Indian Dalit Christians and Muslims sit in the rain during a 2012 protest in Delhi. (Photo: Raveendran/AFP)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has reiterated that Dalit people who converted to Christianity or Islam will not be allowed to contest elections, shattering the hopes of this socially poor group once again.
Church leaders say the adamant stance of the government run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will only add to the social and economic backwardness of Dalit people, the former untouchables.
“It is unfortunate that the government has reiterated this position,” Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak, chairman of the Indian bishops’ Office for Scheduled Caste and Backward Classes, told UCA News.
Of the 543 seats in India's parliament, 84 are reserved for 200 million Dalit people, officially known as scheduled castes, and 47 are reserved for 104 million scheduled tribes.
Election rules allow only Dalit or tribal people to contest seats reserved for them. A 1950 constitutional order denied social and political benefits meant for Dalit people to non-Hindus.
The order was later amended twice to include Buddhists and Sikhs in the benefits, but Christians and Muslims are denied these benefits on grounds that their religions do not follow the caste system.
Dalit Christian leaders were expecting a positive response from the government to their complaint pending in the Supreme Court since 2004.
Federal Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told parliament on Feb. 11 that Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity cannot claim reservation benefits to contest parliamentary or state elections in seats reserved for scheduled castes.
The government position cannot change as the constitution stipulates that no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religions shall be deemed to be a member of a scheduled caste, he said.
He also said that the government has no plans to bring in an amendment to the order to help Dalit people who converted to Christianity or Islam contest polls.
Bishop Nayak told UCA News on Feb. 16 that Christian leaders have been fighting the 1950 order since it was enacted but successive governments ignored the demand because Christians are politically insignificant as they form only 2.3 percent of the nation’s 1.3 billion people.
“Unless there is a broad political consensus, it is not possible to undo the historical injustice done to the Dalit Christians and Muslims,” said Bishop Nayak of Berhampur in Odisha state.
“It is possible for India’s Supreme Court to end this religion-based discrimination, but it is unlikely as the government has now made it clear that it will no longer support it.”
The BJP and allied groups, which are working to make India a Hindu-only nation, also see Christianity and Islam as foreign religions that originated outside India. They see Sikhism and Buddhism as originating in Indian culture.
“We have no hope of any immediate justice to us,” Bishop Nayak said.
R.L. Francis, president of the Poor Christians Liberation Movement (PCLM) that works for Dalit Christians, wants the Church to “forget about reservation benefits” and work toward “a caste-free Church.”
“The demand for reservation can only lead to caste division within the Church. Rather, the Church should build a strong Church where no benefits of the reservation are required,” he told UCA News on Feb. 16.
However, Bishop Nayak said, “taking advantage of governments’ welfare schemes has nothing to do with promoting casteism in the Church.”
Dalit Christian leaders claim 80 percent of about 30 million Indian Christians are of Dalit origin, but official government estimates say 33 percent of Indian Christians are socially poor Dalits, with disadvantaged tribal Christians forming another 33 percent.