Recent efforts from Christians and Muslims in India have united the communities to end the practice of untouchability, including a Dec. 11 march in which peaceful protesters were subjected to beatings and being sprayed with water cannons.

"We are trying to come together in this ecumenical effort," Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi said in a Dec. 18 interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

Although the practice of untouchability, or ostracization based on one's caste, was officially outlawed in 1950 and a quota system for education and government positions was created for Dalits, Christians and Muslims were not included in affirmative action and still face discrimination and mistreatment to this day.

"That resistance stems from the Hindutva ideology that India must be strictly Hindu and eventually become a Hindu theocratic state," the archbishop explained.

Indian law includes affirmative action for Dalits from the country's indigenous religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, but the policy excludes Dalits from Christianity and Islam, both of which originated outside the country.

On Dec. 11, Archbishop Couto participated in a peaceful march on India's capitol alongside Protestant, Muslim, and fellow Catholic leaders to push for equal rights for all Dalits.

When the participants converged on the main road from side streets, police took to beating with batons and canes, and hosing down the protesters, including nuns, priests, and laity, with water cannons. By taking their march onto the main road, the group had violated the security barrier leading to parliament.

"We felt we had to make this push because otherwise nobody would pay any attention. We had to do something drastic, even if it meant breaking the law. Our hope was to get the attention of the Government and some political leaders who sympathize with the cause so that the issue might be raised in Parliament, thus building pressure on the government."

Some 400 demonstrators were arrested and held for several hours, including Archbishop Couto and six other bishops.

The following day, they were granted about 10 minutes to meet with the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who apologized for the beatings and violence and indicated he would present the issue before parliament.
"But promises have been made so many times before," the archbishop said. "The issue is currently in the hands of the Supreme Court, which is waiting for the government to say yes or no to the granting of rights to the Christian and Muslim minorities."

According to Archbishop Couto, a fear among some fundamentalist Hindus is that if Christian Dalits are granted full rights and protection under the Constitution, Hindu Dalits might convert to Christianity.

He said, "the Christian faith upholds in a particular way the dignity of the human person. There is enormous power and strength that flows from the relationship with Christ and the Gospel."

"This holds great appeal for people – and hence some right wing Hindu factions worry about a great exodus from Hinduism to Christianity."

There are some 166 million Dalits in India, most of whom are Hindu; around 18 million are Christian.

The discrimination against Muslim and Christian Dalits places the members of the two religions in a "very particular situation" in India, and "we generally enjoy a good relationship with each other," Archbishop Couto said.