NEW DELHI - At a hearing before a three-judge panel, the Indian government assured the Supreme Court that it would extend quota benefits to Dalit Christians if the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities finds sufficient data to establish their "social backwardness."

The benefits are currently restricted to Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist Dalits, so individuals lose their rights when they become Christians.

Gospel for Asia President K.P. Yohannan praised the government's stand.

"The decision is nothing short of a miracle," Dr. Yohannan commented. "I have traveled the length and breadth of India, I've seen the suffering and pain of these Dalit Christians, and I have absolutely no doubt that the commission will find them deserving of justice."

The government's attorney, Gopal Subramaniam, made the assurances during a hearing challenging the constitutional validity of a 1950 presidential order on scheduled castes.

Mr. Subramaniam said the discrimination made in the order between the Christian Dalits and non-Christian Dalits was not based on religion, but on the social backwardness of any caste, tribe, or race. He noted that the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Tribes was opposed to extending the affirmative-action reservations to the Dalit Christians.

Mr. Subramaniam questioned the court's right to interfere with the list of scheduled castes and tribes, contending that any inclusion or deletion in the list would have to be through a law passed in Parliament, and that any government decision would have to be based on the recommendations of an expert body that conclusively states on the basis of data that Dalit Christians are subjected to "social disabilities" comparable with those of other Dalits. "An expert body is looking into this," he said, referring to the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities.

At the same time, India's major political parties—except for the Hindu BJP party—have expressed support for the Dalit Christians.

Dr. Yohannan said he was "delighted that political leaders are willing to take this step, and I congratulate them on their commitment to freedom for hundreds of millions of oppressed people."

Dr. Yohannan called on Christians around the world to pray for the case, which has now been delayed until February, and may not be settled until April.

"Once again, the Lord is giving us more time to pray for the Supreme Court to give millions of Dalit Christians their full rights as citizens of India," he said.

Although the caste system was legally ended in 1950, it still regulates much of Indian society, and places the Dalits at the lowest rung in this oppressive class structure. "What the militant leaders have been doing to deny the Dalit Christians their rights is totally unconstitutional," Dr. Yohannan said. "Yet despite the persecution and loss of rights, millions of Dalits have become Christians.

"When the court rules in favor of the Christians, it will be like a dam bursting. The possibility is that 300 million 'Untouchables' who have been living in slavery will at last find their way to freedom and hope. This is the last barrier to them moving out of the oppression of the Hindu caste system."

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