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Displaying cross no sign of religious conversion, says Indian court

Madras High Court tells officials that a woman attending church with family did not mean she abandoned her original faith

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: October 11, 2021 09:31 AM GMT

Updated: October 11, 2021 09:39 AM GMT

Displaying cross no sign of religious conversion, says Indian court

A woman supporter at a protest rally against an attack on Dalit caste members in the Gujarat town of Una in Ahmedabad on July 31, 2016. (Photo: AFP)

A top court in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has ruled that a Dalit Hindu woman marrying a Christian or displaying religious symbols such as the cross cannot be cited as reasons to revoke her scheduled caste (SC) community certification.

The Madurai bench of Madras High Court held that hanging the cross on a wall or going to church does not necessarily mean one has altogether abandoned the original faith to which one was born and cannot be the basis for canceling an SC certificate.

The bench was hearing the case of Dr. P. Muneeswari, who belongs to the Hindu Pallan community. Her SC certificate was canceled by district officials in Ramanathapuram in 2013 on grounds that she was married to a Christian man and their children were also being brought up in the Christian faith.

The officials had reached the decision after finding a cross hanging on the wall of her clinic and concluded that she had converted to Christianity and hence was not liable to continue as a member of her Hindu SC community.

Members of the Hindu Dalit or former untouchable communities in India are often discriminated against under the centuries-old caste system. In legal and constitutional terms, they are now listed as scheduled castes enabling them to access the government’s affirmative action policies and programs.

Dalits who converted to Christianity and Islam are excluded from India’s affirmative action plan that includes reservations in educational institutions and government jobs among other social welfare schemes.

I know people belonging to Hindu and other faiths who attend churches during Christmas and other important events. Can such visits be termed religious conversion?

In its landmark judgment on Sept. 27, the high court ordered the restoration of the caste certificate with immediate effect, saying that “the acts and conducts of the respondents [government officials] portray a degree of narrow-mindedness that the constitution does not encourage.”

The court further noted that there was no dispute that the woman was born to Hindu Pallan parents but merely because she married a Christian and their children have been recognized as members of the community cannot be the reason for denying her rights.

“The court has upheld the position of the constitution,” said Father A. Santhanam, a Jesuit lawyer practicing in the Madurai court.

He said the assumptions made by the district officials could create chaos in society as people of different religions keep attending religious celebrations of one another in the country.

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“I know people belonging to Hindu and other faiths who attend churches during Christmas and other important events. Can such visits be termed religious conversion?” he asked.

Scheduled castes make up 16 percent of India’s more than 1.3 billion people. A majority of them profess Hinduism while some have converted to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity.

A 2008 report for the National Commission on Minorities had concluded that there was a strong case for including Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the SC category.

In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India agreed to examine a plea by the National Council of Dalit Christians to make the government’s affirmative action programs “religious neutral” so that the Dalits among Christians and Muslims can benefit from it. The plea is pending before the top court.

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