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India’s Christian & Muslim ‘untouchables’ continue rights quest

NEW DELHI, India (BP)–The government of India has rejected a demand that social benefits be extended to Dalit Christians and Muslims, compounding the problems faced by the most downtrodden social class in India, Compass Direct news service reported Dec. 30.

Indian Christians had asked that any Dalit — a Hindi designation meaning “oppressed” — who converted to Christianity or Islam be awarded the same benefits already accorded other scheduled castes and tribes under the Hindu caste system, according to Compass Direct.

However, India’s social justice minister, Satyanarayan Jatiya, rejected the demand on the grounds that such a move would split the Christian community and lead to an international outcry. “It might look as if India is imposing the caste system on Christians,” Compass Direct quoted the minister as saying.

A policy of “social reservations” or quotas was established in the 1950 constitution for members of the scheduled castes, also known as the untouchables, or Dalits. The quotas allocated to Dalits, who at that time constituted 15 percent of the population of India, a corresponding quota of jobs and educational placements, Compass Direct recounted.

In 1956 and 1990, the federal government awarded reservation rights to Dalits who had become Sikhs and Buddhists but was not prepared to do the same for Christians. “Separate treatment of Dalit Christians on the basis of religion amounts to discrimination by the government and a violation of constitutional principles,” said Pappu Yadav, leader of the opposition party, Janata Dal.

Jatiya, however, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), justified the award of reservations for Hindu Dalits, saying they suffered most from the social and economic discrimination caused by “untouchability.” The BJP insisted that Muslim and Christian Dalits embrace Hinduism again in order to qualify for reservation benefits.

Compass Direct reported that, according to the All India Christian Council (AICC), awarding social benefits would not impose the caste system on Christians. In fact, it would assist them to break free from it.

The hold of the caste system is so strong that Christian Dalits continue to suffer from discrimination despite converting to another faith. Christian Dalits are still known by their sub-castes and remain at the lowest level of society.

The Hindu majority, well aware that freedom from caste restrictions could lead to a mass exodus from the Hindu faith, are reluctant to grant further rights to Dalits who reject the caste system.

“Worse, the laws punish converts to Christianity by robbing them of any existing privileges,” Compass Direct quoted John Dayal, general secretary of the AICC, as saying. “This is keeping Christians poor, jobless and landless in many states. Yet Sikhs and Buddhists who also abhor the caste system have been given these privileges of reservation.”

“For the last 53 years, Dalits have been demanding these rights,” said Joseph D’Souza, AICC president. “They have enough international support, as this is a matter of natural justice.

“This issue was agitated at the U.N.-sponsored world conference against racism and discrimination in Durban two years ago,” D’Souza said, Compass Direct reported, “and Dalit forums all over the world have been making similar demands.”

The Dalits themselves see religious-based discrimination as an assault on their freedom of faith. The caste system has kept millions of Dalits all over India at the bottom of the social ladder, even banning them from public wells and other facilities and forcing them into the most menial forms of labor.

Many perform tasks scorned by higher Hindu castes. For example, thousands of Dalits across India collect human excreta from dirty toilets and dispose of it into drains with their bare hands, without the aid of masks or protective clothing. Others cremate the dead, wash clothes polluted by blood or human waste, and remove animal waste from the streets.

Dalit women also are raped, burned and murdered with impunity in many Indian villages.

In 1996, India’s Congress party presented a bill to award Dalit Christians the right to reservation in jobs and education. However, the bill was rejected when the present BJP government came to power in 1998.

The AICC, in collaboration with a number of secular civil rights groups and Dalit organizations, plans to address this issue in court and at the highest levels of government.

Meanwhile, Compass Direct reported that India’s Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), known as the “World Hindu Council,” held a re-conversion rally on Christmas Eve in the Dangs district, in southern Gujarat state. The VHP has since claimed that 500 members of ethnic tribal groups re-converted to Hinduism during the rally. Local Christians and government officials have rejected the claim.

