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First Dalit Woman Elected to India Parliament


Jun 15 2009
Christian groups hope Meira Kumar will raise profile of India's Untouchables.

Earlier this month India elected the first Dalit woman ever as Speaker for its House of Parliament.

Meira Kumar, 64, was elected unanimously as the first woman Speaker of Lok Sabha in the lower house of Parliament, where she will preside over 543 elected members. There are 58 women in the House. India's current president, Pratibha Devisingh Patil, is also a woman.

Kumar is the third Dalit to be elected to a position in the Indian government; in 2007, K. G. Balakrishnan was elected Chief Justice, and Raman Kocheril Narayanan served from 1997 to 2002 as India's first Dalit president.

The Dalits ("untouchables") make up the lowest rung of India's five-caste system. According to the Dalit Freedom Network, a Christian advocacy group, they are considered sub-human and are often mistreated and abused, despite India's constitutional guarantee of certain rights and freedoms to all citizens. Dalits compose 25 percent of India's population, and 75 percent of Indian Christians are from the Dalit class.

Evangelical leader K. P. Yohannan, president of Gospel for Asia, released a statement praising Kumar's appointment because, as a Dalit woman, Kumar represents the most ill-treated group of people in the world.

"Now the most despised people in the most abused people group have a voice in one of the world's largest government bodies - the Indian Parliament," Yohannan said. "She is already a great political force, yet it is still amazing that a Dalit woman was elected to this powerful position. Now she holds great power, so when the issues involving human rights or the downtrodden people groups come up, she will be the one to decide if the issue will be heard."

Likewise, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) launched its Inclusive India campaign in conjunction with Kumar's election to urge the government's renewed focus on the rights of marginalized citizens. CSW's advocacy director, Alexa Papadouris, told ASSIST News, "Meira Kumar's appointment is a boost to the erosion of identity-based discrimination in India …. However, our 'Inclusive India' campaign highlights the need for an impact to be made at the grassroots level. We begin by focusing on justice in cases of religiously-motivated violence. The urgency of this is demonstrated by the recent attacks in Orissa …".

Not everyone is happy that Kumar is being noticed primarily for being a Dalit woman. Chair of the U.S.-India Forum Ashok Mago expressed regret in the Business Standard that Kumar is not being noticed foremost for her accomplishments as a justice.

Related Topics:India; Politics; Social Justice
From: June 2009

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First Dalit Woman Elected to India Parliament