The Unending Struggle of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims for Equality: S. Japhet and Y. Moses
Guest post by S. JAPHET and Y. MOSES
Religious minorities, both Christians and Muslims from different parts of the country have converged in Delhi to demand reservations for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. This is part of a long standing struggle demanding the Government to introduce a bill to amend the constitution to include Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the scheduled Castes list. The Christian community has been agitating since the promulgation of the Presidential Order Government of India 1950 that effectively prevents those professing religions other than Hinduism from being considered as Scheduled Castes. It has been argued that the 1950 Order violates Article 15 that prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race or caste and Article 25 that gives the right to all citizens to profess and practise any religion according to his or her choice. The demand is that affirmative action or positive discrimination of dalits, providing reservations in government jobs, educational institutions and representation in Parliament and state legislatures should be extended to all dalits irrespective of whatever religion they may profess and practise.
Christians have taken up this issue of exclusion and discrimination with successive Prime Ministers, Presidents and political parties and have organised rallies and dharnas from time to time demonstrating their numerical strength and unity of purpose. None of these efforts have yielded the desired result, although there were times when it seemed that they were close to getting the government introduce a bill to amend the constitution to include Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims as Scheduled Castes. One such occasion was during the congress regime in 1996 when a bill was crafted and tabled by the Social welfare Ministry but was not admitted by the Speaker for want of seven days statutory notice. Thereafter, there were also attempts in 1997 during the United Democratic Front government to introduce the bill. But the agitating Christian community has found the parliamentary route rather slippery since political parties, especially the Congress party is high on expressing sympathies and support outside the parliament than inside it. Even the 1996 attempt to introduce the bill is seen more as a pretence and ploy than a serious effort to meet the popular demand of the Christian community.
The alternative route to justice for Dalit Christians (DCs) and Dalit Muslims (DMs) is through the judicial process. There are writ petitions challenging the 1950 presidential order pending before the Supreme Court of India. Here again, the UPA government is adopting evasive methods to prevent a Court verdict on the issue. It sought several adjournments since 2005 and has adopted the tactics of constituting commissions and committees in response to the court’s order. The Ranganath Mishra Commission it had set up in 2005 submitted its report in May 2007, which was again referred to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes for further examination. Both the commissions are in favour of extending constitutional protection and guarantees to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims as available to their counterparts professing Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. In this context it is important to note here that the 1950 Presidential Order was amended twice earlier in 1956 and 1990 to include Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Muslims respectively.
The apparent reason for postponing the issue by the UPA government is the objection from certain sections of Hindu dalits who fear additional groups would eat into their limited quota of 15%. This need not be the case because the quota for SCs and STs is revised from time to time in proportion to their population. The numbers of the new groups do not add up to upset the applecart. In any case, the point of quota limitation does not justify the exclusion of a people who suffer similar socio-economic, political disabilities as their counterparts in other religions. It has been proved beyond doubt by various studies that Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam are thrice discriminated by the State, caste Hindu society as well as by their co-religionists of non-dalit background. A recent study commissioned by the National Commission for Minorities makes this amply clear. It is worth summarising the findings of this scientific study, conducted by Satish Deshpande with the assistance of Geetika Bapna of the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi and submitted in 2008.
Using survey methods with structured questionnaires, community based investigations and enquiries and long-duration field work using ethnographic techniques, this study states “there can be no doubt whatsoever that Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians are socially known and treated as distinct groups within their own religious communities and that these groups are treated as ‘socially inferior’….“in most social contexts, DMs and DCs are Dalits first and Muslims and Christians only second. The report emphasises that the body of evidence taken as a whole is unambiguously clear on the fact that there is no compelling evidence to justify denying SC status to DMs and DCs. Dispelling doubts over the negative impact it can have on percentage quota in including these groups, the report maintains that the numbers of both DMs and DCs according to the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) estimates will be under three million only, a number that would hardly justify a ‘lifeboat’ type argument. The report reinforces the demand of agitating communities that DMs and DCs are not so distinct from other Dalit groups that an argument for treating them differently could be sustained.
It should also be remembered that in several cases of atrocities committed against Dalits , majority of the victims were dalit Christians as in the case of Karamchedu and Chundur. These victims were attacked not because they were Christians but because they were untouchables. Therefore the problem of Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam is more a social problem than a religious one. Despite their conversion their socio-economic status has not altered or changed. Rather, it has worsened their condition without constitutional legal support. Therefore the struggle of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims is a legitimate demand for equal rights and full citizenship.
(Dr S. Japhet is Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School of India University. Dr. Y Moses is Senior Researcher there.)