The president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India called for upholding constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion in response to a government official’s push to separate people because of their faith.
“The country is facing different challenges, like making sure the constitution is really kept (observed) in the life of the citizens. Constitutional guarantees should not be blocked from any corner,” said Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
Speaking during a news conference on 1 February ahead of the biennial assembly of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Thottunkal said Dalit Christians were being denied the same rights as Hindus and other Dalits.
“Religion should not be used to deny equal rights,” he added.
Dalit means “trampled upon” or “broken open” in Sanskrit and denotes people formerly known as untouchables in India’s multitiered caste system. The government introduced free education and a quota in government jobs for Hindu Dalits in 1956 to improve their social status. While the same statutory rights were later extended to Buddhist and Sikh Dalits, the demand for equal rights for Christian Dalits has been rejected by successive governments.
“People in responsible positions should not sideline the sacredness of the constitution,” Cardinal Thottunkal said when asked about a federal official who urged that the constitution be amended to have people identify by religion.
Cardinal Thottunkal also cited a pre-Christmas attack on Catholic carol singers in the Diocese of Satna and threats against a Catholic college in Vidisha in the Diocese of Sagar as examples of violations of the constitution’s freedom of religion principles.
Similarly, he criticized earlier controversial decisions of the Modi government to observe Good Governance Day on Christmas and Digital India Day on Good Friday 2017.
“Any other date could have been fixed to launch such programs,” the cardinal said. “Why should you hurt the feelings of a community?”