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India’s Supreme Court To Hear ‘Untouchable’ Christians’ Plea For Equality

India’s Supreme Court To Hear ‘Untouchable’ Christians’ Plea For Equality

Co-published with Religion Unplugged

DELHI — Franklin Caesar Thomas’s great grandparents converted to Christianity from Hinduism to escape the age-old caste oppression of the Hindu social order. But the stigma of having a lower caste origin continued for Thomas, like millions of Indian Christians, who converted to Christianity from the so-called “untouchable” Hindu caste groups called Dalits.

Starting from his early years, the 55-year-old Supreme Court lawyer, Thomas, from the southern state of Tamil Nadu,  has seen caste-based discrimination in different forms throughout his life.

“During my childhood days, when we would go to buy groceries or anything, the upper-caste shopkeepers used to avoid touching our hands, thinking our touch would pollute them,” Thomas said. “It’s a discriminatory mindset that reduces the value of human life.”

Thomas and many other Christian rights activists have been campaigning for decades for the equal rights of Dalit Christians, who don’t receive protection under India’s affirmative action policy, which reserves spots for university admission and scholarship, government jobs, welfare programs and more. Only Dalits professing Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism receive those benefits. Still, Thomas is hopeful. Their struggle has finally reached the Indian Supreme Court for final hearing, expected as soon as Oct. 22 but susceptible to delays.

Systematic discrimination against Christian and Muslim Dalits

India’s Dalits, an estimated 200-250 million people or 15-20 percent of the country’s population today, have been abused and exploited by upper-caste people for thousands of years.

When the Indian constitution was being drafted in 1947, the framers discussed the need to de-weaponize caste and created an affirmative action policy, called reservation in India.

Shortly after in 1950, a clause was added to the constitution through a presidential order limiting the benefits of reservation only to Hindu Dalits, assuming that non-Hindu religions don’t have a caste hierarchy and hence, don’t need protection. The order was amended in 1956 and 1990 to include Sikh and Buddhist Dalits respectively amid pressure from the communities. Neither of the two religions has caste hierarchy. Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, called the father of India’s constitution, was himself a Dalit victim of caste oppression and converted to Buddhism with half-a-million Dalits in 1956. Christian and Muslim Dalits are still denied the privileges of the reservation programs.  

“This, in fact, turns constitutional logic on its head,” said Dr. John Dayal, former president of All India Catholic Union and a well-known human rights activist. “The constitution of India as signed and implemented on Jan. 26, 1950 did not discriminate on account of religion against Christians and Muslims when it gave to the former untouchable castes special privileges.”

The 1950 presidential order was a violation of the Indian constitution, enacted earlier in that year, Dayal added.

The civil writ petition listed before the Supreme Court for the final hearing has been filed by many rights groups and individual human rights activists calling for the deletion of the clause that keeps Christian and Muslim Dalits outside the purview of the reservation programs.

“We are fighting against the discrimination by the state which is not ready to recognize the ground reality that Dalit Christians are still persecuted in the society,” said Thomas, who is one of the first petitioners in the case. “Even after changing the religion, the stigma of caste continues. It’s hereditary.”

Thomas emphasized that not only upper-caste Hindus but in many areas, Christians with upper-caste origin, also treat Dalit Christians differently as “untouchables.”

Asir Ebenezer, a Dalit Christian priest, petitioner in the case and general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India, said that in many areas, Dalits, including Christian Dalits, are not allowed to draw water from the wells used by upper-caste Hindus.

“We are still not allowed to sit with them,” said Ebenezer. “Lower-caste Christians are still ostracized in many areas by the upper-caste society, and they have to live outside the villages. We are still trapped in the Hindu caste hierarchy, but the state doesn’t recognize that.”

It’s “state-sponsored discrimination which victimizes the victims” of caste oppression in the country, Ebenezer said.

Nehemiah Christie, a Christian rights activist, agreed.

“This is a huge shame to the world’s largest democratic nation classifying and discriminating people by their birth, which is inhuman,” Christie said. This discrimination is still followed even in this modern world “when we have sent rockets to space but yet have not grown enough in humanity to treat everyone as equal,” he said.

The Sanskrit word Dalit means “broken or crushed.” In traditional Hindu society, castes designated occupations. The Dalits were, and sometimes still are, the ones who did menial jobs, such as skinning animals or cleaning toilets. They were considered “untouchables” by the upper-caste people because they were considered unclean. Although India has made progress in eliminating untouchability and reduce caste-based discrimination, the practices remain pervasive in many areas of the country, especially in rural areas.

Recommendations but no action

Reservation programs have helped some Dalits escape poverty. Many government-appointed committees have recommended the center to bring Christian and Muslim Dalits within the fold of Scheduled Castes, the category eligible for benefits.

