "trampled upon" and refers to low castes once called "untouchables" in India's caste-ridden society. Although the caste system has been officially outlawed, Dalits are often consigned to carrying out only the lowest of menial jobs while living in segregation from upper castes, especially in rural areas.
To improve the social status of the oppressed Dalits, the government in 1950 had created a category of people called "Scheduled Caste". It placed Hindu Dalits under this category and made them eligible for free education and reserved quotas in government jobs.
In 1956, Sikh Dalits were included in the "Scheduled Caste" category and the statutory rights were extended to them, while Buddhist Dalits were granted the same status in the 1990s.
Though Christian and Muslim Dalits had clamoured for decades for equal rights as they suffer the same caste abuses and discrimination, courts cited the constitutional ban as well as the argument that Christianity does not admit a caste system.
The commission report pointed out, however, that "Even though Christianity and Islam do not recognise the caste system or untouchability, the ground reality in India is different."
The report points out that Dalits who converted to Christianity or to Islam "continue to be subjected to disabilities, including the untouchability associated with caste and occupation, as they continue to be part and parcel of the Indian society".
In a joint statement on behalf of the All India Christian Council, the All India Catholic Union, the United Christian Action and the Union of Dalit Christian Associations India., John Dayal said, "Justice has been done by the Misra commission."
He added, "It is now for the government to do justice," as he urged the government to bring in the necessary legal changes.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]