In an unprecedented protest, more than 30 bishops joined scores of priests, nuns and church activists in a sit-in near the Indian parliament in New Delhi to demand an end to the decades-old discrimination against Christian Dalits.
"We want the government to end this discrimination," demanded Church of South India Bishop Jeypaul David, president of the National Council of Churches in India, addressing the sit-in on November 29.
Thirty bishops from NCCI churches, which groups 29 Orthodox and Protestant denominations, joined six Roman Catholics bishops in the protest to reiterate their demand for justice for Christian Dalits. Ongoing discrimination against Christian Dalits, David stated, is "a violation of fundamental rights and human dignity."
Philip Jhadav, coordinator of the national affairs desk of the NCCI, told Ecumenical News International, "I think it is the first time in Indian history that we had so many bishops together participating in a protest demonstration."
Dalit, meaning trampled upon in Sanskrit, refers to low castes treated as untouchables under a system in India which enjoins them to carry out degrading and dehumanising jobs such as scavenging, even though the constitution outlaws it. The government introduced a system of affirmative action in 1950 allowing for 15 percent reservation in educational institutions and government jobs, as well as free education for Dalits.
These benefits were initially confined to Hindu Dalits, but later extended to Sikh and Buddhist Dalits. Christian Dalits who account for two thirds of India's 26 million Christians are, however, denied these rights.
Catholic Archbishop Malayappan Chinnappa of Madras and Mylapore, and chairperson of the Dalit Commission of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, told the gathering that caste discrimination is a form of terrorism against Dalits.
Kim Gangte, a woman activist from the Seventh Day Adventist Church and a former member of the Indian parliament, said there was no justification to continue the discrimination against Christian Dalits.
"This is nothing but denial of the freedom of religion for Dalits," noted Gangte, speaking in the presence of Catholic nuns holding placards saying "stop oppressing Dalit Christians."
During the sit-in, Catholic priests clad in cassocks performed traditional dances to drum-beating by Dalits from southern Tamil Nadu.