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Dalit Christians Hopeful of Winning Rights

Advisory body says conversion should not bar lowest caste from affirmative action.

5/23/07 India (Compass Direct News) – A report of an advisory panel favoring affirmative action benefits for Dalit converts to Christianity has raised the hopes of India ’s 16 million lowest-caste believers as they await a Supreme Court hearing in July.

The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) has recommended repeal of a clause in the Indian Constitution entitling only Dalits from Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism to governmental affirmative action, the national daily The Times of India reported yesterday (May 22).

The NCRLM, headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice Rangnath Mishra and known as Mishra Commission, also called the denial of rights to Dalits after their conversion out of Hinduism “violative of constitutional guarantee of non-discrimination on religious grounds,” added the daily.

“We are one step closer to justice for all Dalits,” Dr. Joseph D’Souza, president of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass. He added that action on the report could “drastically change the lives of the Dalit community” and “reverse the decades of religious-based discrimination against the lowest-strata in society.”

Terming the findings of the Commission report as “the first victory of Dalit Christians,” Dr. John Dayal of the National Integration Council of the Government of India said the government must take early action to reverse historic injustice and give Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin the benefits under laws that “are rightfully theirs.”

A clause in the constitution known as the Presidential Order of 1950 says only Hindu Dalits are entitled to “reservation” of government jobs and educational institutions, along with other special benefits. Thusa Dalit who converts to Christianity or Islam loses the status of “Scheduled Caste” (SC), a term used in the constitution for Dalits for the purpose of special privileges and protection.

The 1950 order has been amended twice to include Dalits from the Sikh (in 1956) and Buddhist (in 1990) faiths in affirmative action benefits.

The Supreme Court of India is scheduled to hold a hearing related to a petition seeking restoration of SC status for Dalit Christians on July 19.

Influence on the Court

The Mishra Commission report is likely to have a bearing on the Supreme Court judgment, as the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance had told the high court that it would give its reply on the demand of Dalit Christians after the panel submitted its recommendation.

The Commission’s recommendation, however, has met with a “strong dissenting note from the panel’s member secretary Asha Das, who argued that extending SC status to Christians and Muslims would amount to inserting caste in religions which don’t recognize it,” said the daily.

Das also questioned the propriety of Parliament or the judiciary to change the tenets of religion.

The 1950 order was based on the premise that non-Hindu religions do not have any caste system, and therefore they did not need any special privileges or protection.

Right-wing parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Hindu extremist organizations have opposed the demand of Dalit Christians, arguing that such a move would encourage religious conversions of Hindus as the exclusion of Dalit converts from SC lists acted as a deterrent.

It is estimated that more than 65 percent of Christians in India are from Dalit backgrounds. Christians in India comprise only 2.3 percent of the 1 billion-plus population.

Expressing hope that the Supreme Court would accept the demand of Dalit Christians when it begins hearing on their petition in July was a joint-statement by Edward M. Arokiadoss, national coordinator of the Union of Dalit Movements in India; Lion C. Francis, a leader of the All India Catholic Union (AICU); and Dayal, AICU president.

Reacting to opponents of the Dalit Christians’ demand, D’Souza said various studies conducted by the Mishra Commission – made up of leading social scientists, politicians, and academicians – indicated that Dalits continued to suffer caste-based 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 said.

Terming the caste system “ India ’s hidden apartheid”, D’Souza argued, “Those who perpetrate crimes against Dalits do not first verify if their victims are Dalit Hindus or Dalit Christians. The fact that they are Dalits is enough to abuse and discriminate against them.”

Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables,” have traditionally occupied the lowest place in the caste system of Hinduism. They were considered to be outside the confines of caste, and their “impurity” derived from their traditionally lesser regarded occupations.

D’Souza added: “It is our hope that the government does not come up with any more delay tactics at the next hearing.”

The hearing in the Supreme Court has earlier been deferred seven times, first on August 23, 2005 and then on October 18 and in November of the same year. In 2006, it was rescheduled from February 18 to July 12, and then to October 11. Finally, the scheduled hearing for April 3 of this year was moved to July 19. The hearings were delayed as the federal government asked for more time for the Mishra Commission to submit the report.

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