Defying some perceptions of widening divisions between Christians and followers of Islam, hundreds of Muslims have joined a sit-in in the Indian capital organized by Christian groups to fight discrimination meted out to Dalits, considered by many in the country still to be "untouchable" citizens – writes Anto Akkara for Ecumenical News International .
"Give us equal rights," shouted the protesters including senior church leaders and Muslim activists at the 3 March 2007 sit-in demanding and end to the discrimination against Christian and Muslim Dalits.
The meeting was organized by the ecumenical National United Christian Forum for Human Rights with the National Council of Churches in India, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India and the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
"Our governments have been deaf and blind to our cries. Let pray to God that they get sight and hearing to see our suffering," said Roman Catholic Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, chairperson of the ecumenical forum, as Muslim women with their faces covered with veils listen to him along with veiled Catholic nuns.
On 1 March, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination sharply criticised the Indian government for its failure to prevent discrimination based on caste. In a report, it deplored widespread abuse perpetrated against Dalits. It found that more than 165 million Dalits continue to face segregation in housing, schools, and access to public services in the world's second most populous nation.
Christian groups have long campaigned for equal rights for Christian Dalits - who account for two thirds of India's 26 million Christians - for more than 50 years since the government introduced law aimed at affirmative action for Hindu Dalits in 1950.
'Dalit' (meaning "trampled upon" in Sanskrit) refers to low castes treated as untouchables under the ongoing caste system in India which leaves them consigned to degrading and dehumanising and menial jobs as well as scavenging. With the Scheduled Caste [official name for Dalits] Act of 1950, Hindu Dalits became entitled to free education and with certain government jobs reserved for them to improve their social status. Later, these benefits were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and Buddhist Dalits in 1990.
"What secularism is there in this country? Are we not citizens of this country?" challenged Kamal Ashraf, coordinator of the Dalit Muslim Liberation Movement, as he led hundreds of his followers in protest at the meeting organized by the Christian groups. "Caste is a social reality and a Dalit is a Dalit whether he is a Christian or a Muslim."
Ashraf told Ecumenical News International that "both of us [Christians and Muslims] are in the same boat. We have to stand together and fight for justice."
The groups that oppose extension of equal rights to Christian and Muslim Dalits, he asserted, are part of a Hindu fundamentalist lobby that treats Christianity and Islam as "foreign religions".
[With grateful 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]