By Ritu Sharma
Christians and Muslims in India have welcomed comments by the head of an eastern state favoring quotas for Dalit religious minorities in government jobs and educational institutions, a right enjoyed by their Hindu counterparts.
“The time has come to give quotas to low-caste Muslims and Christians who have long been deprived of this right because of their religious affiliations,” Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar said.
He was speaking after receiving the K. Veeramani Award for social justice given by U.S.-based Periyar International on April 11.
Kumar also said job quotas for Dalit Muslims and Christians should be on par with Hindus. He was echoing a recent call by another state chief minister in Tamil Nadu for greater equality for Dalit minorities.
The Sanskrit term Dalit means trampled upon and denotes the former untouchable castes within Hindu society. At least half of India’s estimated 25 million Christians are of Dalit origin.
Dalits are often the target of disempowerment, oppression and persecution.
A 1950 presidential order denied government benefits, such as quotas in government jobs and educational institutions, meant for the advancement of Dalits, on the grounds that religions such as Christianity and Islam do not recognize the caste system.
The two communities have long been fighting for quota rights.
Christians and Muslims praised the chief minister’s comments, saying that powerful people coming out and speaking in favor of their cause will only strengthen their case for equal rights.
“Any sensible person who thinks about justice will speak like this,” Samuel Jaikumar of the National Council of Churches in India told ucanews.com.
Such support from different political leaders will strengthen suppressed groups like minorities and Dalits, he said.
Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, who goes by with only one name, recently voiced concern over the plight of Dalit religious minorities and called for quotas for them.
These leaders need to be seen taking up this issue with the national parliament and leadership, Mary John, president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement, told ucanews.com.
“The issue needs to be taken up on a proper platform like parliament and with the prime minister so that justice can be delivered to deprived communities,” he said.
Hafeez Ahmed Hawari, head of the All India Jamail-ul Hawari, told ucanews.com that it is now up to the federal government to listen to their demands.
“The government does not seem to be in the mood to grant Dalit Christians and Muslims their rights,” he said.
Thawar Chand Gehlot, federal minister for social justice and empowerment, earlier this year said the Indian government was concerned that granting special rights to Dalit Christians and Muslims “would encourage conversions” and “weaken the Hindu religion.”