They want nothing less than the abolition of discrimination based on religious bias and bigotry
Indian Dalit Christians and Muslims hold a protest seeking official Scheduled Caste status, which entitles them to get reserved quotas in Parliament and state legislatures, government jobs, and education, in the southern city of Hyderabad on Aug. 10, 2021. (Photo: AFP)
Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, as the powerful chair of the United Progressive Alliance that ruled India some years ago, once told a small, but high-level, Catholic delegation she met at her official residence, that the best chance “for Dalit Christians getting their rights is in the courts.”
“I cannot help you. No political party can," Gandhi said and she was right. The men in white cassocks looked crestfallen.
Earlier, Gandhi had been told by a senior Christian leader and federal minister that were she to agree, there would be aggressive opposition not just from the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or from the upper caste men from within the Congress, but also from Hindu Dalits, within and outside the ruling group.
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Upper caste Hindus see the Dalit issue as an existential threat. Over the years they have also convinced Dalit leaders across the political spectrum that any concessions given to those now professing the Christian or Muslim faith, would cost them dearly.
Dalits who remain Hindus — Sikhs and Buddhists are also deemed to be Hindus or “Indic” — get a 15 percent reserved quota in parliament and state legislatures, government jobs, and education. The cake, they have been convinced, is not large enough to share with Dalits worshiping different gods in the land.
As a result, Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin who continue to suffer socio-economic poverty cannot get the governmental benefits enjoyed by Dalit people of Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh religions.
Dalit Christian rights are not part of the Congress election plan while the BJP, which now rules, is sharp in rejecting the demand.
"The rape of Dalit women in villages and towns is a matter of national shame and official concern"
BJP’s former law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, spoke in the upper house of parliament: “Dalits who had shunned their faith and converted to Islam and Christianity would not be permitted to contest parliamentary or assembly elections from constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes [official name for Dalits] and will not be allowed to claim other reservation benefits.”
Though untouchability has been officially abolished since the constitution was brought into force in 1950, it remains very strong on the ground, and not just in the villages. In fact, as seen in recent court cases from university towns in the US, Indians have taken it with them to foreign lands in modern times.
Privileged castes dominate political, academic, social, military, and also the law and order and judicial systems in India.
The rape of Dalit women in villages and towns is a matter of national shame and official concern. The lynching of and assaults on Dalit youth asserting their human dignity are common. But government data show that a disproportionately large number of Dalit, Tribal and Muslim men are in jail, awaiting trial.
The current flutter in the media, and in the ranks of Christian and Muslim converts from the former untouchable castes of Hinduism, follows an almost throwaway remark in one of his political speeches by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he had “affection” for Pasmanda — Dalit Muslims.
Their leader and former MP Ali Anwar, in an open letter, told Modi that his people did not want affection but dignity. He further called upon India’s highly splintered political opposition to unite against the BJP’s “divide and rule” policy before “it is too late.”
"Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam face the same social turmoil and violence but are denied government protection"
“Pasmanda is not just a vote bank but a part of the fight for social justice and equality,” Anwar said.
Alphonse G. Kennedy, secretary for Dalit affairs of the 103-year-old All India Catholic Union, points out that affirmative action is not about just educational and employment opportunities. It is a matter of representation in the administration apparatus and in the making of legislation.
Also, the Prevention of Atrocities Act ensures that oral or physical violence against Dalits, including ostracization, will invite strict punitive action from the government.
Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam face the same social turmoil and violence but are denied government protection, which often feels crueler and harsher than a mere denial of education or jobs.
And finally, says Kennedy, Dalits are being denied the freedom of choice of religion, one of the core rights in the Indian Constitution.
Dalits have been victims for more than two millennia of the Indian caste system popularly known as the Code of Manu. The modern lawgiver, Dr. B R Ambedkar, who trained in the US and the UK, called for the annihilation of caste before independence.
"Dalits faced equal social disability in India irrespective of their faith"
Mahatma Gandhi was among those who opposed him. The Mahatma went on an indefinite fast, protesting what he saw as an attempt to sunder the Hindu faith. Ambedkar had to capitulate.
Within months of its birth, the constitution was amended by presidential order in 1950, reserving affirmative rights only to those who chose to remain within the Hindu fold. In effect, the presidential order made it punitive to convert to any other religion.
This remains the strongest of the anti-conversion regulations in India now. It is now embedded in the constitution as Article 341 Pat 3.
The All India Catholic Union was among the first to protest in 1950. Since its formation, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India has led the united struggle of Christians of Dalit origin. Muslims joined Christians this century in filing public interest litigation in the Indian Supreme Court.
When the court finally took up the matter, the newly formed Congress government appointed the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, on Oct. 29, 2004, chaired by former Chief Justice of India Justice Ranganath Misra. The commission submitted its report to the government on May 21, 2007.
The commission categorically declared that caste indeed crossed the borders of religion. A specialist committee to quantify the infirmities was formed under noted sociologist, Professor Satish Deshpande. The committee report saw religion did not matter — Dalits faced equal social disability in India irrespective of their faith.
After a long hiatus, the Supreme Court has once again resumed hearings on a bunch of appeals by Dalit Christians and Pasmanda Muslims with Hindu groups opposing the demands of the religious minorities. The court has served notice on the government to formulate its response.
Information leaked by the government to the media says a decision is likely to be taken soon by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, and the ministries of Home, Law, Social Justice and Empowerment, and Finance.
Christians and Muslim Dalits are clear they want nothing less than the offending section of Article 341 abolished. It discriminates against them and in fact, introduces religious bias and bigotry in social justice meant for all. The two groups also do not want to be fobbed off by being given backward status, an overcrowded field, which does not give them the protection under the law as given to Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits.
While contact groups have been in dialogue with all political parties, only the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the ruling party of southern Tamil Nadu, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have official resolutions in support of the Dalit Christian and Pasmanda Muslim cause.
Any new committee, many feel, will postpone the legal challenge indefinitely.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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