Not all tsunami victims treated equally in India

By on December 1, 2005

A Dalit Christian mother arrived with her baby to share her woes at a tribunal held in southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

A year after the killer waves hit the Indian shore killing 10,749 and leaving 5,640 missing, another wave is devastating the poorest Christians in these parts: the tidal wave of religious discrimination.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, on top of losing their homes and livelihoods, Dalit communities are also being discriminated against in relief camps and in the distribution of aid.

Dalits were long considered Untouchables and represent 60 per cent of India’s 25 million Christians. Dalits in India are on the lowest rung of the caste system and often face economic and social discrimination. Even after conversion to Christianity, they are considered Untouchables and are denied any kind of social benefits or development.

Many of the 300 million Dalits who converted to Christianity have lost their rights in India. Most of those who bore the brunt of the Asian tsunami crisis in India were Dalit Christians who live by the coast and many lost their homes. Social discrimination against the lower-caste Dalits who converted to Christianity was exposed during the tsunami relief operations.

In a public tribunal held by All-India Catholic Union in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the low-caste Hindu converts to Christianity declared that the 16 million Dalit Christians in India should get their full Scheduled Caste rights (“reservations,” a form of affirmative action in education and job opportunities) enjoyed by their Dalit counterparts of other minority religions.

“It is necessary that the Christian Dalits are given the same benefits, aids and advantages, facilities and opportunities as are given to the Dalits of Hindu, Sikh and neo-Buddhist religions on the basis of the caste to which they belonged before conversion and which they are carrying even today,” the tribunal said. The tribunal saw 573 witnesses from the southern Indian states arrive for the public hearing; it heard 20 persons and took written depositions from others. These reports will be submitted to officials in New Delhi. Roman Catholic and Charismatic/Protestant church leaders backed the public hearings.

In some southern Indian states, Dalits are asked by members of higher castes to leave camps, while in other shelters they have been prevented from drinking from the same water tanks or eating in the same places as others. In the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu, Dalit families tried to return to their villages, but higher castes prevented them from putting up temporary shelters on common or temple land.

Indian Christian leaders also accuse government officials of not visiting Dalit camps, failing to provide as much food and other relief materials as is being given to other communities and being reluctant to register deaths and missing people among Dalits.

John Mary, a female Dalit Christian who was one of the 573 witnesses from the southern Indian states, said her house was among those destroyed by the tsunami but only the Hindu fishing community was receiving aid from the government.

“Even the District Collector refused to receive our petitions,” Ms. Mary said. “They exempted school fees of other tsunami-affected Dalits. But we were denied the same, for being a Christian and a Dalit.”

Ms. Mary, 45, is knocking on doors for help. But being an Untouchable Christian, she and hundreds of others in southern Indian states are being denied government relief assistance which is duly distributed among other communities.

Hundreds of thousands of “untouchable” Christians like Ms. Mary suffer all across India. Their fate depends on a positive move by the federal government to offer them the reservation status.

Till then, the waves of discrimination will keep all of them at bay.

Joshua Newton is an India-based writer.

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