Photo: At a Dalit rally in Nagpur city on Oct. 14, 2006. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on this date in in 1956. (Vishal Arora/StoriesAsia)
Dalit Christians Question Why They Lose Reservation Benefits after Their Conversion to Christianity
When thousands of “outcaste” Dalit people convert from Hinduism to Christianity, they hope to leave behind their untouchable Dalit identity so that they would no longer have to face the same discrimination. After all, it’s a religion that preaches equality for all. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” says the Bible in Galatians 3:28.
The ancient Indian society was based on the system of four varnas – Brahmins, who were priests and gurus; Kshatriyas, the warriors and the administrators; Vaishyas, who were traders and agriculturists; and Shudras, the servants. There was another set of people who did not belong to any of the four categories, the outcastes or Dalits.
Historically, Dalit people have been considered untouchables and it was perpetuated that any contact with them would make a person impure. This, unfortunately, is still prevalent in 21st century India. And if not that, there is bias and prejudice that keeps members of the community from having a life of respect and dignity.
For Hindu Dalit people, it is extremely difficult to navigate the caste trap. To escape the tyranny of “upper caste” Hindus, many Dalit people have converted to religions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam for decades.
But, perhaps, that’s not the end of the story.
“You can change your religion but not your caste,” argues Franklin Caesar Thomas, a Dalit Christian rights activist and a Supreme Court advocate.
According to the 2001 census, Christians are nearly 2.3 percent of India’s population, which comes to around 29 million. They are sub-grouped largely into Catholics and Protestants based on their doctrines and practices. Of the 29 million Christians in India, more than 17 million are Catholic, according to some estimates. As estimated 70 percent of the Catholics are from Dalit backgrounds, and some of them call themselves Dalit Christians or Catholic Dalits. The term “Dalit” means “broken” or “the ones trampled upon” in the Sanskrit language.
Many Dalit Christians allege that there is systematic discrimination against them even in the Church.
Thomas claims that there are separate seating areas for Dalits and people from dominant castes in some churches, particularly in the rural and remote parts of Tamil Nadu state and some other parts of southern India. “Dalit people also prefer separate place/seating arrangement in the church.”
The segregation, he adds, goes on in death, too. Some churches, he alleges, “have separate cemeteries.” People from the dominant castes also do not generally like to marry Dalit people, he continues. “We are born Dalits and we die Dalits.”
The representation of Dalit Christians in the Church leadership also remains highly inadequate, Thomas points out, quoting a group called National Dalit Christian Watch.
Only 2,500 of the 27,000 priests in India are Dalits, according to this group, which also claims that only 12 of the 174 Catholic dioceses are led by Dalit bishops, only 1,600 of the 65,000 nuns are Dalit, and none of the four cardinals in the country is Dalit.
“When we ask why only people from dominant castes are selected as bishops, the church conveniently says that every selection is as per the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit. Does God allow you to neglect Dalits who are theologically and morally upright?” asks Thomas.
The first Dalit bishop was appointed in 1977. At the time, the leaders of the Catholic Church in India said that it was because there were very few Dalit priests and that the Dalit vocation had to be promoted, Thomas says.
“While that was true, this situation itself was created by caste hierarchy. Dalit Christians were prevented both at entry level and the seminaries which are colleges for priests and rabbis,” argues M. Mary John, President of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement. Even those who joined were mostly dismissed or denied ordination under one pretext or the other.”
In June, John wrote a letter to the Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador of the Vatican) of India and Nepal, saying, “It is not just for the sake of or for the pleasure of representation. As long as there is no adequate representation of Dalit Bishops in the hierarchy, the educational and employment opportunities, welfare and development schemes, financial and other material resources in the Catholic Church are not going to reach Dalits who constitute the big majority. And there will be no accountability for it. Above these, it is respecting the faith and spirituality of these people.”
Dalit Christians complain that while they continue to be discriminated against after their conversion to Christianity, they lose their Scheduled Caste status, which means they can no longer avail constitutional provisions and opportunities they had before their conversion.
What does the Constitution of India Say?
In the Indian constitution, Dalits are classified as Scheduled Castes (SC) and there are necessary provisions to ensure their growth.
Article 17 of the Constitution seeks to eliminate untouchability. It says, “Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of ‘untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.”
The Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 takes it forwards and commands penalties for the enforcement of any kind of discrimination that arises out of untouchability.
Article 46 says, “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”
This means the historically oppressed castes would be entitled to special reservations, providing better opportunities in education, jobs, welfare programs and more. But that holds true only for Dalits who identify themselves as Hindus, Sikhs or Buddhists.
According to paragraph 3 of the 1950 Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, any person professing religions other than Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism shall not be considered belonging to a Scheduled Caste. This deprives Dalit Christians of constitutional protections and affirmative benefits.
Thomas, along with other Christian rights activists, has been campaigning for the rights of Dalit Christians for years. He is a petitioner for a case in the Supreme Court demanding the same quota benefits for Christian Dalits that Scheduled Castes are entitled to.
In 2007, a report submitted by the Ranganath Mishra Commission (National Commission for Religious and linguistic Minorities) recommended keeping religion separate from the Scheduled Caste status of individuals. It also recommended the scrapping of the 1950 Presidential order that identifies only Hindu, Buddhist and Sikhs as Dalits.
“It is a fact that we are Dalits and we have faced oppression for so many years,” Joh says. “The government has taken away our rights just because we converted to another religion. India is a secular country and all religions are equal. Dalits from every religion should be treated equally.”
In the last few years, many political parties and state governments have favoured providing the Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians and Muslims. J. Jayalalithaa, the late chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, had written to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the same. In 2019, Chandrababu Naidu, who was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh state then, passed a resolution in the state assembly demanding Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Christians. The resolution was, however, non-binding on the central government.
The proposal has faced strong opposition from today’s governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which apparently believes that providing reservations to Dalit Christians and Muslims would weaken the Hindu society as more and more people would start converting to these religions.
The practice of physical untouchability might have started to fade away but the mindset of segregation appears to be very much around as reflected in numerous newspaper reports.
While justice against decades of caste domination required drastically increasing their representation, Dalit Christians argue that the reverse is happening. After more than seven decades of the country’s independence, Dalit Christians and Muslims say they are still fighting for their rights.