Christians struggle for representation in Sikh-majority Punjab

February 2, 2017 by  
Filed under newsletter-india

New Delhi, February 2, 2017: Christian groups are pushing for political influence in Punjab, India’s Sikh-majority state, ahead of the Feb. 4 polls for a new local government.

“No political party has considered our demands for human justice for decades but now things are changing for the better,” said Father Peter Kavumpuram, spokesperson of Jalandhar Diocese, which covers most of Punjab state, currently run by a pro-Hindu coalition government.

The state of 28 million people is set to see a three-pronged fight for 117 legislative seats. The incumbent coalition, Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party will fight the Indian National Congress and newcomer, Aam Aadmi Party or “the common man’s party” in English.

Christian leaders said that official estimates of the number of Christians in the state were purposely kept low to justify excluding them from politics.

The Punjab Christian United Forum, an ecumenical body, conducted a survey last year to show that the government’s 2011 census was wrong.

Their studies showed that Christians number at least 4 million in the state, forming some 15 percent of the population, challenging the government’s record that there were only 270,000 forming just 1 percent of the population.

“Christians are totally ignored in every sphere because of their socio-economic poverty,” said Father Kavumpuram, adding that most Christians in the state come from lower castes.

“Almost all the local Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, come from very poor farming backgrounds. Most live and work on the lands of wealthy Sikh families. Majority of Christian families live in one-room quarters,” Father Kavumpuram said.

They are neglected so much that requests for adequate Christians burial grounds have been ignored for decades. Most Christian communities across the state have only small worship places and no place to bury their dead, the Catholic priest said.

“Sometimes they have to carry their dead more than 40 kilometers to a cemetery as most districts have no such facilities. We have very few cemeteries and our people are too poor to buy land for burial,” he said.

The issue has found a place in the manifesto of the ruling coalition as well as Aam Aadmi Party. “It is a big change. That shows they have begun to take us seriously,” Father Kavumpuram said.

George Soni, president of the Punjab Christian United Forum, said that no government has created any welfare schemes for Christians who are also ineligible for public jobs set aside for Dalits and other marginalized groups.

“That is why most Christians do not register themselves as Christians but officially continue as Hindu or Sikh Dalit to make them eligible for government benefits,” Soni said.

In 1994, the then state government announced a policy of giving such benefits to Christians. “But it was not implemented. No notification was issued making it legally binding,” Father Kavumpuram said.

However, the current government established a Christian Welfare Board in July 2016 and allotted some funds to take care of the needs of the community and provide for the education and welfare of their most vulnerable members.

Amandeep Gill, the welfare board chairman, said that they were chalking out plans and programs. “It is a big step for the progress of the community,” he said.

Father Kavumpuram said the presence of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in the present coalition government in the state does not worry him. “The Sikh-dominated Akali Party has the most seats and we are safe in their hands,” he said.

“Generally, there is a new vigor among Christians. We should keep up this momentum,” he said.

– ucan

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