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Dalit supporters water-cannoned

20 December 2013

AP

Sitting in protest: members of the Dalit community in India applaud a speaker on Humans Rights Day, in New Delhi, last week

Sitting in protest: members of the Dalit community in India applaud a speaker on Humans Rights Day, in New Delhi, last week

THE Prime Minister of India has apologised to church leaders in the country after police used batons and water cannons on protesters demanding an end to discrimination against Dalit Christians.

The rally in New Delhi on Wednesday of last week was organised by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, the National Council of Dalit Christians, the National Council of Churches in India, and the Church of North India.

Protesters demanded equal rights for Dalit Christians. Dalits were formerly known as "untouchables", and are regarded as the lowest caste in India.

Addressing the rally, the General Secretary for the Church of North India, Alwan Masih, said that the Presidential Order of 1950, which denies equal rights to Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin on the basis of religion, was "violative of the fundamental rights assured by the Constitution of India".

A report from the Church of North India said that, during a peaceful march towards the Parliament House, the police "brutally cane-charged" protesters, before using water cannons to throw "cold and dirty water with unbearable pressure". A number of protesters were "badly injured".

Among the many senior church leaders arrested were Mr Masih and the RC Archbishop of Delhi, the Most Revd Anil Couto. Several monks and nuns were also arrested. The Church reported that this was the first time since 1997 that bishops had been arrested for supporting the Dalit cause.

The day after the protest and arrests, the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, met church leaders and apologised for the use by the police of batons and water cannons.

Last Thursday, the Revd David Haslam, convener of the Churches Dalit Support Group, said: "This appalling incident shows again how caste discrimination is still all around in Indian society. Daily news briefings tell of threats, beatings, rapes, and house-burning. Dalits - Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu - remain in constant danger, especially when they stand up to protect their rights."

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