A 70-year-old demand ignored: Why activists urge SC status for Christian and Muslim Dalits

Dalit Christian organisations have been fighting to prove that the caste system exists among Christians and that those who convert should be allowed to maintain their SC status.
Christianity Eucharist
Christianity Eucharist
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Seventy-year-old Jayan Joseph migrated from Parassala in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram to Kannur district about four decades ago. He has worked as a daily wage labourer, head load worker, fish seller, and also cleaned wells and ponds. Born into a Scheduled Caste Hindu community, he converted to Christianity and joined the Catholic church when he was young. He says he doesn’t remember a day in his life when he did not face discrimination from inside the Christian community.

“Others called us Puthu Christiani (new Christians). Even now they do that secretly. When I used to work, I was given meals outside the house, I wasn’t allowed to use their toilets. My children were not allowed to play with theirs, and their children are not allowed to marry into our families. We don’t hold any positions in the church. Many have even called me Karimbalan (a tribe in Kerala, here referring to his dark skin tone). When the church folks gather around, I’m not included in their conversations, I’m always left out. My children studied and now they have started working abroad, so maybe they don’t face anything there but once they are back here in India, they’re Puthu Christiani,” Jayan opens up about the this form of casteism and a kind of untouchability practised invisibly by Christian communities in Kerala.

Riya* recalls how she was ostracised for marrying a man whose parents had converted to Christianity 20 years ago. “He belonged to the Scheduled Caste, later his family converted and joined our church. We were together for catechism classes, he followed all the rituals just like us. He also had a good business, but my family was totally against us marrying. We’re not allowed to visit our family even now, after we’ve had two children,” she says.

Twenty-four-year-old Kevin Joseph, a Dalit Christian, became a victim of caste killing in May 2018. He was murdered by relatives of his wife Neethu, who is also a Christian. Kevin’s caste was the only issue.

Many Christians from the Scheduled communities say almost all have a story of bigotry to tell. Their skin colour, accent, occupation, way of living, all are used as elements of discrimination.

Exclusion from SC status

For many years, different Dalit Christian organisations in the country have been fighting to prove that the caste system is prevalent among Christians and that those who convert should have the privilege to maintain their SC status even after conversion.

They seek an amendment to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950. August 10 was the 70th anniversary of the Order, with Dalit Christian communities observing it as a black day.

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.” Christian and Muslim Dalits were left out from the order. Initially, it was just Hindus, then in 1956 Sikh Dalits and in 1990 Buddhist Dalits were included through amendments. Untouchability, social, educational and economic backwardness were considered the criteria for the Scheduled Caste category in India.

No legal protection, extreme socio-economic backwardness

Mathai*, who belonged to the Pulaya community, later converted to Christianity. He worked as a labourer at a plantation in Kasaragod district. A few months ago, he was abused by a few local residents claiming that he stole their coconuts. “They called me Pelaya (Pulaya) and abused me with casteist names. They shouted at me saying that though I’ve converted, I will always be a ‘low caste’ person,” he says.

But no case can be filed against those who abused Mathai under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 because he does not belong to that category.

“Apart from being subjected to discrimination, the main issue we face is that the atrocities against us are not dealt with seriously as they don’t technically come under the SC/ST Act. We face discrimination and have no legal protection,” says Shibi Peter, who works at the National Council of Churches in India, a forum of protestant and orthodox churches.

“A majority of such Christians face extreme casteism and many of them are sidelined as well, and thereby live in social, educational and economic backwardness,” he adds.

He points out that due to the lack of SC status, it has become an obstacle for people to follow the faith they want to, which is against individual rights granted by Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

Age relaxations, reservations, concessions and special protection under the law are some of the benefits that activists demand.

“Though they change their religion, their socio-economic status remains the same. Many of them don’t get the opportunity to do higher studies or obtain government jobs. Only with deserved reservation can they get equal opportunity like any other SC community. They deserve all the relaxations and support provided by both the state and central governments,” Shibi says.

In 2004, Prasanth Bhushan filed a petition for Franklin Caesar Thomas, a Dalit Christian advocate who was supported by the National Council of Churches in India and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. The petition sought an amendment to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order to include Christians and Muslims. In 2006, Franklin Caesar and a few others founded the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC) and carried out a series of protests in New Delhi.

In a counter-petition in 2019, the Centre opposed the petition for amendment claiming that Christianity and Islam are egalitarian religions that do not follow the caste system. The Centre claimed that there was no proof of untouchability or discrimination in these religions.

Commission reports and studies recommend SC status

Speaking to TNM, Franklin Caesar says, “In our petition, we asked for Dalits to be included under religious and linguistic minorities. Apart from NCDC, a few others have also filed petitions seeking an amendment. The Dalit Christian Liberation Movement and the United Front for Dalit Christian Rights (UFDCR) have filed petitions. Last year, the Central government filed a counter-petition stating that SC status cannot be given as Christianity doesn’t follow the caste system. In 1996, the then cabinet had passed the bill for the amendment, but it was not approved in the Parliament. The most recent petition was filed by Mary John for the UFDCR in March 2020.”

“Casteism is in the minds of people. Theologically, Christians are not discriminated against. But Dalit Christians face discrimination in many sectors. A Parliamentary committee report on untouchability by Elayaperumal in 1969, the 1981 Mandal Commission or the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission report, and many other reports have suggested that change in religion doesn’t change socio-economic status,” he adds.

Franklin says that socio-economic and educational backwardness prevails strongly among the Dalits of all religions. He also points out that the Sachar Committee Report in 2006 and the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Ranganath Misra Commission, 2007) had specially mentioned granting SC status to Christian and Muslim Dalits. In 2002, the National Commission reviewed the working of the constitution and also shared a similar view.

A 2008 study by Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna from Delhi University’s Department of Sociology for the National Minority Commission analysed the situation of Dalits from religious minorities.

“Lack of integration between the Syrian Christians and converts from lower castes are revealed both at the social as well as at the denominational levels. The old Christians are known as Syrian Christians whereas Harijan converts are known as Puthu Christians (Neo-Christians), Chermar Christians, Pulaya Christians, etc. During the course of the fieldwork, it was found that only Syrian Christians were referred to as ‘Christians’, and Pulaya Christians were referred to as ‘Pulayas’ by all, including the Pulaya Christians themselves,” the report reads.

“Pulaya Christians are not given food inside the house of a Syrian Christian or in a good dish, but only outside the house in some broken dish. It was found that the Syrian and Pulaya members of the same Church conduct religious rituals separately in separate buildings. In the organisation of the Church also, the Pulayas are not given proper representation,” the report says.

The report also points to many cases across India where Muslims are also differentiated based on caste.

“Based only on the descriptive and statistical evidence available, there is a strong case for including Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste category … Whether or not such discrimination can be proven in a court of law, it will surely weigh on the conscience of every fair-minded Indian,” the report adds.

In a few petitions, the Supreme Court has sought the Centre’s stand on the issue.

“We still have hope in the law and judiciary,” Franklin Caesar says.

*Names changed

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