Praveen Togadia, VHP general secretary, initially applied for permission to hold the re-conversion rally, known as a “sammelan,” in Navapur township in Maharashtra state. That raised fears of violence during the Christmas period. Navapur, where 40 percent of the tribal population is Christian, borders Dangs district in southern Gujarat. A rally held there on Christmas Eve 1998 unleashed 10 days of anti-Christian violence, marked by the destruction of 20 local churches and a number of forced “re-conversions” of local Christians.

Four thousand people attended the rally in Ahwa town on Christmas Eve 1998. According to a 1999 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report cited by Compass Direct, the riots began when Hindus at the rally threw stones at 15 Christians in the marketplace. The Christians retaliated by throwing stones back at the Hindus, who then moved en masse to attack the local Church of North India and a Christian high school, damaging Christian and Muslim shops along their route.

Later that night, truckloads of rally participants drove into neighboring villages, destroying prayer halls and assaulting Christians. Some 25 Christian villagers were taken to the nearby Unai hot springs to undergo a forced re-conversion ceremony, despite the fact that, like most other Christians in the district, they had been animists before converting to Christianity.

The villagers told Human Rights Watch that they gave in to pacify the Hindus and had not actually given up their faith. “They said, ‘You are now Hindu,’ but we remain Christian,” one villager said.

The riots in Dangs led to the first of the Gujarat state census reports, where information was collected on the location and activities of Christians living in the state.

Further violence against religious minorities erupted in Gujarat in February 2002, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the displacement of thousands of Muslims to temporary refugee camps. Togadia, in reference to the Gujarat riots, declared in December 2002 that, “All Hindutva opponents will get the death sentence, and we will leave it to the people to carry this out,” Compass Direct reported.

In response, Abraham Mathai, vice chairman of the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission, urged Deputy Prime Minister Chhagan Bhujbal to revoke permission granted for the sammelan scheduled for Christmas Eve 2003.

Speaking for the Christian community in Navapur, Mathai said, “They fear communal elements will come in large numbers from neighboring Dangs district and add to the violence.”

The VHP distributed anti-Christian flyers in preparation for the 2003 rally, echoing tactics used five years ago. A report in a local newspaper on Dec. 23 said Hindu activists already had attacked 20 Christians the day before in Bhendgwahn village in Maharashtra state.

In response to Mathai’s plea, the Maharashtra state government invoked Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code to ban the rally in Navapur Township. Togadia, who was to be guest of honor at the function, also was banned from entering Navapur.

The VHP then shifted the location of the rally to Lalmati in Gujarat, only two kilometers from Navapur on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border.

Vyankatesh Abdev, the Maharashtra unit president of the VHP, claimed that a pastor from neighboring Navapur district and several of his church members were among the 500 who had re-converted to Hinduism during the rally.

According to VHP officials, a “Pastor Motu” said he was “forcibly” converted by missionaries a few years ago and that after the sammelan he would bring more Christian tribals “into the Hindu fold.”

Jaideep Patel, general secretary of the Gujarat unit of the VHP, said the rally was part of the VHP’s “ghar vapsi,” or homecoming program, currently underway in many tribal areas in India.

“The tribals just have to come to the temple in their village and pay obeisance,” Patel said. “After that, we consider that they have become Hindus again.”

Samson Christian, state convener of the All India Christian Council, rejected the VHP’s claim of 500 re-conversions. “We will believe this only if the VHP gives us a list of those who they claim have become Hindus,” Christian said.

Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit activist from the human rights group Prashant, agreed. “We don’t have any details, we don’t even know which Christian group they are talking about.”

Government officials present during the ceremony also rejected the VHP’s claim of 500 re-conversions, saying there was only one pastor and about a dozen Christians at the event.

During the re-conversion rally, Togadia called upon the state government to adopt anti-conversion laws similar to those already imposed in five other Indian states.
Based on Compass Direct reports from Joshua Newton & Vishal Arora. Compass Direct can be accessed on the Internet at www.compassdirect.org.

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