National Council of Dalit Christians: 'Division on Basis of Religion Must Stop'

New Delhi (Christian Today) - The National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), a laity organization formed to fight for the justice and equality of Dalit Christians in India and recognized by mainstream church bodies, including, Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), had staged a hunger strike relay recently in New Delhi spreading over 10 days (November 27-December 9), during which thousands of Dalit Christians from all over India joined hands to protest against the atrocities perpetrated on them by the 'upper-castes' and urge the Central Government to secure their basic human rights.

|PIC1|"Our demands are very clear. We are asking equal rights for the Dalit Christians. Just like other Dalits in India. The Presidential Order (Scheduled Castes) 1950 discriminates Dalits on the basis of religion and divides them. That is what we are opposing," said Prof. (Dr.) M. Mary John, chairman, NCDC. "This is a historical wrong we want to correct. If this is a secular country and all religions are equal, then all Dalits under all religions must be treated equally - they must get equal protection and equal rights."

Acknowleding that the Government has done little to emancipate them, he said, "So far we have been very patient, thinking that justice will be done. We have submitted memorandums after memorandums and Commissions after Commissions have been set up. All recognized that converting to Christianity does not change our socio-economic and political backwardness. But in spite of these things, the Government is not doing anything. The Government has promised to settle and resolve this issue several times but they remained empty promises. The Government is dragging its feet over the issue. So now we have approached the Supreme Court and are going in for this for vigorous agitation. And we will intensify our struggle if our demands are not met."

Acknowledging the ugly divides the caste system has created in India, Prof. (Dr.) John said, "India is a caste based society. We are suffering all the insults, all the discriminations and segregations. Christianity, alone, cannot protect our human rights. It cannot enforce law to protect our rights. The socio-economic rights have to be protected by the state."

So does Christianity recognize discrimination? "We may argue that Christianity does not recognize discrimination, caste-based or otherwise. That is wrong. If Christianity can protect people from discrimination, why do we have laws worldwide protecting people against discrimination? Be it in form of race, caste, color or creed - discrimination exists. Christianity preaches against discrimination. But preaching alone cannot protect or ensure peoples' rights. That is when the state law comes. So saying that Christianity does not recognize discrimination is merely an argument to deprive us of legal protection. The Government cannot take that as an argument. The Government itself has tried so many times to move the bill to extend privileges to Dalit Christians under Scheduled Castes. But they still have not managed to do it and hence we are going in for this intense struggle," the chairman said.

Relating the plight of the Dalit Christians in India, V.J. George, national convenor, NCDC, said, "All over India the plight of the Dalit Christians are same - we have separate churches, separate cemeteries, separate wells to draw water from. People refuse to interact with us. Inter-caste marriages are rare. Especially in Kerala, where the proportion of Dalit Christians in the church is less than 20 percent, segregation and discrimination are more marked. We are discriminated against by the 'upper-caste' Christians within the walls of the church and by 'upper-caste' Hindus outside."

"As Dalit Christians, we have struggled in vain for generations to become accepted by other Christians. Other Christians, like tribal Christians who belong to OBC groups (Other Backward Classes) have found it easier in being accepted by 'upper-caste' Christians. We are the most alienated lot," George said.

"We have urged the Government several times to ensure our justice and equality but our petition have fallen on deaf ears. Now we have approached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is saying that there is merit in our caseit will hear the case on its merits. We do not expect the Supreme Court to give direction to the Legislature to make the law that will remove our backwardness. What we expect from the Supreme Court is that it will give a direction to the Government to consider our issue and solve the matter in stipulated time. This is the reason why we went to the Supreme Court," he continued.

"As Dalit Christians we are entitled to minority rights. But we are denied any access to the rights. Look at Christian educational institutions. If you look at recruitment of staff, the admission process, etc., in all these things the Dalit Christians are denied any opportunity. Naturally, there is not a single institution run or managed by a Dalit Christian or Dalit Christian institution in India," George explained. "We are the only community in India who do not benefit from being a minority community. Dalit Buddhists, Dalit Sikhs have benefited, but not Dalit Christians. So now we are saying that we are Dalits, not minority. We are the indigenous people of this country. Why should we be then segregated from the others on the basis of religion?"

"For over 50 years, we have been deprived of our basic human rights. We have been completely alienated from mainstream educational, social and economic life. Even if we get Scheduled Caste status, we have a backlog of about 50 years," he said, adding, "But look - Dalit Hindus have progressed a lot in terms of education and economic development and now even represent in Parliament, etc."

"According to me, reservation benefits should be given on basis of untouchability, only to Dalits. Communities who have suffered untouchability and communities who have experienced all the socio-economic and educational backwardness because of prevalence of untouchability, should be given reservation benefits," he concluded. "This should be the criteria for reservation and not religion."

Caste, a social stratification rooted deep in Hinduism, organizes people by a combination of descent and employment. The lowest group in the caste system is the Dalits. While atrocities against the Dalits have been practiced for thousands of years, caste-based atrocities are reaching new heights and are causing tension across many areas.

A 1950 Presidential Order excluded Dalit convert to Christianity from the quota system that reserved jobs to members of the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes in the public service. The same exclusion applies to those who convert to Islam but not to those who become Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh.

However, in a significant step, the Supreme Court recently decided to consider afresh the crucial constitutional issue of affirmative action in the public sector for Dalit converts to Christianity, refuting the government plea that it be treated as a legislative problem.

The matter, however, has been adjourned several times and the apex court is expected to take up the hearing again in April 2007.

An estimated 70 percent of India's 26 million Christians belong to the socially discriminated Dalit groups, who need social, educational and economic support to integrate to the mainstream of society.