Although India’s ruling party won last week’s elections in the western-most state of Gujarat, opposition is growing, becoming apparent in the win of an activist, Jignesh Mevani, who has been campaigning for land rights for the lowest Dalit caste (which means ‘broken’ or ‘oppressed’).
Dalits account for two-thirds of India’s Christian population, who number more than 80 million, or 7 per cent of India’s total population, by some estimates.
Mevani, 36, a former lawyer, stood as an independent candidate and won from a candidate of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Vadgam, northern Gujarat.
He became known for leading a protest after four Dalit youths were flogged by upper caste Hindus for skinning a dead cow in July last year.
During his campaign he called for protection of the rights of minority groups like “land for landless Dalits, and led them in a pledge to boycott dirty, menial jobs such as cleaning toilets”, a website owned by the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports.
He filed a petition in the Gujarat high court on behalf of Dalit families, to be handed the five acres (2 hectares) of state land they are entitled to.
Mevani told reporters, “my victory will ensure the voice of every marginalised and poor (person) is raised in the Gujarat assembly”.
His next step is to mobilize support for sanitation workers, he said in an interview with the Logical Indian: “We want them to get their deserved rights. Many times it is difficult for them to even get the minimum wage. We want them to educate their children so that the future generations do not have to opt for such a job”.
The fact that India’s new president, Kovind, is from the lowest Dalit caste could help as well, as Christian journalist John Dayal suggested in July, he “will understand more than anyone else the problems still tied to castes in India”.
In neighbouring Muslim majority Pakistan the caste system is also still deeply entrenched.
Here the vast majority of Christians, who account for only 2 per cent of the 180 million population, are uneducated and have menial jobs, such as street sweeping or cleaning, a job that many Muslims refuse to do.
Christians have long complained that their own Pakistani Constitution refers to them with a word that carries great stigma: “Isai” (derived from “Isa“, the Arabic word for “Jesus” in the Qur’an), which carries strong overtones with the “unclean”, demeaning occupations done by the lowest castes, making them feel like second-class citizens.
In June a Christian sewerage cleaner died after doctors refused to treat him till his sludge-covered body had been washed. They said their Ramadan fast would be invalid because he was “unclean” and also belonged to a low caste.
World Watch Monitor was told that this treatment of minorities had more to do with the legacy of the Indian caste system than Islamic theology about how the Ramadan fast could be invalidated by certain ‘restrictions’ on the faster. For example, there are exemptions from fasting for Muslim travelers or people who are ill.
In September, a 17 year-old boy was beaten to death in his classroom. His classmate, arrested for the crime, had stopped the boy from drinking water two days before, as he was allegedly ‘unclean’.
Pakistan’s most well-known Christian prisoner, Aasia Bibi, has been in jail for seven years after an argument which started when she offered fellow-workers water on a hot day, and they refused to touch it as she was ‘unclean’. She was later convicted of blasphemy in a miscarriage of justice.