India's churches have threatened to take legal action against the government unless the discrimination against low-caste Christians and other minorities in the national census "is set right."

"We demand that the classification related to castes and tribes be delinked from religious categorization if the categorization does not include all religions," the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) said in a statement February 23.

The census of India's billion citizens, which is taken once every 10 years, was held from February 9 to 28 with 2.4 million "enumerators" visiting 200 million households. Churches have declared that the form prepared by India's census commissioner for the nation-wide head-count is discriminatory.

The source of the churches' anger is the government's refusal to recognize that among the total population of 250 million Dalits (low-caste Indians), there are about 14 million Christians. Muslim Dalits, who account for most of India's 130 million Muslims, were also ignored in the census.

Numerous church activists have described the "manipulation" of the census as part of the government's ongoing refusal to grant to Christian Dalits privileges accorded long ago to Dalits who belong to the country's Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths. Church officials believe that the root cause of this discrimination is prejudice towards Christianity which many powerful Hindus detest as a videshi (foreign) religion. Muslim Dalits are the victims of similar prejudices. (Hardline Hindu groups treat both Buddhism and Sikhism as offshoots of Hinduism.)

Expressing the concern of its 29 Orthodox and Protestant member churches, the NCCI said it was "appalled at the manner in which the present census is being conducted [excluding] Dalits ...

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