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Delay Tactics On Dalit Christian Rights Protested
High Court again postpones hearing on equal benefits for downtrodden minority.

11/29/07 India (Compass Direct News) – More than 500 Christians from across the country staged a rally in New Delhi today to protest yet another Supreme Court deferment of a hearing on the rights of more than 16 million Dalit Christians.

Dalit Christians (formerly known as “untouchables”) eagerly awaiting the hearing yesterday were hopeful as a report of an advisory panel, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM), had in May favored affirmative action benefits for Dalit converts to Christianity.

The federal government, ruled by the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), was expected to decide yesterday whether Dalit Christians can be denied affirmative action benefits extended to Dalits of other faiths.

The hearing, however, was postponed until January after the government told the court that the UPA government was awaiting response from the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), also known as the SCs/STs Commission. The Indian Constitution refers to Dalits as SCs.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) said they strongly believed it was just and fair that Dalit Christians should get the legal protection and other educational and employment benefits given to their counterparts in other religions.

“Both organizations have stated over and over again that just by changing their faith, their status, social and economic backwardness and the burden of being downtrodden for centuries does not alter overnight,” said the CBCI and NCCI in a statement announcing the rally.

Archbishop Vincent Concessao of the Archdiocese of Delhi and president of the National United Christian Forum, which consists of the CBCI, NCCI, and the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), said in an EFI statement that Dalits have been demanding equal rights for five and half decades.

“They are an oppressed lot,” Concessao said. “We request the Government of India to listen to the voice of Dalit Christians and stop exploiting the goodwill of minorities.”

Among the participants at the rally were around 50 bishops and church leaders and 300 other clergy, along with more than 200 lay people, from different denominations who gathered under the banner of the National Coordination Committee for Dalit Christians.

Buying Time

Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council of the Government of India, termed the deferment of the hearing as the government’s “dilatory tactics.”

At the previous hearing, which was due on July 19, the government had told the court that it wanted to refer the NCRLM report to the SCs/STs Commission, which led to deferment of the hearing yesterday.

“This entire process of referring the issue to various commissions has taken more than a year,” said Dayal. “If the government wants it, and has the political will, it can change the law and restore full rights to Dalit Christians.”

Dr. Joseph D’Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, said the demand for Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Christians is a fundamental right. “It must be restored unconditionally and irrespective of religion,” he said.

The NCRLM had in May recommended repeal of a clause in the Indian Constitution, referred to as the Presidential Order of 1950, according to which only Dalits from Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism are entitled to government’s affirmative action, according to a report in national daily The Times of India on May 22.

Due to the 1950 order, when a Dalit converts to Christianity or Islam, he or she loses the status of SC or Scheduled Caste.

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

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. Yet the order has been amended twice to include Dalits from the Sikh and Buddhist faiths for affirmative action in 1956 and 1990 respectively.

Earlier Deferments

The hearing in the Supreme Court has been deferred eight times: in 2005, on August 23, October 18 and November. In 2006, it was rescheduled from February 18 to July 12, and then to October 11. Finally, the hearing scheduled for April 3 this year was moved to July 19, and then to November 28.

The hearings were delayed as the 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.

Right wing parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Hindu extremist organizations have been opposing the demand of Dalit Christians, arguing that such a move would encourage religious conversions of Hindus, as the exclusion of Dalit converts from the SCs list 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.

Dalits have traditionally occupied the lowest place in the caste system of Hinduism. They were considered to be outside the confines of caste, with their “impurity” derived from traditionally humble occupations.