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Compass Direct (04/04/06) – The Supreme Court last Tuesday (March 28) quietly ruled that conversion of tribal people to Christianity could disqualify them from running for some elective offices if the posts involve religious functions.

This ruling emerged from the court’s verdict upholding a law that excludes Christians from running for the office of headman in Elaka Jowai, Meghalaya state.

Ewanlangki-e-Rymbai, a Christian and a member of the Jaintia tribe, had challenged the constitutional validity of section 3 of the United Khasi Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Appointment and Succession of Chiefs and Headman) Act. Section 3 excludes Christians from participating in elections to the post of headman.

The Elaka Jowai Secular Movement supported Ewanlangki-e-Rymbai’s challenge. They contended that section 3 was unconstitutional as it sought to discriminate on the grounds of religion, hence violating Article 14 of the India Constitution, which guarantees the right to equality to all citizens.

The Rev. Silvanos Lyngdoh, professor of theology at Sacred Heart Theological College in Shillong, Meghalaya state, was surprised by the court’s decision.

“I am also a tribal from this state,” he said. “There are hundreds of tribes in the Northeast, and only in the rarest and most isolated cases, does a Dolloi [headman] perform the religious functions of a tribal priest. These tribal rituals are diviners and animal sacrifices.”

This judgment may be politically motivated to curb the large Christian population in the Northeast, he said.

Challenging Tradition

The question is whether a Christian can be excluded from civic duties that may include religious duties.

“The ground for exclusion of Christians is not solely on the ground of religion, but on account of the admitted fact that a Christian cannot perform the religious functions attached to the office of Dolloi,” ruled Justice B.P. Singh.

The headman, leader of a cluster of villages known as an elaka, performs certain ritual functions and therefore has normally been a follower of the local traditional religion – in this case, a folk religion. More recently, however, there have been exceptions. When the headman is not of traditional religion, a niam works alongside him for the performance of the rituals.

E.S. Lyngdoh, deputy chief executive member of the District Council of Jowai, said headmen are mere custodians of customary laws who control all local lands.

“The headman of the community is expected to look after the tribe – religion is not the issue,” Lyndgdoh said. “There is no ill feeling for the Christians, but as the tradition passed down through tribals, Christian converts were not admissable.”

Dr. John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union, said the court has deeply injured minority rights.

“The issue is both one of separation of church and state and of the right of minority religion believers to seek whichever secular political or administrative office they wish to,” Dayal said. “It would of course be out of the question for a Christian to seek position as administrator of a Muslim mosque or a Hindu temple trust, but Dolloi is a post rooted in culture, and not rooted merely in religion.”

Dayal said Catholic leaders in the Northeast will seek a Supreme Court revision on the issue.

Challenging the Ruling

Father Cedric Prakash, director of the Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace, said the ruling would have to be further studied to determine whether it can be challenged before a full bench of the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court will be in a difficult position to establish what is animism/tribalism and what is actual Hinduism,” Fr. Prakash said. “It is left to be seen whether any of the tribals who adopt Hindu practices, customs and in fact, religion will be losing their tribal identity.”

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the ruling is a case of discrimination on the basis of religion.

“The ruling … seems to reinforce the existing bias rather than removing it,” Rev. Joseph said. “In any administrative position in the government or [civil] sector, what should be considered is a person’s qualification and caliber for delivering good results, rather than his religion or lack of it.”

Even before the tribal people accepted Christianity, they believed in some deities and conducted their lives accordingly, “and that was no impediment for them to contest for the post of headman,” he added.