SOOSAI THE COBBLER AGAINST THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
Soosai spent most of his waking hours on the pavement of Kodampakkam High Road, a street in Madras, working hard as a cobbler and earning a meagre subsistence. He was a fourth generation Catholic Tamil - in English his name means Joseph -but he was also a Dalit, which meant that he lived in the same poverty as his ancestors. Apart from the pavement, he had no real home : he and his wife and two surviving sons simply camped there in a rough shelter, his other seven children having died for want of food and medical attention.
For the non-Indian reader we must explain that, in the ancient Hindu system of social ranking, the caste system, anyone working with leather, the skin of an animal, was by that very fact polluted, unclean, and likely to pollute anyone who came near him. Such a person is called Untouchable or Dalit and , a level of society that is so low down in the scale of castes that it is not a caste at all and the person is an "out-caste". In fact, cobblers are viewed as more untouchable than the other untouchables; they are outcaste within the outcastes.
Thus all cobblers, working with leather to repair shoes or sandals, are considered to be Dalit. Dalit they are born, Dalit they die, and nothing they do or achieve can ever change this status. In English, we know the word "pariah" meaning "someone who should not be in society". It comes from an Indian tamil word "parai" meaning an instrument; made of cow-skin stretched over the top of the drum. Men whose job it was to beat the mourning drums at funerals were thereby Untouchable or Dalit and called "Pariah" .
One day in 1983 good news came to Soosai and the other cobblers of the street , all of whom were Dalits or Untouchables because of their trade . On the basis of the law known as the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 , which empowered the Indian Government to take special measures of "reservation" or "affirmative action" from time to time to help to counterbalance the accumulated disabilites of the Dalits, the government were now going to provide them with bunks to keep their kit and tools like sewing machines for stitching leather. With all his fellow cobblers, Soosai stood in line at the distribution centre, the Government offices. All the others got their new equipment, but , when Soosai's turn came , the officer said - "Your name is not on the list. You are not eligible." To his dismay , Soosai was informed that because he was a Christian he was not qualified as belonging to the Scheduled Castes under the 1950 and 1956 version of the Order , in which Article 3 says that 'no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism or Sikhism shall be deemed to be a member of the scheduled Castes.' A later version in 1990 would read "Hindu or Sikh or Buddhist" , but would still not include "Christian" . This was blatant discrimination on grounds of religion alone and the case was taken up by the Society for Social Action of Madras in writ of petition No. 9596 of 1983 and was pleaded in the Supreme Court in Delhi by Mrs.Margaret Alva, then a Supreme Court advocate and a Member of Parliament, who was to become a Minister in the Cabinet of Rajiv Gandhi in December 1984 . Soosai lost his case. The Supreme Court delivered their judgement on 30 September 1985 :-
"To establish that paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 discriminates against Christian members of the enumerated castes , it is not sufficient to show that the same caste continues after conversion. It is necessary to establish further that the disabilities and handicaps suffered from such caste membership in the social order of its orignin - Hinduism - continue in its oppressive severity in the new environment of a different religious community." The judges found that "this had not been established by clear and cogent evidence" and the petition was dismissed .
It would seem that the Supreme Court is refusing to recognise evidence that describes the condition of Soosai as an individual. As an individual , Soosai obviously suffers the same disabilities that his fellow-cobblers and fellow Dalits are all suffering together on the same street . That much evidence Soosai and his lawyer can provide. If, however, the Court demands exhaustive evidence to prove the wretched condition, nation-wide, of all of Soosai's fellow Christian Dalits as a class, as Christians, not as inidividuals but collectively, then this penniless worker is faced with the gigantic burden of a scientific nation-wide survey. Could he and his advocates hope to enjoy the co-operation and support of 147 bishops , whose sensitivities might seek to avoid the embarassment of admitting that flagrant caste discrimination against the Dalits is still practised in the Church?
We can take comfort from the fact that in various years before and after Soosai's experience, the church authorities have uttered strong condemnations of any injustice that might be inflicted on dalit Christians by other Christians. The language of these condemnations has tended to refer to the notion of caste discrimination, without the embarassing admittance of such injustice as concrete fact. However, in March 1998, a statement of CBCI (Catholic Bishops Conference of India), came close to moving from notion to fact:;- "The prevalence of the caste system, not only in society but also in some parts of the Church in India even at the close of the 20th century, is a matter of shame and disgrace to all of us." Even in this lanuguage, we see embarassment and reluctance to admit concrete fact, for the use the abstract noun "prevalence" is less frank than the use of the finite verb "is prevalent".
Let us compare these two men:- Soosai, the street cobbler and Shri. K. R. Narayannan, the President of India. It is a wonderful fact that the President, like Soosai, happens to be a Dalit. If Mr. Narayanan's children apply for admission to a school or job, they are eligible, as the law now stands, under the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order of 1950, 1956 and 1990. Soosai's children are not eligible. What is the difference? Narayannan's children are Dalit Hindu: Soosai' s children are Dalit Christian. The only legal difference is religion: the Order includes Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, and excludes Christians.