India's Dalit Christians see hope in court judgment

Tamil Nadu court rules that marriage cannot change a person's caste
India's Dalit Christians see hope in court judgment

The low-caste Maratha community in the Indian state of Maharashtra shout slogans during a protest in Mumbai in August 2018 to demand employment quotas in state-run education institutions and government jobs. (Photo by Punit Paranjpe/AFP)

The state court in Tamil Nadu in southern India has ruled that marriage cannot change a person's caste, which Christian leaders said was a progressive judgment.

The ruling of Madras High Court came while ordering compensation to a woman, K. Shanthi, who complained of harassment she suffered from a group of upper-caste people.

Shanti used provisions under a special law meant to safeguard Dalits, former untouchable castes, to seek compensation from district authorities. But her application was rejected, forcing her to move court.

The government pleader argued in court that Shanthi could not be considered a Dalit because she married a Christian and follows the Christian religion. 

The court, however, rejected the arguments and ordered compensation of 150,000 rupees (US$2,150) to Shanti.

The court noted that "deprivations, indignities and humiliations faced by the member of the community is the real test, and mere marriage or conversion can never be put against a person who was born in a Scheduled Caste Community," reported law website livelaw.in

Scheduled caste is the technical term used to denote lower-caste people outside the four-tier caste system in India.

Christian leaders said the ruling gave hope to Dalit people who had converted to Christianity who are denied government benefits meant for the social welfare of poor people based on the argument that Christianity does follow the caste system.

"This is a progressive order. The court has asserted that even if a low-caste woman is married to a Christian man, she is entitled to the benefits meant for Dalit people," said activist lawyer Father Ajay Singh.

However, the court said there was "absolutely no material to prove" that Shanthi converted to Christianity. Her husband's Christian religion "does not automatically make" her a Christian, it said.

Shanthi belongs to a Dalit community and will continue in that community, the court ruled, asserting that birth determines a person's caste.

Father L. Sahayaraj, deputy secretary of the Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council, said the judgment "gives a ray of hope for Dalit Christians" to gain their social security benefits guaranteed in the Indian constitution.

The benefits, such as quotas for jobs and places in educational institutions and financial support for education, were denied to Christians in 1950 when a presidential order limited them only to Dalit people of the Hindu religion. It was amended twice to include Dalit people of Sikh and Buddhist religions, both rejecting the caste system.

"The Church has been opposing the religion-based discrimination of Dalit people. We have been campaigning for the past six decades, but successive governments have refused to heed us," Father Singh said.

He said only Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin are denied the benefits. "It is discrimination, against the spirit of the constitution," said Father Singh.

The lawyer priest said that in a hearing in 2018 the Supreme Court of India, the top court, said that marriage could not change the caste of a person.

He said the judgment of the Madras High Court, along with the Supreme Court's pronouncements, could "add value to the arguments" seeking benefits for Dalit Christians.

The Supreme Court is continuing to hear a petition filed by Dalit Christian groups since 2006 but has not yet pronounced a judgment.

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