While submitting its report in 2007, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, headed by former Chief Justice of India, Justice Ranganath Mishra, said that Dalits continued to face discrimination even after converting to Christianity and Islam and deserved the benefit of affirmative social action or reservation. The commission recommended the Indian government, then headed by the oldest party, Congress Party, to make Scheduled Caste status “religion-neutral.” But the government has not taken any action on the recommendations yet.

There was strong opposition against the recommendations of the report. Many Hindu nationalists feared that if the reservation policy is extended to Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin, there would be mass conversions of Hindu Dalits to Christianity and Islam.

The current reservation policy is the world’s biggest “anti-conversion” law, according to Dayal, keeping 15 percent of India’s population in the caste structure without any avenue of escape because if they do so by converting to Christianity or Islam, they will lose the little legislated privilege afforded to them.

Although conversion from Hinduism to other religions worries many Hindu nationalists, conversion to Buddhism or Sikhism is treated differently than conversion to Christianity and Islam. While Buddhism and Sikhism are considered off-shoots of Hinduism by many and originated in India, Christianity and Islam are considered foreign religions.

According to the most widespread data collected, crimes against Dalits have gone up by 25% in the last decade until 2016, and 99% of cases had not been investigated by 2018. While Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits receive some protection under India’s Prevention of Atrocities Act, which imposes stricter consequences in cases of violence or intimidation against Dalits or Tribals, no such help is available to Christian and Muslim Dalits.

“Christian Dalits, despite being humiliated by the upper-caste people, can’t take the help of Prevention of Atrocity act, which makes the already vulnerable group more vulnerable,” said Ebenezer. “Very often, they are harassed or exploited because of their caste identity.”  

Since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party led by Narendra Modi came to power, hate crimes against Christian minorities, 2.3 percent of India’s population, have been rising.

The United Christian Forum (UCF), which runs a toll-free helpline number to help provide legal aid to Christians facing targeted violence for practicing their faith, recorded 148 incidents of violence in 2014, 183 in 2015, 216 in 2016, 254 in 2017, and 292 in 2018. So far this year, they have already recorded more than 115 cases.

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Many believe that Christian Dalits, who are around 70% of the total Christian population in India, are the first target of religious hate crimes because of their weak social status. “In many rural areas, they are assaulted by the upper-caste Hindus for following Christianity,” said Thomas.

In 2008, thousands of Dalit and Tribal Christians became the victims of India’s worst anti-Christian violence that continued for months in Orissa, an eastern Indian state. According to government figures, more than 600 villages were ransacked, 5,600 houses were looted and burnt, 54,000 people were displaced, and 38 people were murdered. Various NGOs and activists tally the dead at more than 100, while no one has yet been arrested for the crimes.

Discrimination within Christianity too

India’s Dalit Christians are not only discriminated against by the upper-caste Hindus, but also by Christians with upper-caste origin. Although Dalits are around 70% of India’s total Christian population, their representation in church leadership is very low. Education is still a big hurdle. An estimated 45% of Dalits are illiterate.

According to media reports, 12 of the 174 Catholic dioceses are led by bishops of Dalit origin, and out of 27,000 priests in India, only 2,500 are Dalits. Of some 65,000 nuns, only 1,600 are from Dalit groups. Out of four Cardinals in India, no one is Dalit.

“The entire Catholic Church is dominated by the upper-caste Christians,” said Thomas.

Last month, Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of the Commission for Dalits and Backward Classes of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, met with Pope Francis. In a press statement on Oct. 12, members of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) expressed their disappointment over Pope Francis not addressing the matter of caste-based discrimination happening in the Catholic Church of India.

While accusing the Vatican of a double standard, Thomas said that the institution is not following its principle in India that all human beings are equal. “We have approached the Vatican so many times, appealing them to help eradicate the caste-based discrimination in India, but nothing has happened.” 

Although the caste-based discrimination within the church dates back centuries, for the first time in its history, the Indian Catholic Church in 2016 officially accepted that Dalit Christians face untouchability and discrimination and that their participation in church leadership is “almost nil.”

According to Thomas, many Christians still follow a Hindu lifestyle.

“Many Christians, especially in rural areas, still practice caste hierarchy, and practices like not allowing inter-caste marriages,” he said.

Although caste discrimination within Christianity has reduced, it is still pervasive in many rural places. In South India, there are sometimes different burial grounds for upper and lower-caste Christians and in some parishes, lower-caste people sit separately from upper-caste people.  

“Even if you don’t want to allow inter-caste marriages within the Christians, let us be buried at the same burial ground,” Thomas said.

And yet, it’s the Catholic Church and many Catholic activists leading the petition to open the reservation policy to Dalit Christians and Muslims.

StoriesAsia, a collective of independent journalists from 16 South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, seeks to replace the present-day parade of faceless numbers with humanising narrative nonfiction – a largely ignored journalistic genre in the region.

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