By ICC’s India Correspondent
08/10/2017 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Low caste Christians, who make up nearly 80 percent of India’s Christian population, have marked August 10 with protests against 67 years of discrimination and injustice. On August 10, 1950, the President of India signed an order that denied Christians of low caste origin access to benefits in education, employment, and politics that are designed to help individuals from the country’s lowest castes, legally defined as ‘Scheduled Castes.’
Scheduled Castes are castes that the Indian government has recognized have suffered from extreme social, educational, and economic underdevelopment, arising from the age-old practice of untouchability. India has determined that these castes need special consideration for safeguarding their interests and for their accelerated socio-economic development.
“It’s a discrimination based on one’s religion and it’s unconstitutional,” said Fr. Savarimuthu Sankar, a Catholic activist in Delhi, when speaking with International Christian Concern (ICC). “The State has denied and deprived [low caste] Christians of their rights and privileges enshrined in the constitution.”
Popularly known as the 1950 Presidential Order, the actual language of the law says, “No person who professes a religion other than Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of the Scheduled Caste.” The law was later amended to include Sikhs (1956) and Buddhists (1990) as members of the Scheduled Caste. As a result, Christians and Muslims from low caste origins are not considered members of the Scheduled Caste and thus are denied access to the benefits set aside by the government for no other reason than their religious identity.
The fact that low caste Christians and Muslims are denied the benefits given to their Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh counterparts means that they are forced, almost daily, to choose between their religion of choice and government benefits that could lead to a more prosperous future.
Dr. John Dayal, spokesperson for the United Christian Forum, said, “This particular law is the biggest violator of religious freedom because it denies 150 million or more low caste individuals the right to choose their faith. They have to be Hindus or they have to be of a faith which deemed to be Hindu, like Buddhism or Sikhism.”
For Arun, a 19-year-old low caste Christian from a village in India’s Telangana State, his dream of becoming an engineer was shattered because of the discrimination under the 1950 Presidential Order. Arun is from the Mudugula caste, one of the lowest castes in the Indian caste system. After finishing his basic education with the help of his parents, both of whom are unskilled laborers, he sought admission to study engineering, but was unable to afford the course of study because he was denied access to a scholarship available only to members of the Scheduled Caste.
Ratnam, Arun’s father, said, “We dreamed of my son doing a dignified job and thought our fate of doing menial job is over forever. But, my son did not get the admission to study engineering as we cannot afford to pay without the help of the government. We are denied this help because we follow the Christian faith.”
If Arun was a Hindu, he would have access to a government scholarship designed to help members of the Madiga caste with the costs of higher education. However, because Arun and his family choose to go church on Sundays, he lost access to this scholarship, despite the fact that he and his family face the same caste-based discrimination that Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh members of the Madiga caste face.
Naresh, whose name has been changed for security, is a low caste Christian who pretends to be a Hindu so that he can keep his government job as a driver at the Road Transport Corporation in Telangana, which was set aside only for members of India’s Scheduled Caste. “Sometimes I have to participate [in] customs and rituals to prove that I am a Hindu to protect my job,” Naresh told ICC. “I do not know how long I need to live this double life.”
“In effect, the 1950 Presidential Order has acted as a powerful anti-conversion law,” Dr. Dayal explained to ICC, “because the law has punitive consequences for anyone to change from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam. It effectively denies Hindus of low caste origin the freedom of faith which is the birth right of every Indian citizen.”
“We’ve been protesting and demanding [equality] for many years,” Fr. Sankar, told ICC. “I am of the opinion that we need to put pressure on the Supreme Court by filing numerous cases against the 1950 Presidential Order. Only the Supreme Court can intervene and declare the 1950 Presidential Order as discriminatory and unconstitutional.”
Forced to choose between government benefits and the freedom to follow a religion of their choice without consequence, more than 150 million people from low caste origins in India are denied the right to religious freedom on a daily basis. This discrimination must end if India is to fully realize the right to religious freedom as enshrined in Article 25 of their own constitution. Until then, the 25 million low caste Christians who have opted to choose Christianity over government benefits, like Arun and his family, will continue to suffer the consequences of that choice.