No Special Caste Status for Christians in India

November 3, 2014 by Open Doors in Asia

“India should not extend government job and education assistance to the country’s poorest Christians,” according to India’s social justice minister, Thavar Chand Gehlot.

For one thing, he said, there are no Christians among India’s Dalits, a name given to the country’s most impoverished and marginalized citizens, sometimes called the “untouchables.” He also contends that extending government benefits to impoverished Christians would encourage poor Hindu Indians to convert in hopes of qualifying for the programs.

The minister’s confusing statements, provided October 10th to the Times of India drew ridicules from activists who work with Christian Dalits.

Dalit means “trampled upon”, and refers to people in low castes who are treated as “untouchables” in India’s strict caste system. Dalits are a mixed population, living all over the country, speaking a variety of languages and practicing numerous religions.

They are often forced to make a living by working menial jobs, such as scavenging, while living segregated from upper castes in rural areas. In pockets of southern Tamil Nadu state, for example, Dalits are not even allowed to walk in upper-caste areas. In roadside restaurants in neighboring Karnataka state, Dalits are often required to squat on the floor and eat from dishes kept separate from those provided to upper-caste customers, who sit on chairs.

Sorting grain in a Dalit village near Madurai, Tamil Nadu. 2006 photo.

Matteo / Flickr / Creative Commons

A 1950 law listed Hindu Dalits as a “Scheduled Caste,” making them eligible for free education, and set aside jobs in government and seats in state legislatures, to improve their status. The privileges, initially afforded only to Hindu Dalits, were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and to Buddhist Dalits in 1990. They are still not available to Muslim and Christian Dalits. Advocates for Christian and Muslim Dalits have tried for decades to gain access to the government’s dedicated job and education set-asides.

Dalits account for two-thirds of India’s Christian population, which has reached approximately 80 million, or 7 percent of India’s total population, by some estimates.

“As a Dalit Christian leader, I have to state that the position of the minister is unfortunate,” Rev. Kumar Swamy, national secretary of the All India Christian Council, told World Watch Monitor. “The constitution clearly states that citizens will not be discriminated on the basis of religion,” Swamy said. The government’s provision of benefits to Hindu Dalits on one hand, and the refusal of them to Christian and Muslim Dalits on the other, he said, is a “violation of a fundamental rightequality before the law guaranteed under of the constitution.”

As the Indian states of Maharashtra and Haryana were holding elections, the Times of India interviewed Gehlot, a member of the cabinet of new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Gehlot said the demand for equal benefits to be extended to Christian and Muslim Dalits, embodied in a 10-year-old lawsuit now sitting before India’s Supreme Court, is illogical. Some Hindus, he said, “converted to other religions because untouchability did not exist there. The conversion has solved the problems they faced as Hindus. So, they should not ask for SC status.”

Christian activists declare such claims nonsense. “Nobody can escape the Indian caste system by converting to other religions. After the conversion, they do not live in vacuum but in a casteist society itself,” said Rev. Sunil Raj Philip, executive secretary of the Commission on Dalits within the National Council of Churches in India, in a statement released on October 21st The council represents 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches in India.

Thought the official census puts the Christian population of India at 2.3 percent, independent estimates place the number as high as 7 percent, which equates to more than 80 million people. Millions of Christian Dalits keep their faith hidden to avoid disqualification from Scheduled Caste categorization and the benefits it provides.

“Whether Christians or Muslims do not have caste system is not the issue. The fact is that caste identity until today is a dominant identity in India and results in all forms of discrimination,” Rev. Swamy told World Watch Monitor.

Franklin Caesar, a Dalit Christian activist, filed suit 10 years ago to forbid the government from allocating benefits based on religion. His petition has been pending in the federal Supreme Court for a decade, with no indication that the case will be taken up any time soon.

“It is contradiction that the minister for social justice is trying to deny justice to the Christians and Muslims,” said Caesar, who moved to New Delhi from Tamil Nadu in 2004 to prosecute the case more effectively.

Caesar told World Watch Monitor that several inquiry reports and commissions have recommended that the government “de-link” scheduled-caste status from religion. In a 2009 report, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, led by a former Chief Justice of India, concluded that Christians and Muslims suffer the same inequalities as other Dalits.

However, the political climate is changing for the worse. Though India has no official religion, a nationalistic strain of Hinduism dominates the national political structure since the ascension of the Bharatiya Janata Party to the control of the national government earlier this year, leading Caesar to be less optimistic about a positive response to his petition in the Supreme Court.

Source: World Watch Monitor

Father, we lift before Your the Christian Dalits of India. Provide for their needs where the government seems unwilling. Wipe away their tears when society casts them out. Help them to live in the assurance that they are Your beloved children. Teach them to stand proudly as sons of the most high God, and yet in the strength and humility of Christ, the one who suffered on this earth as an outcast. Fill them with the peace and joy that can only come from You. Overrule in the midst of this political climate to set right the injustice, so that all may see that You have done it. Set their eyes on Christ, their only sure hope. In the name of Jesus, whose suffering we share, Amen.

Join others in praying.