By Santosh Digal, Worthy News Asia Correspondent
NEW DELHI, INDIA (Worthy News)-- Christian groups in India have welcomed recommendations from a government-appointed commission to give Christian converts of a Hindu 'Dalit' caste background similar state benefits as underprivileged groups professing Hinduism, Buddhism or Sikhism as their religion.
The report of the 'National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities', headed by India's former chief justice Ranganath Misra, may end nearly 60 years of discrimination, said John Dayal, a leading Indian Christian activist and campaigner for Dalit rights.
India's Constitution already granted political, economic and development privileges to all Dalits, the 'lowest caste' in India's ancient system of Hinduism, but since 1950 Dalit Christians were excluded from the arrangement. Dalits are believed to comprise at least 16 percent of India's billion-plus population.
Dayal said that Misra has now accepted the demands raised by Dalit Christians for 59 years not to discriminate against them on grounds of their religion.
In a report presented Friday, December 18, to parliament, the Commission suggests to reserve 10 percent of government jobs for Muslims and five percent for Christians and other religious minorities with a Dalit or similar underprivileged 'Scheduled Caste' background. "Justice has been done...It is now for the Government to do justice," said Dayal, who is part of a delegation of Christian leaders and politicians.
The government planned to inform the Supreme Court about the recommendations of the Commission, which was set up in 2004 as part of a slow legal process.
It was not yet clear if the latest developments would impact the hunger strike for more rights launched this week by frail Dalit activist Udit Raj. He wants the government to also ensure that Dalits have jobs in the private sector and participate in India's rapid economic growth.
The Commission also proposed to earmark 15 per cent seats for Christians and other non-Hindu minorities in all general educational institutions, but its suggestions were condemned by Hindu leaders.
The far-right Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, described "religion based reservation" as "unconstitutional" and threatened to halt nation-wide protests if the Commission's recommendations are implemented, the Press Trust of India agency reported Friday, December 18.
VHP International General Secretary Praveen Togadia was quoted as saying that Christians and Muslims have been rejecting the caste system, but "now those who had converted to Christianity and Islam from scheduled castes are demanding reservation."
Christians form less than three percent of India's mainly Hindu population of nearly 1.2 billion people, according to several estimates. (With reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).