08/25/2005, 00.00
INDIA

India's Supreme Court postpones hearing on Christian dalits' rights again

Nirmala Carvalho

The Delhi archbishop criticises the decision and blames discriminatory laws

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – India's Supreme Court was obliged to put off discussion about extension of full civil rights to Christian dalits [outcastes] on Tuesday 23 August. The postponement was necessary because the state Attorney-General, Milon Bannerjee, asked for more time to study the matter.

"More than 18 million dalit Christians in India have been taken by surprise by the delay in considering their demand for full legal rights which are given to their brethren of Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions," said a press release issued by Christian groups supporting the case. The court fixed the next court hearing for 18 October, after the Attorney-General gave assurance that a commission would be set up to study the matter.

A 1950 presidential decree established limited quotas for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist dalits in education and public administration. This prerogative was not foreseen for Christian and Muslim outcastes as these two groups do not practice the caste system, and they are taken away from those who choose to embrace Christianity or Islam. In February, the Supreme Court took it upon itself to decide about the appeals of Christian Dalits, refuting the government plea that it be treated as a legislative problem. The government then became "public accuser", delegating the Attorney-General of Mumbai with the task of representing it in proceedings.

After the postponement, Christians following the case presented a petition to the government in which they asked for "urgent insertion of a discussion about their situation" in the order of the day in Congress. Among signatories are 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 Church and Dalit organizations across the country.

In an interview with AsiaNews, the archbishop of Delhi, Mgr. Conçessao – who personally asked Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, to intervene on the matter – said: "We are very let down by the fact that the sitting was adjourned and all we can do is to ask the government to treat the case as a matter of urgency. Delayed justice means justice denied and dalits have already suffered injustice for too long. We had called for a week of fasting and prayer and urged all Christian denominations to pray together for a favourable verdict. Then the government decided to set up a Commission to identify the communities of Christian dalits and the Supreme Court adjourns the sitting…

"The 1950 Order as it stands today is wrong because it violates the right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution: people converting to Christianity are deprived of the benefit given to people from the same community belonging to other religions. This is clearly discriminatory against Christians."

John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union and secretary-general of the All India Christian Council told AsiaNews: "It's only an adjournment. Although we were expecting and praying for a positive conclusion for our long-standing and valid demands for the dalit Christians, we have achieved this in some measure as the government will set up an inquiry about the issue. As for us, we will now set up a think-tank to further the rightful cause of dalit Christians, who have suffered years and years of discrimination."

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) urged Members of Parliament(MPs) to help Church on major issues and appealed to all Christians to offer prayers and to petition the government to grant justice to dalit Christians in the country.

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