January 2020

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of India agreed to grant an early hearing in a case that seeks justice for 20 million Christians in India who are Dalits. The case was first brought before the apex court in 2004.

The Constitution of India recognizes and protects Dalits, a group of historically disadvantaged people, as Scheduled Castes. Although discrimination based on caste has been constitutionally prohibited, discrimination against Dalits still persists. Twenty seven percent of households who participated in the India Human Development Survey 2011-12, shockingly admitted to the practice of untouchability.

Human rights groups estimate that a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes. In rural areas, 38 percent of government-run schools segregate Dalit children from other children. In 70 percent of rural villages, Dalits are forbidden to interact with non-Dalits. Dalit women are especially targeted, enduring sexual abuse by police and upper caste men. They often experience discrimination in employment and wages, and are often forced into prostitution.

Christian Dalits (20 million) and Muslim Dalits (100 million) suffer double victimization by virtue of being excluded from the protections and provisions that have been made available to other Dalits.

The Presidential Order or Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950, classified the Scheduled Castes who are eligible to receive special government benefits, jobs, housing, and educational opportunities. They are also entitled to receive special protection under laws such as the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. However, paragraph 3 of the most recently amended version of the Order states, “No person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” As a result, Christian Dalits and all Dalits who adopt a faith that is not approved by the government are denied this special status, and the ensuing privileges and protections.

Studies show that Dalits who embrace Christianity and Islam, continue to suffer extreme social, educational and economic hardship. Approximately 70 percent of Christians in India belong to the Dalit community. They are poor and engaged in menial occupations as manual scavengers and street sweepers. They continue to suffer even after their conversion to Christianity. Christian communities in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh are particularly vulnerable.

In 2004, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) challenged the constitutionality of the 1950 Presidential Order in the Supreme Court. The petition claims that the Order is discriminatory and violates the constitutionally guaranteed right to equality, freedom of conscience, and the right to practice the religion of one’s choice. Since then, several groups have joined the fight, including the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the National Council of Churches in India.

In 2007, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities strongly recommended that Paragraph 3 of the Order be deleted “so as to completely de-link the Scheduled Caste status from religion and make the Scheduled Castes’ net fully religion-neutral.”

Over 15 years have passed since CPIL’s petition, and finally the resolution seems to be in sight. The discrimination and persecution of Dalits must come to an end. They must no longer be treated as second- class citizens. All citizens must have equal protection of the law.