case on whether to grant the country’s estimated 18 million Dalit Christians the same rights as Dalits of Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh faiths.
It came as a setback for Christians after the court suggested last week, October 18, that it would take action on October 25. The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing "for the end of November," but no specific date was given.
However the New Delhi based court asked parties involved in the court case to appear before the Justice Mishra Commission, which was set up by the Government of India to investigate the economic and social difficulties of religious minorities, including Christians.
The term Dalit is used for the so-called "untouchables" of India, up to 300-million people, who occupy the lowest place in the country’s ancient caste system of Hinduism.
NO CHRISTIANS MENTIONED
Although the Indian government attempted to correct this situation by giving affirmative action positions to Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist Dalits in university placements and government jobs, there was no mention of ‘Christians’, said petitioners who want the Supreme Court to change the situation.
Among those fighting for the Dalit Christians are the National Forum of Dalit Christian Rights as well as the Christian Dalits of Tamil Nadu, the All India Catholic Union, the All India Christian Council, Voice of Dalit International, and other Christian church and pro-Dalit organizations across the country.
In published remarks the president of advocacy group All India Catholic Union, John Dayal, said he realized that "the [government backed] Mishra Commission set up in October 2004 but operational only now, is to determine the economic and social backwardness in linguistic and religious minorities."
However he warned that "its charter does not include, so far, deciding the constitutional issue of caste among non-Hindu religions. The Government had in recent years given to Sikhs and Buddhists rights it had retained in 1950 just for Hindus, denying Muslims and Christians the protection of affirmative action in the Law."
It was not immediately clear whether the Supreme Court’s request for hearings in front of the
Commission could change the situation for Dalit Christians any time soon.
Christians in India and other countries of the world organized prayer events running up to the court case.
K.P. Yohannan, the president of Christian advocacy and aid group Gospel For Asia (GFA), said earlier that if the Supreme Court rules "in the Dalits favor," they "will no longer fear publicly professing the faith in Christ and even more will commit to Him."
However he warned there were not enough trained pastors and lay leaders to disciple them.
"It’s a huge challenge. The Lord has to do something very significant. And, this is one of the reasons we have increased the number of students in our Bible schools this year, knowing that things are happening and we need to get ready and this is a challenge," he added.
The court case is closely followed in the United States where American lawmakers condemned this month the "abuses and humiliation" of India’s Dalits and tribal communities, including Christians, who they said were "victimized under the yoke of a shameful caste system."
"Converts to Christianity and Christian missionaries are particularly targeted, as violence against Christians often goes unpunished….many states have also adopted anti-conversion laws, in violation of India’s constitutional protection for religious freedom," said New Jersey Congressman Christopher Smith, a Republican who chairs the House International Relations Subcommittee on Global Human Rights and International Operations earlier.
In India, several political parties have supported the cause of Dalit Christian in recent letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other officials.
Analysts say that the legal and social rights demanded by Dalit Christians were taken away by a 1950 Presidential Order, which confined these rights, what are known as "reservations" in educational institutions, employment and other benefits to those practicing the Hindu faith.
Later Dalits of the Sikh and Buddhist denominations also won back their rights, but only Christian and Muslim converts were excluded from these arrangements.
The Supreme Court brushed aside suggestions by the Attorney-General that it should not intervene in matters of the President, saying it was "a crucial issue and we would examine the legal side of the issue on the basis of the rulings cited by the petitioner and the Attorney General," Indian media reported.