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Fighting exclusion: Push continues in India for rights for Christians in lower castes

DELHI, India (BP)–India’s Supreme Court has asked the federal government why an employment quota system for members of lower castes, who are commonly called Dalits, has been withheld from those who convert to Christianity, Compass Direct news service reported Jan. 10.

Under India’s caste system, certain quotas are reserved for Dalits, a term that literally means “broken people.”

The Supreme Court’s notice came at the end of a drawn-out legal battle spanning many years of litigation, public campaigns and representations by India’s Christian minorities who are seeking equal access to the government employment scheme.

About 26 percent of government jobs in India are reserved for members of “Scheduled Castes,” as the government defines them. The quotas aim to bring Dalits into the political and social mainstream.

Currently, Dalits who convert to Christianity are not entitled to jobs under this plan.

The court expects a response from the government before the end of January.

Initially, Dalits converting to other religions such as Sikhism or Buddhism also were excluded. However, the government recently amended the law to provide a job quota for Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists.

“Only the Christian community is now excluded,” said senior advocate Shanti Bhushan, representing the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, which has filed a petition in the Supreme Court.

“I think we have a very strong case because the social and economic status of any person does not change when they change their religion,” Bhushan told Compass.

Bhushan said he expected opposition to the campaign. “The Hindu nationalists could oppose it. But let’s see.”

Over the past six years, Hindu nationalist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have orchestrated campaigns against Christian missionaries, and against Dalits and tribals who have converted to Christianity, particularly in the south and east of India.

Immediately after the Supreme Court’s initial order seeking an explanation from the government, several Christian leaders from the All India Catholic Union sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi — who is herself a Christian.

In the memorandum, the leaders called upon the government to restore “human dignity and equality” to Dalit Christians. They also said the government now has a “window of opportunity” to help the Dalit Christian community by undoing a “historic injustice.”

“The founding fathers of the Indian Constitution … enacted the law without reference to their current religions,” the memo added. Conditions have since changed, meaning new provisions are needed to end double discrimination on the grounds of religion as well as caste.

Quota rights were initially denied to Christians on the grounds that Christianity does not discriminate between castes. However, this ignores the fact that all Indians, regardless of religious background, live in a society bound by centuries of caste tradition.

In 1996, the former Congress Party government brought a bill before parliament to change this legal anomaly, but the government collapsed before the bill could be passed.

The failed bill noted that, “Demands have been made from time to time for extending these benefits and safeguards to Christians of Scheduled Caste origin by granting them recognition as Scheduled Castes on the grounds that the change of religion has not altered their social and economic condition.”

In other words, Dalit and tribal Christians should be awarded the same rights as other members of Scheduled Castes. As the law currently stands, a Dalit Christian is no longer technically considered a member of a Scheduled Caste and is no longer entitled to benefits, even though in practice, he or she is not freed from the social restrictions of the caste system.

Church leaders who met recently with Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi referred to the 1996 draft, urging the new government to re-introduce the legislation and attain its approval as a constitutional amendment.

India’s National Minorities Commission also acknowledged this dilemma in a 1997-98 report. “The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 should be amended to omit altogether the proviso that a person belonging to a particular religion cannot be regarded as a member of a Scheduled Caste,” the report stated.
Satya Kumar is a journalist in India. Copyright 2005 Compass Direct, a news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., focusing on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.

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