Dateline India: Emasculated politically SC Christians seek justice. By Pervez Bari

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BHOPAL, September 10: The Scheduled Castes converts to Christianity whose development has been snatched away and have been politically emasculated have sought justice.
A memorandum to this effect has been addressed to Dr Ramachandran, Professor and Head, Department of Geography, Delhi School of Economics Director, Workshop on Christians under the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
Ever since the Supreme Court of India was informed by Attorney General of India and his colleague the Additional Solicitor General, in the matter of the PIL seeking full human rights for all Dalits irrespective of the religion they now profess, that the Government of India had asked the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities headed by former Chief Justice Ranganath Mishra, as the third and last of its terms of reference, we have watched the `action` with growing trepidation and some confusion, the memorandum said.
As Plaintiffs before the Supreme Court, and then immediately as witnesses before the Mishra Commission, Christians of Scheduled Caste origin adduced tens of thousands of pages of sociological, statistical and legal evidence, historical data, Constitutional history and judicial precedences, to establish beyond the shadow of doubt that the vagaries and infirmities, the barriers and obscene and racist social practice of untouchability because of caste, continues to hound people of Scheduled Caste origin despite their conversion to Christianity in the mass conversions of the late 19th and early 20th century, and even those who convert today.
Earlier, the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, was beseeched to expand the terms of reference of the Committee he had set up under former Delhi Chief Justice Rajender Sachchar so that it could examine the economic situation of Christians in India while also studying the development indices of Muslims in the country. That request was not granted. The Government seemingly makes a difference, apparently for political reasons, between `large minorities` such as Muslims, and micro-minorities such as Christians, the memorandum alleged.
The Government of India had, of course, for political reasons made a difference between `Indian religions` such as Sikhism and Buddhism and `foreign religions` such as Christianity and Islam while granting Scheduled Caste status to coverts to Sikhism and Buddhism, even though these religions or philosophies do not admit to the practice of caste.
The Government has admitted that Caste and religion are not mutually exclusive -- not in India. It admitted this more formally in 1996 when the Union Cabinet approved a Bill to restore to Christians of Scheduled Caste origin the rights taken away by the Presidential order of 1950.
The Union Cabinet considered all the pros and cons of the move, including its political viability, and then actually moved the Bill in Parliament. That the Bill could not become an Act is another matter. "All we are seeking is that the Government bring back that Bill once again. Better still, that the President Promulgate an Ordinance to undo the infamy of his predecessor`s Order of 56 years ago", the memorandum stated.
"We were, therefore, surprised when the NCRLM`s workshop on 10th August 2006 in Delhi sought to concoct data that went counter to the thesis of the Cabinet note of 1996. This was hotly challenged by us in the workshop. Dalit spokesmen proved that the New Delhi based Center for Research, Planning and Action`s which conducted the workshop, had produced data which was highly skewed and motivated. For instance, the only real survey on education done by this group was to question few students in Delhi - where the bulk of the Christian population is of Syrian Christian migrants from Kerala", memorandum pointed out.
In the Workshop in Mumbai on August 18 and 19, 2006, it was the reputed Tata Institute of Social Sciences which had to bear the ignominy of toeing the line set out by the commission`s bureaucracy which ordered TISS to invite fundamentalist Hindutva groups to negative the Christian Dalit claim. Christian Bishops, Priests and social activists issued a joint statement at the seminar questioning its methodology and expressing their distress at the apparent effort to coerce the minorities and divide communities. The statement said: "We are surprised at the adversarial structure of the Workshop based on participation of elements that are extraneous to the issue and have no locus standi. We reaffirm that the demand for justice under the Constitution by the Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims is addressed to the Government of India and not to political or religious groups. Our appeals and arguments and directed towards the National Commission which is an instrument of Government of India. We are surprised at the confrontation sought to be generated in the Workshop between communities, between elements of a community, and by certain political elements who seem to have been specially invited for this purpose."
The signatories included Bishop Deva Sahayam, Church of South India, Chennai, Rev Father Lourdusamy, former Exec Secretary for Dalit Affairs, Catholic Bishops Conference of India (Vellore), Rev Fr Philomen Raj, Exec Sec, CBCI, Dr John Dayal, Member, National Integration Council, [National President, All India Catholic Union and Secretary General All India Christian Council], New Delhi, Advocate Edward Arokiadoss, National Secretary, All India Catholic Union [Madurai], Fr J X Bosco, Former Provincial, Society of Jesus, Hyderabad, and Dr M Ezaz Ali, [AIUMM]. The TISS admitted as much that it was under tremendous pressure to invite the Hindutva groups, even if that meant that the police had to be called after threats were made to the TISS professors by these groups.
