India's Dalits protest as laws protecting them are rolled back

A ruling by India's Supreme Court that threatens to reduce protection for its marginalised Dalit people could be overturned after the court agreed to hear an appeal.

At least 10 people died in protests yesterday against the ruling when tens of thousands of Dalits – formerly known as Untouchables – took to the streets.

They were protesting a ruling that police could not immediately arrest someone charged under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. While the court said this was to protect people against false accusations, the provision was seen by Dalits as reducing the protection offered to them under the Act.

The court has agreed to revisit its ruling. 

The protests have been backed by churches, but Christian leaders have spoken out against violence.

India's Dalits have protested against the weakening of a law designed to protect them.Reuters

'It is our right to voice our concern and protest against violation of our rights, but we cannot support violence of any sort,' said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak, who heads the Indian Catholic bishops' office for Dalit and indigenous communities. According to UCA News, he said: 'Even today, caste discrimination is rampant in the country. The new guidelines will help violators of the rights of the Dalits and indigenous people go scot-free.'

Dalits – some of whom are drawn to Christianity as they suffer from being at the very bottom of India's caste system and are persecuted if they convert – are gradually benefiting from India's economic boom and from positive discrimination in their favour. However, they are vulnerable to attack from members of higher castes who believe they should remain in their deprived condition. In recent years reports of violence against them have increased dramatically.

'In the last three, four years, the atrocities have been rampant. They have increased,' Ramesh Nathan, national convener for a coalition group of Dalits' rights organisations, told CNN. 'There are many lynchings, many attacks against our community.'

Around 60 per cent of India's 27 million Christians are from Dalit backgrounds.