Indian Government Denies Constitutional Rights to Dalit Christians

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Christians say Hindu politicians perpetuate discrimination.

by Joshua Newton

NEW DELHI, December 30 (Compass) -- The government of India has rejected a demand that social benefits be extended to Dalit Christians and Muslims, compounding the problems faced by the most downtrodden social class in India.

Indian Christians had asked that any Dalit -- a Hindi designation meaning “oppressed” -- who converted to Christianity or Islam be awarded the same benefits already enjoyed by other scheduled castes and tribes under the Hindu caste system.

However, this month India’s Social Justice Minister, Satyanarayan Jatiya, rejected the demand on the grounds that such a move would split the Christian community and lead to an international outcry. “It might look as if India is imposing the caste system on Christians,” the minister said.

A policy of “social reservations” or quotas was established in the 1950 Constitution for members of the scheduled castes, also known as the Untouchables, or Dalits. The quotas allocated to Dalits, who at that time constituted 15 percent of the population of India, a corresponding quota of jobs and educational placements.

In 1956 and 1990, the federal government awarded reservation rights to Dalits who had become Sikhs and Buddhists. However, they were not prepared to do the same for Christians. “Separate treatment of Dalit Christians on the basis of religion amounts to discrimination by the government and a violation of constitutional principles,” said Pappu Yadav, leader of the opposition party, Janata Dal.

Minister Jatiya, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), justified the award of reservations for Hindu Dalits, saying they suffered most from the social and economic discrimination caused by “untouchability.” The BJP insisted that Muslim and Christian Dalits embrace Hinduism again in order to qualify for reservation benefits.

According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), awarding social benefits would not impose the caste system on Christians. In fact, it would assist them to break free from it.

The hold of the caste system is so strong that Christian Dalits continue to suffer from discrimination despite converting to another faith. Christian Dalits are still known by their sub-castes and remain at the lowest level of society. Many are still engaged in the same degrading occupations as those of their Hindu counterparts.

The Hindu majority, well aware that freedom from caste restrictions could lead to a mass exodus from the Hindu faith, are reluctant to grant further rights to Dalits who reject the caste system.

“Worse, the laws punish converts to Christianity by robbing them of any existing privileges,” said Dr. John Dayal, general secretary of the AICC. “This is keeping Christians poor, jobless and landless in many states. Yet Sikhs and Buddhists who also abhor the caste system have been given these privileges of reservation.”

“For the last 53 years, Dalits have been demanding these rights,” said Dr. Joseph D’Souza, AICC president. “They have enough international support, as this is a matter of natural justice.

“This issue was agitated at the U.N.-sponsored World Conference against racism and discrimination in Durban two years ago, and Dalit forums all over the world have been making similar demands.”

The Dalits themselves see religious-based discrimination as an assault on their freedom of faith. The caste system has kept millions of Dalits all over India at the bottom of the social ladder, banning them from public wells and other facilities, and forcing them into the most menial forms of labor.

Many perform tasks scorned by higher Hindu castes. For example, thousands of Dalits across India collect human excreta from dirty toilets and dispose of it into drains with their bare hands, without the aid of masks or protective clothing. Others cremate the dead, wash clothes polluted by blood or human waste, and remove animal waste from the streets.

Dalit women are also raped, burned and murdered with impunity in many Indian villages.

In 1996, the Congress party presented a bill to award Dalit Christians the right to reservation in jobs and education. However, the bill was rejected when the present BJP government came to power in 1998.

The AICC, in collaboration with a number of secular civil rights groups and Dalit organizations, plans to address this issue in court and at the highest levels of government.