Features

Left behind

"Left behind" Continued...

Issue: "Into the light," Dec. 3, 2005

Dalit activists say that is a hollow argument. To powerful upper-caste Hindus, a Dalit is always a Dalit, regardless of what faith he professes. So this year, advocates lodged a Supreme Court petition requesting a review of the presidential order. In turn, the court has requested the government's response. But since August, officials have delayed giving a response, with a new hearing scheduled for late November.

A favorable ruling would mean much more than just jobs, explains Moses Parmar, a Dalit pastor and director of Operation Mobilization in northern India. Recognized as Dalits, Christian Dalits would have protection under the tough Dalit Atrocities Act. For example, a man convicted of rape may get a few months in prison, but the Act prescribes 10-20 years for raping a Dalit woman. As attacks by Hindus intensify, such safeguards become more urgent. "Most of the Christians attacked are Dalit Christians," Mr. Parmar said. With harsher penalties, "they will not dare to attack Christians."

Activists are also pushing for affirmative action within India's private sector to ensure that Dalits have access to the jobs the purring economy is creating. Mr. Ilaiah has recommendations for the United States. He suggests a portion of aid should go to Dalit English-language education and wants the U.S. to reserve a portion of the coveted work visas that go to Indians for Dalits.

Still, tougher laws are not enough to guarantee Dalit equality. Even when victims report crimes, the notoriously sluggish Indian legal system secures few prosecutions. Changing Hindu worldviews is a better-if more arduous-insurance policy.

Mr. Parmar, 43, knows the challenges well. He oversees 900 churches, and many of the rural ones with only dozens of members suffer vandalism and attacks from Hindus. Even matrimonial advertisements-for men and women seeking spouses-are not free from prejudice. "Even for a software engineer who comes from Silicon Valley-they want a bride who comes from their caste, sub-caste and even sub-sub-caste," he said. "They're very particular about it."

Mr. Parmar also still endures the barbs that pricked his youth. When he returns to his hometown of Nadiad in Gujarat state, higher-caste childhood friends still give him separate cups and plates to use in their homes. He sometimes has to warn his fellow Dalits that it could take 30 or 40 years to change such attitudes. Until then, call centers and the middle class will stay in the other India.

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