India’s "untouchables" hope to gain greater equality as a Dalit prepares to take hold of the highest judicial post in India for the first time.
"This is one of the most significant things to happen in the history of the nation of India," said Dr. K.P. Yohannan, founder and president of Gospel for Asia, in a statement on Thursday. "I surely believe God is behind this."
Konakuppakattil Gopinathan Balakrishnan will take office on Jan. 14 and will serve through May 2010. Balakrishnan was formally appointed the next chief justice of India on Tuesday by the Ministry of Law and Justice after President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam approved the appointment on Dec. 22, 2006. The new chief justice, known as “Bala” among his colleagues, was the first Dalit to serve on the country’s Supreme Court and will be the 37th chief justice of India.
"I am hopeful that Justice Balakrishnan will bring a sense of equality to the court, and I pray for the day when Dalits are truly allowed the same basic human freedoms those born into higher castes take for granted," said Yohannan. "Justice Balakrishnan has a unique opportunity to move the national consciousness forward in regard to Dalit equality."
Dalits, formerly known as "untouchables," have long been oppressed by India’s caste system. Furthermore, many Dalits have converted to Christianity, which adds to their ostracism in the predominantly Hindu society.
There are 25 million Christians in India with 60 percent being from the Dalit caste, the lowest rung on the social ladder. Most Dalits are still forced to do manual labor jobs, such as cleaning up human waste.
Balakrishnan was appointed to the judiciary in 1973 as part of the Indian government’s affirmative action program; Indian law sets aside a portion of government jobs and admission to its colleges for Dalits. However, the law is unpopular and often disregarded by the higher castes, who, though in the minority, hold the majority of political power in the nation, according to Gospel for Asia.
There are an estimated 300 million Dalits in India.
India has had a Dalit president, K.R. Narayanan, who served as the country’s first Dalit president from 1997-2002. Justice Balakrishnan is from the same hometown as Narayanan.
"I ask Christians around the world to pray for the more than 1 billion people of India, whom God dearly loves. Our desire is that they experience the love of Christ," urged Yohannan.