By Santosh Digal, BosNewsLife Asia Correspondent
CHENNAI, INDIA (BosNewsLife)– Several bishops were detained Friday, March 5, in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu where police halted a protest march against the alleged discrimination of Dalit Christians here and elsewhere in this mainly Hindu nation, Christian officials said.
Thousands of Christians had been participating for nearly a month in the 630 kilometer (391 miles) long ‘March for Justice’ from the town of Kanyakumari to the state capital Chennai, according to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
As they arrived in Chennai Friday, March 5, security forces “prevented” demonstrators to walk further through the capital’s center and “arrested” several Catholic bishops, including the Archbishopof Madras-Mylapore, A. M. Chinnappa, Archbishop of Madurai, Peter Fernando, and the Bishop of Chinglepet, A. Neethinathan, organizers said.
It was not immediately clear when the bishops would be released.
Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi reportedly refused to meet the church leaders and other demonstrators to discuss their demands for equal work and education opportunities for Dalit Christians.
Dalits are seen as the ‘lowest caste’ in India’s ancient system of Hinduism, and many have turned to Christianity, church groups claim.
Authorities say they tackle discrimination by enforcing quotas for Hindu Dalits and other so-called “scheduled castes” in jobs and schools, but critics point out that this arrangement has not been extended to minority Dalit Christians and Muslims.
Although the Indian Constitution encourages the quota system, several non-Hindu groups have been excluded for the past 60 years on grounds that their religions do not follow the Hindu caste system, according to experts.
In a statement issued at the end of a tense Chennai rally, bishops and several other church groups, including the National Council of Dalit Christians, urged the federal and state governments to take “immediate action” to include Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the “scheduled caste list.”
They also asked the Tamil Nadu government to implement recommendations of a December report on religious discrimination by a commission headed by Ranganath Misra, India’s former chief justice.
Misra’s report suggested to “reserve” 10 percent of government jobs for Muslims and five percent for Christians and other religious minorities with a Dalit or similar “underprivileged” background.
Friday’s marchers also demanded that authorities overturn the “Constitutional Order 1950”, which initially limited quota only to Hindus. That order was amended twice later to include Sikhs and Buddhists, but continued to exclude Muslims and Christians.
Protesters said a memorandum was send to Tamil Nadu’s chief minister on March 5 at the end of the Kanykumari to Chennai march, which started February 10.
There was no reaction Friday, March 5, from the local government, but several political parties attended the protest, which continued despite police preventing demonstrators to march further, organizers confirmed.
“Let the entire Christian community awake and respond to the state repression,” added priest G. Cosmon Arokiaraj, a senior official of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
Dalits are believed to comprise at least 16 percent of India’s billion-plus population.
Most of them are Hindus, but Christianity has been spreading within this group despite opposition from militant Hindu organizations, according to church observers. (With editing by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).