Christian Dalits - Victims of discrimination

The Hindu,
April 1997
Brindavan C. Moses

Almost all the major political parties, with the lone exception of the Bharatiya Janata Party, included in their election manifestos (1996), the Christian dalits' demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Castes list and the United Front Government included the demand in its Common  Minimum Programme. The Prime Minister, Mr. H. D. Deve Gowda, gave a  categorical assurance to the 14-member delegation of the All India  Christian People's Forum which called on him on June 14, 1996, that the bill to extend the SC status to Christian dalits would be introduced in  the Budget session, but the bill was not introduced either in the 1996 Budget session or in the subsequent winter session. Nor was there any  mention of it this year belying the expectations of millions of  Christian dalits who have been demanding inclusion in the SC category  for the past four decades. But why are they making such a demand? What  is their justification?

The Indian Church is a dalit church because 50 to 60 per cent of India's  2 5 million Christians are dalits. They continue to suffer, even after  conversion, the same disabilities and handicaps had in the same  oppressive severity suffered for centuries by their Hindu brothers and  sisters. A feat, examples will substantiate this: A Christian dart was  beaten up severely by caste Hindus in Guruspusda village in Prakasam  district of Andhra Pradesh in 1983 for drawing water from a public well   located in the so-called uppercaste area of the village. Six dalits,   including an old woman, were chopped to death by the caste Hindus during the Puliangudi caste violence in Tamil Nadu in 1982. They were all  Christians. The same is true of the widely publicised Karamchedu  village (Andhra Pradesh) killings in 19 8 5 where all the nine victims  were Christian dalits.

In the recent caste atrocities committed against the dalits by the caste  Hindus in Tirunelveli Kattabomman district in Tamil Nadu (in and around   Kodiyangulam village), many of the victims were Christians. In short, a   Christian dalit is Scheduled Caste irrespective of the faith he/she   professes. This simple fact is, however, either completely ignored or   suppressed deliberately. While the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist dalits are   eligible for job reservations, electoral representation, reservation in   professional and educational institutions and other statutory benefits,   including protection under the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 as amended in 1976 and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989,  Christian dalits are denied these privileges on the ground that  Christianity does not believe in caste discrimination. But the irony is  that caste discrimination is very much practised in Christianity. For example, there are separate seats for the dalits in churches; in fact   there are separate churches for Christian dalits, separate communion  cups, and even separate burial grounds. As Mr. Kaka Karlekar. Chairman  of the Backward Classes Commission, commented, "even today the  Christians belonging to the SCs are forced to have separate cemeteries in some parts of India. Even the dead must observe caste and untouchability."

As for educational opportunities, the less said the better. While they  are forced to compete with the educationally and economically more  advanced backward classes, such as the Christian nadars in Tamil Nadu,  and fail to get admission in the government-aided educational  institutions, they fare no better in their own "Christian" institutions.  The "posh" Christian minority institutions, with rare exceptions of one
or two, refuse to entertain these poor dalit students. There are  separate schools in the same campus, one for the rich elitist upper caste Christians and non-Christians and the other, for the poor and Christian dalits.

The Government of India has been discriminating against Christian dalits on the basis of religion, ignoring the undisputed evidences of their   social. educational and economic backwardness which naturally qualify them for state protection and statutory rights. It is a sad commentary  on the Indian policy that the state which claims to be secular
disqualifies Christian dalits from getting their rights and privileges on the basis of religious disqualification. "No person who professes a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste," says the Constitution (Scheduled Castes Order, 1950).

Thanks to Master Tara Singh, Sikh dalits could get their rights, privileges and concessions in 1956 and thanks to Dr. Ambedkar and the electoral compulsion in Maharashtra in the late Eighties, the neo-Buddhists, who along with Dr. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in a mass conversion in 1956, got these rights in 1990. On the other hand, Christian dalits, who have been demanding their inclusion in the list quite vocally since Independence. are given a raw deal. Does the Government of India think Christians are politically insignificant when it comes to the number game or because Christians are, by and large, passive and law-abiding citizens they will not agitate vigorously and cause embarrassment?

The "original" sin in this injustice to Christian dalits was committed  by the Christian leaders nominated to the Constituent Assembly which debated this issue. They all belonged to the elitist upper caste and never experienced or understood the sufferings of the dalits. They were also not prepared to expose the caste discrimination that was prevalent In the churches. Hence they did not press for the inclusion of the Christian dalits in the SC list. The dalits themselves were then not conscious of this great injustice done to them.

Another issue is related to the two Acts pawed in Parliament to prevent atrocities against the SCs. As such the Protection of Civil Rights Act (1955/76) is without teeth; although a large number of cases has been registered under this Act, few have been pursued and the guilty convicted. In the case of the 1989 SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, the list of the types of atrocities committed against the SCs/STs is long and the punishment against such crimes is quite severe. But as with many of our laws, this is also a paper tiger because the police refuse to register cases under this Act. The crux of the matter is, Christian dalits do not come under the purview of this Act because it is assumed erroneously that Christianity neither believes in caste nor does it practise untouchability. The irony is, a Christian dalit may be abused and insulted, may be called by the caste name but the culprit cannot be taken to court because a Christian dalit is not an SC under these two Acts and in the eyes of the law!

The denial of rights, safeguards and privileges on the basis of their religion is a constitutional fraud committed against dalit Christians. It is a betrayal of the Constitution which says there can be no discrimination on the basis of creed. It is against the spirit of secularism enshrined in the Constitution. It violates the fundamental right of freedom to practise any religion. By denying Christian SCs the guarantees and safeguards assured to the non-Christian SCs, the Government of India indirectly treats the subjects unequally bringing pressure on the them to abandon their religion if they want to avail themselves of the benefits. This is exactly what is happening if the reconversion of the thousands of Christians to Hinduism is any indication. Some belong to both when they continue to be Christians but outwardly are Hindus. The poor dalit Christians wonder why they should be singled out for this added discrimination by the Government.

Christian dalits are not today what they were 50 years ago. They are conscious of their fundamental rights and are sensitive to discrimination, both within and outside the church and by the Government. A times has come when, it seems, they will not take any more of this oppression and discrimination. They are prepared to assert themselves as citizens of this country. The churches should stand by them. The Government of India should recognised the genuine demands of  the Christian dalits and undo the wrong being done to them.