MUMBAI, India – Christians in India usually suffer double discrimination: Not only do they suffer persecution because of their religion, but since the vast majority of Christians are Dalits – once known as “untouchables” – they also suffer harassment because of their  caste.

In India, Christians are approximately 2.3% of the population, of which around 60% are Dalits.

And although Dalits are given preferential treatment under Indian law – similar to affirmative action policies in the United States – this does not apply to Christians and Muslims.

On August 10, 1950, the first president of India, Rajendra Prasad, signed a presidential order stating that anyone belonging to “a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” (Scheduled Caste is another term for Dalits.) Sikhs (1956) and Buddhists (1990) have since been allowed to also benefit from laws applying to Dalits.

For this reason, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has designated August 10 to be observed as a “black day,” and called for meetings, rallies, candle-light vigils, and other forms of demonstrations to be organized to show support and solidarity to those Christians and Muslims belonging to scheduled castes who are suffering the injustice of having their legal rights denied.

A statement signed by Bishop Neethinathan Anthonisamy, the chairperson of the bishops’ committee on Dalits, encouraged Christians “to wear black badges on August 10, 2017, and display the posters on your notice boards.”

“It’s not merely a problem of the Dalit Christians, it is a question about justice,” Neethinathan told Crux. “Discrimination and injustice are against Christian values; hence everyone must be involved in the struggle, and be in favor of all who are crushed, exploited, and discriminated against.”

Jesuit Father AXJ Bosco is the National Advisor for the National Council of Dalit Christians, an ecumenical umbrella group made up of different Dalit Christian movements.

He told Crux that the current law ignores a very important reality of day-to-day life in India.

“The society at large does not make any difference between the Christian Dalits and Hindu Dalits,” Bosco said. “Caste, not religion, is the primary identity of an Indian.”

The priest said this means Dalit Christians have an “equal share” in the “atrocities and oppressive actions” which affect Hindu Dalits.

“Since they don’t come under the purview of Prevention of Atrocities Act [meant to protect Scheduled Castes], Dalit Christians are at a great disadvantage,” Bosco explained.

“Because of the RSS propaganda [the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is a right-wing Hindu nationalist group], Dalit Christians are looked upon as rivals for welfare measures by other Dalits,” he continued.

In the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, state benefits for Dalits are given to Christian Dalits as well; but Bosco said “most of the District Collectors and other officials ignore this provision and Dalit Christians face discrimination and are denied their rights.”

The Bishops of India in July held a joint meeting with the National Council of Churches in India and the National Council of Dalit Christians to discuss the plight of Dalit Christians in the country, who also suffer from poverty and the lack of educational and job opportunities.

They decided to hold a Dalit Christian rally to demand Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Christians, scheduled to take place on December 7, 2017. Dalit Christians of all denominations from all over the country are expected to participate.

A civil petition asking for the deletion of the paragraph of the 1950 presidential order denying Dalit status to Christians and Muslims has been languishing in the courts for over a decade, and is currently pending before India’s Supreme court.

The petitioners are arguing that the constitutional rights of Christian and Muslim Dalits have been denied for 67 years because of their religion.