Christian party asserts Dalit rights in Indian elections debut

India’s low-caste citizens are taking a sizable step into politics with a newly formed Christian political party and a campaign dedicated to earning seats in a new state assembly.

The election closed on May 12 for the residents of Seemandhra, a new state carved out of India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh, who initially went to the polls May 7 to elect 25 members to the Indian Parliament, along with 175 members of the new state assembly.

Launched in February, ahead of the national election, Sleeva Galilee, one of the founders the Indian Christian Secular Party, noted that the party has put up more than 60 candidates, the majority of them Dalit Christians.

"With this election, there will be certainly a change in the attitude of other political parties towards Dalit Christians. Dalit Christians have been long taken for a ride and treated as a vote bank," Galilee told World Watch Monitor. "We want to tell the main political parties that they cannot take our votes for granted any longer."

Dalit means ‘trampled upon’ and refers to people in low castes who are treated as ‘untouchables’ in caste-entrenched India. Dalits are a mixed population: living all over the country, speaking a variety of languages and practicing numerous religions.

The Constitution of India bans discrimination based on caste, but prejudice and discrimination toward Dalits is still rampant. The majority of Dalits have menial jobs such as scavenging, and they live segregated from people in upper castes.

This maltreatment is especially prevalent among Christians as a result of federal legislation, enacted in 1950, which enabled discrimination against the group. This law listed Hindu Dalits as Scheduled Caste and made them eligible for free education, set quotas for government jobs and seats in legislatures to improve their status. While the privileges were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and Buddhist Dalits in 1990, they are still denied to Muslim and Christian Dalits.

In addition to the 1950 legislation against Muslim and Christian Dalits, Hindu nationalists are continuing to implement laws created to dissuade one from converting to another faith.

According to Open Doors International, a charity that supports Christians who live under pressure because of their faith, "Hindu nationalists, claim that every Indian has to be Hindu, continue to push their ‘Hindutva’ ideology through political parties, such as the BJP, which has strong support in the media. ‘Anti-conversion laws’ have been adopted in five states, and are frequently used as a pretext to disrupt church services and harass Christians. Pastors are frequently beaten up or killed, church buildings destroyed, and converts forced to flee their homes. Despite this, the church is growing, particularly among the lower castes."

Establishing a political party may be a powerful idea to help fight this inequality, but whether the new Indian Christian Secular Party can effectively carry that idea forward is a separate question, said Rev. Raj Bharat Patta, general secretary of Student Christian Movement in India.

The party "may not have much impact since it has come up all of a sudden and without much ground work," he told World Watch Monitor.

Franklin Caesar, a Dalit Christian activist, is skeptical of the Indian government’s ability to provide justice. His petition seeking a judicial remedy for discrimination of Christian Dalits has been sitting before the federal Supreme Court for 10 years.

"Each time the [Congress party-led coalition] government was asked to make its stand clear on the issue by the [Supreme] Court, the government adopted evasive tactics," Caesar told World Watch Monitor. He also said the government failed to make its stance clear on the issue even after the Ranganath Misra commission - appointed by the government during the hearing of his case - confirmed that Dalit Christians suffer the same caste inequalities as other Dalits.

In addition to discrimination, many Christian Dalits do not make their faith public as it would deprive them of the Scheduled Caste status, shutting them out of government jobs, free education and state scholarship for studies.

"The number of Dalit Christians is much higher than what is projected in the census," said Patta, a pastor of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Galilee agrees, and said that since the actual number of Christians is much higher than documented, a Christian political party can make an impact in the elections with their nominal presence.

"We have a strong presence in many areas. Thousands of Christians are forced to hide their Christian identity and remain Hindu in government registers," said Galilee. He added that the number of church-goers is several times more than the two percent of Christian population of Andhra Pradesh with 85 million people.

India is ranked No. 28 in the 2014 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The World Watch List is published annually by Open Doors International.