Dalit Christians Case: Press Statement Dated Jan 29, 2020
A bunch of petitions challenging the exclusion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims from the protections and privileges afforded by law to other Dalits, came up today, January 29, 2020, before a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court.
Writ petition 180/2004 is the lead matter in this case and Mr. Prashant Bhushan, who is representing the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) had begun to state his case when the Union requested the Apex Court for four more weeks to reply to all petitions connected with this matter. The Union’s request was granted by the bench headed by the Chief Justice of India. ADF India allied lawyers are representing the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) in this case.
When India became a Republic, we resolved as a nation to secure Justice, Equality, Liberty and Dignity for all our citizens. Members of castes worst affected from centuries of social oppression, the Scheduled Castes (SCs), were constitutionally assured special protection and affirmative benefits. These measures are necessary to help them overcome the effect of centuries of discrimination and oppression.
In 1950, a large section of these SCs, or Dalits, suffered a serious blow to their dreams of empowerment. The President of India, in exercise of powers granted under Article 341(1) of the Indian Constitution, passed the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950. Para 3 of this order stated that “no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste”. Millions of Dalit Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and adherents of other religious faiths other than Hinduism would no longer have special protections and benefits.
It is not only common knowledge but also borne out of numerous extensive research studies that the Dalits are unfortunately still identified first by their caste by a large section of the Indian society. All their other identities, arising from their religious, regional, linguistic and other affiliations are secondary identities that do nothing to displace the severity of the caste-based discrimination and violence that they suffer.
Ten persons were recently convicted for the murder of a Dalit Christian by the Principal Sessions Court of Kottayam. Kevin Joseph, a Dalit Christian, was killed because he was to marry an upper-caste Christian girl. The fact that Kottayam was the first district in India to boast of 100% literacy, goes to show the pervasiveness of caste-related crime, irrespective of religious persuasions.
Realizing partially the error of the 1950 Order, the Parliament of India brought relief to Dalit Sikhs in 1956 when the Order was amended to include persons of SC origin who follow Sikhism. Much later, in 1990, through another amendment, the Parliament of India included Buddhists of SC origin within the meaning of SCs.
In March 1996, the Union Cabinet had accepted the proposal to amend the 1950 Order to include Christians of SC origin, i.e., Dalit Christians, within the meaning of SCs. The bill was listed in the Lok Sabha on March 11, 1996 but could not be introduced due to procedural lapses, followed by the dissolution of Parliament for the 1996 Indian general election.
There is no cogent basis, however, to justify the inclusion of persons of SC origin who adhere to some religious faiths while excluding adherents of other faiths. The Union’s reliance on Explanation II of Article 25(2) of the Constitution to say that Sikhs and Buddhists are somehow more proximate to “Hindu society” is preposterous. This theory has no takers among the adherents of Sikhism and Buddhism. Both these major world religions, as also the Jains, are religious minorities in India with statutory representation in the National Commission for Minorities.
In fact, the very linking of SC status to religion is illogical. The 1950 order para 3 is being assailed as violative of Article 14 (right to equality), Article 15 (right to freedom from discrimination), Article 21 (right to liberty and dignity in life) and Article 25 (right to freedom of conscience and religion) of the Constitution of India.
Commission after Commission, study after study, conducted in the last 70 years, have recognized that severe socio-economic and educational backwardness continue to plague all Dalits, irrespective of their religious faith. The First Backward Classes Commission (Kaka Kalelkar Commission) recommended that the State must take special steps to empower Christians and Muslims of SC origin. The Second Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission) stated that religious conversion does not change socio-economic status. The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Ranganath Misra Commission) and the study conducted by Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna, Department of Sociology, University of Delhi for the National Commission for Minorities have strongly recommended the delinking of religion from SC status.
The Supreme Court has a monumental opportunity now to render justice to millions of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims who continue to suffer from social stigma and the horrors of untouchability.