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Anxiety Rises as Dalit Christian Rights Verdict Delays, Again

4/13/07 New Delhi (International Christian Concern) – Anxiety is running high among India ’s 16 million Dalit Christians as the hearing on a case related to their rights has been deferred for the seventh time.

On April 3, the Supreme Court of India was scheduled to hold the hearing related to a petition seeking restoration of the “Scheduled Caste” status for Dalit Christians, which they enjoyed till 1950.

The Supreme Court announced on April 3 that the hearing had been postponed till mid-July 2007, without specifying any date. According to media reports, advisory panel Justice Rangnath Mishra Commission, which was to submit its report on the socio-economic condition of Dalit Christians on March 26, was instructed to delay the submission of its report lest it led to a political controversy before the state Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, which will end on May 8.

The five-member Mishra Commission was set up on March 15, 2005 to look into the criteria for defining backwardness among the Dalits who had converted to religions other than Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism.

The petition was filed in the apex court by attorney Prashant Bhushan on behalf of the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, a non-profit organization.

Speaking to ICC, the Rev. Madhu Chandra, a Dalit Christian and a leader of the All India Christian Council (AICC), said the deferment of the hearing was “disappointing” and it had further increased the anxiety among the community.

“Earlier, six hearings had been postponed because the Mishra Commission each time pleaded for more time for the preparation of its report, and now when the report seems to be ready, it is being perceived that its presentation can be sensitive and therefore it should be delayed further,” he said.

Before April 3, the hearing had been deferred on October 11, 2006; July 12, 2006; February 18, 2006; November 28, 2005; October 18, 2005; and August 23, 2005.

The Indian Constitution provides for special protection and privileges for the communities listed in it as the “Scheduled Castes” – a term that refers to the “untouchables”, who have traditionally occupied the lowest place in the caste system of Hinduism.

They were called “untouchables” because they were considered to be outside the confines of caste. Their impurity derived from their traditional occupations, such as the taking of life and the treatment of bodily effluvia.

In 1949, the Indian Government banned the use of the term “untouchables”, and reclassified them as the “Scheduled Castes”, granting them special educational and political privileges.

However, according to a “Presidential Order” of 1950, only Dalits from Hinduism could be part of government’s affirmative action, based on the assumption that if and when they converted to other religions, namely, Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam – which do not have any caste system, they did not need any special privileges and protection.

The order was amended in 1956 and 1990 to include Dalits from Sikhism and Buddhism respectively for the special rights.

Chandra, also national secretary of the All India Federation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, added that the verdict was expected to be in favor of Dalit Christians, but it may be restricted to extending reservation in educational institutions and government jobs.

“We are asking for the Scheduled Caste status, which will involve reservation in politics and protection and benefits under numerous special legislations and Government schemes,” he said.

A national daily, The Indian Express, reported on March 27 that the Mishra Commission report was ready and if its recommendations were accepted, Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims would be eligible for reservation.

“The report, according to sources, is not unanimous, but it may have far-reaching consequences on the debate whether Muslim and Christian Scheduled Caste groups should have access to the same facilities and privileges as Hindu/Sikh or Buddhist Scheduled Castes,” said the daily.

Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, said the issue of the backwardness of Dalit Christians could not be addressed with mere reservation in educational institutions and Government jobs. Dayal feels Dalit Christians require representation in politics for empowerment besides reservations.

Dr. Joseph D’Souza, AICC president and international president of the Dalit Freedom Network, said in a statement, “The 1950 Presidential Order clearly violates the Indian Constitutional, which does not allow religion-based discrimination.”

Various studies conducted by the Mishra Commission, involving leading social scientists, politicians, and academicians, indicate that Dalits continue to suffer discrimination, irrespective of their religion. In particular, Dalit Christians – even after their conversion – suffer social discrimination and remain in the same educational and economic condition as before, he explained.

Most upper-caste communities have opposed the restoration of Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians, arguing that reservations should not be allotted on the basis of religion, D’Souza said. “Why then did the Indian Government discriminate against non-Hindu Dalits on the basis of religion in the 1950 Presidential Order?” he asked.

Meanwhile, a survey by the Government’s National Sample Survey Organization released on March 30 revealed that Christians have the lowest illiteracy levels in the country but the highest unemployment rate.

“In rural areas, the unemployment rates were higher among the Christians (4.4 percent) as compared to those among the Hindus (1.5 percent) or Muslims (2.3 percent). In the urban areas also same pattern was observed,” the survey said.

Christians also had the lowest illiteracy rate for both rural (20 percent for men and 31 percent women) and urban areas (6 percent for men and 11 percent for women), it added.

It is estimated that of the 24 million Christians in India , about 60 percent are from Dalit background.