India Dalit On Hunger Strike For More Rights In New Economy

Saturday, December 19, 2009

By Santosh Digal, Worthy News Asia Correspondent

Udit Raj has been on hunger strike despite concerns over his health.
Udit Raj has been on hunger strike despite concerns over his health.

NEW DELHI, INDIA (Worthy News)-- Despite concerns over his health, a prominent human rights activist continued his hunger strike Saturday, December 19, to force the Indian government to reserve jobs in the booming private sector for Dalits -- the 'lowest caste' in India's ancient system of Hinduism -- and other poor communities.

Udit Raj, a Dalit leader and National Chairman of the 'All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Organisations', began his fast Tuesday, December 15, in central New Delhi saying he will "only drink water" until authorities meet his request or he dies.

Christian leaders and advocacy groups All India Christian Council (AICC) and the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) said they were concerned over his health after an official medical team on Friday, December 19, recommended hospitalization for the 51-year-old Rai "due to falling blood pressure".

They appealed to the government to urgently "engage the Dalit leader on his demands" because he has refused to leave New Delhi's Jantar Mantar Park, known for historic protests. Several politicians already visited the rights activist, but authorities did not yet respond to Raj's request for affirmative action aimed at including more Dalits in businesses and corporations, said DFN International President Joseph D'souza.


"After major changes to financial policies in the 1990s, India's economy transformed and millions of government jobs began to disappear as many state-owned industries were privatized," he told Worthy News and its partner agency BosNewsLife.

Currently, India's reservation system for Dalits and other groups only exist in some government-owned companies, universities, and institutions. "But the vast majority of private sector corporations in India, including multi-national companies, do not have affirmative action for Dalits. This is a significant, growing problem," D'souza added.

Dalits -- still viewed as 'untouchables' in many rural places of India -- comprise at least 16 percent of India's nearly 1.2 billion people, with some groups saying that figure may be higher.

Besides difficulties finding better paid work, Dalits are often beaten or killed if they use a well or worship at a temple reserved for 'upper castes', according to rights activists.


A growing number of Dalits have converted to other religions, with many becoming Christians, to escape the "oppressive Hindu caste system", Chrisian leaders said.

Nationalist Hindu groups accuse Christian missionaries of "forced conversions" and "luring" Hindus into Christianity by offering health care and free education. Christian groups have denied these charges saying the Christian faith is based on a "free choice for Christ" and can not be forced on anyone.

To improve the social status of Dalits, India's ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, promised to create more Dalit entrepreneurs and provide training opportunities for Dalit university graduates.

But a law on private sector reservations was withdrawn earlier this year, further increasing gaps between the middle class and the often deeply impoverished Dalits, explained AICC Regional Secretary Madhu Chandra. "The situation became critical in the last few weeks because prices of basic commodities like eggs, rice, and vegetables drastically increased."


The price hikes, Chandra added, "combined with the fact that many cannot find steady jobs in the growing private sector, means millions of Dalits are struggling and thousands are becoming desperate."

He said, "We therefore urge political and economic leaders of India to respond to Raj's fast unto death. Business policies must intentionally include neglected citizens of India -- especially the Dalits-Bahujans -- in the new economy."

Hindus form 80 percent of India's billion-plus population while Muslims account for 13 percent, Christians less than three percent and religious minorities such as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis comprise the rest, according to several estimates. (With additional reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).