The issue now is of criteria, presumably criteria and indices of development as much as criteria for identifying Christians of Scheduled caste Origin. There is no ambiguity, or scope for confusion, in identifying current Christians of Scheduled caste origin. Whether they are in Jammu or the Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala or Tamil Nadu, Christians of Scheduled caste origin continue to live where they have lived for centuries - together with their brethren of Hindu or Buddhist or Sikh faith in the `Cheri` on the outskirts of the upper caste villages. The neighbours know who they are, the upper caste bigots know who they are; the schools know it in their records (which have been handed over to the NCRLM) and the 1931 census knows who they are. Identifying them will no more be difficult than identifying a Scheduled caste of the Hindu faith.
Nonetheless, we present here some more points to assist the Delhi School of Economics and the NCRLM in the matter of criterion for identification. This presentation distillates the data, theoretical premises and collective arguments of eminent sociologist Prof T K Oomen, Dr Prakash Luis, SJ, Scholar Dr Vidya Sagar J Dogar, pioneer Dalit theologian Dr James Massey, legal history scholar and activist Advocate Edward Arokia Doss, former Catholic Bishops Conference executive secretary Fr. Lourduswami, and my own field studies in Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and other areas. In particular, Prof. Oomen has articulated this as follows: -
1. Poverty Line: There can be several sources of deprivation in a complex society such as India. Economic assistance to the poor, that is, those who are below the poverty line, is accepted as legitimate by most of the population. But when the absolute size and the proportion of population which falls below the poverty line is substantial, the limited state resources will not permit such a measure. In India at least 30 percent falls below the poverty line as of now. In such a situation the state would be compelled to provide a critical minimum of economic assistance only to the destitute.
2. Power Line: Secondly, in matters of citizenship, there is a section of population (not only women) below the Power line.
3. Pollution line: Thirdly, there is the pollution line, a phenomenon peculiar to a caste society. According to the traditional caste hierarchy, the population was divided into two polar opposites--the ritually clean and the ritually unclean--the latter being those who were believed to be permanently in ritual pollution and consequently excluded from social interaction and eternally stigmatized. The deprivation of India`s ex-untouchables` counting over 160 million today, constituting 16 per cent, designated as Scheduled Castes (SCs) by officialdom, but preferred by them to be labeled as Dalits, is primarily not entirely rooted in the social stigma attributed to them. In fact the SCs are the only group, which combines the deprivations associated with poverty, power and pollution.
The vast majority of Indians are deprived on one or the other count. The State has to take into account two factors: multiple deprivations suffered by some of the groups/communities and the hierarchy of factors contributing to deprivation.
The Indian Constitution`s Secularism means the State accords (a) equal respect for all religions and/or (b) the state keeping equal distance from all religions. But this doctrine is not consistently applied to all religious collectivities which in turn has implications for the application of the policy of protective discrimination. The inconsistency begins with the mode of defining religious collectivities. According to the Hindu Code Bill "Hindus" include Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs. This legal expansionism cuts at the very root of Indian secularism.
The Presidential Order of 1950 covered only Hindu lower castes designated as Scheduled Castes to start with, but extended to the Sikhs of Scheduled Caste background in 1956 and to neo-Buddhists in 1990. But Muslims and Christians of Scheduled Caste origin are yet to be brought under the purview of the Presidential Order.
There is yet another anomaly when one notes that all Scheduled Tribes are entitled to all the benefits of the policy of protective discrimination, irrespective of their religion. In contrast Scheduled Caste persons who convert to Islam and Christianity are denied the benefits. Thus the salient defining criterion is different in the two cases: tribe in the case of STs and religion in the case of SCs; the two social categories who are entitled to all the benefits of reservation. This means the conversion of SCs and STs to Islam and Christianity has differing consequences for the converts. While it affects the SCs adversely, it is neutral in regard to STs. There is inconsistency both in principle (denial of freedom of religion to SCs) and in practice in the application of secularism.
And the Supreme Court of India is unambiguous in its pronouncement: `....to deny the constitutional protection of reservation solely by reason of change of faith or religion is to endanger the very concept of secularism.` This entitlement exclusion of a section of Indian citizens because of their religious identity imperils one of the foundational principles of Indian constitution namely equality of all citizens irrespective of their religious faith.
The memorandum said it is clear that the people of India are vivisected into `insiders` and `outsiders` in terms of the application of the policy of reservation. Those who profess religions of `Indian` origin are insiders and the followers of religions of `alien` origin are outsiders. Islam and Christianity are widely perceived not only as alien religions but are also stigmatized as products of conquest and colonialism in India. Not only are these widely held popular beliefs historically incorrect but the vast majority of those who profess these faiths are native, indigenous pre-Aryan people of India converted from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Only their religion in `alien`.
It is crucial to recall here that from 1936 onwards religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians as well as Scheduled Castes enjoyed political reservations. In the post-Partition Constituent Assembly debates (1947-49) the SCs were removed from the category of `minorities` and were made an integral part of Hinduism. At the same time reservations for religious minorities were abolished. In this process Muslims and Christians of Scheduled Caste origin lost entitlement to reservation both as religious minorities and as Scheduled Castes, the memorandum pointed out.
This is the original sin committed by the Indian state with regard to Christians of Scheduled Caste Origin. It is high time to rectify it, the memorandum stressed. (pervezbari@eth.net)

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