MUMBAI – A Catholic bishop in India has called upon the country’s bishops’ conference to observe Wednesday, August 10, as a “Black Day” in recognition of the hardships endured by the country’s Dalits and “backward classes,” meaning the “untouchables” and the underclass in Indian’s ancient caste system.
Bishop Neethinathan Anthonisamy of Chinleput, India, who heads an office of the conference for Dalits and ‘backward’ classes, cited a 1950 law that offers protections for Hindu members of the underclass but not for Christians and Muslims as evidence of discrimination.
Such amendments to national law have been opposed by members of the BJP, currently in power in India, which is the political wing of the country’s powerful Hindu nationalist movement.
Under India’s constitution, Hindu Dalits are entitled to affirmative action benefits, including reserved posts in all federal government jobs and admissions to government-funded universities. Dalit Christian and Muslims were denied these benefits by a 1950 presidential order, which excluded any “person who professes a religion different from Hinduism.”
The rule was amended in 1956 to include Dalit Sikhs, and in 1990 to embrace Dalit Buddhists. These are groups that still suffer from religious discrimination by the Hindu ruling class, but not to the extent of Christians and Muslims which the Hindu nationalists see as a greater threat.
Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims have been observing August 10 as “Black Day” since 2010, as it is the date on which the controversial order was signed, but to date it has not been officially designated as such by the Catholic bishops’ conference.
Anthonisamy issued an appeal in July 2015 to observe “Black Day” in solidarity with their poorest parishioners.
“To express our dissatisfaction about this ‘Constitution Scheduled Caste Order,’ which is unconstitutional and is a black letter written outside the Constitution introduced through the back door by an executive order, I request you to observe August 10th as the Black Day in your respective dioceses and institutions in the district, diocesan of regional levels,” he wrote.
“Meetings, rallies, demonstrations, hunger fasts, submitting memoranda, candle vigils and other forms of demonstrations can be also organized in your area to show support and solidarity to the suffering Christians of scheduled caste origin. Please make use of the media especially the social media to spread the news to the civil society.”
By most estimates, a disproportionate share of India’s Christian population, conventionally estimated at 2.3 percent of the population or roughly 28 million people, is drawn from the Dalits and the “Tribals,” meaning members of India’s indigenous peoples, who have long suffered discrimination and social exclusion.
Somewhere between 60 and 75 percent of India’s Catholic population is believed to be composed of Dalits and Tribals.
Many of those underclass converts have seen conversion to Christianity as a means of social emancipation, since the caste system is associated with the dominant Hindu faith.
Often, anti-Christian prejudice in India is exacerbated by issues of caste. The country’s most violent anti-Christian pogrom, which unfolded in the eastern Indian district of Kandhamal in 2008, was directed at poor Dalits and Tribals living in rural villages.