The Catholic Church in India opposes the new government commission to study the social status of converts | National Catholic Registry

According to church leaders, the commission is another delaying tactic to avoid meeting the demand for equal benefits for members of the discriminated Dalit caste who convert to Christianity or Islam.

NEW DELHI – The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) opposes the decision of the Indian federal government, led by the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Janata (BJP), to appoint a new commission to study “social status” converts of low caste origin,.

The bishops publicly oppose the new commission on the grounds that it is merely a delaying tactic by the government to avoid tackling the discrimination that converts to Christianity continue to face.

“This only delays the tactics and weakens our demand,” said Father Bijoy Kumar Nayak, Executive Secretary of CBCI. Commission for Dalitstold the Register on October 25.

“What is the need for another commission, after several commissions, including one headed by the former Chief Justice of India, have highlighted the discrimination faced by Christian converts? asked Father Nayak, a former provincial of the Eastern Odisha-based Congregation of the Missions.

Father Nayak’s remarks followed a press release from the CBCI Commission opposing the October 7 creation of the new committee in the status of Dalit converts, to determine whether Scheduled Caste status should be extended to them.

‘Dalit’ literally means ‘trampled’ and refers to low-caste social communities who historically have been treated as ‘untouchables’ in caste-dominated Indian society. Often they make a living doing menial jobs like cleaning while living segregated from upper castes in rural areas.

In 1950, the federal government enacted a special law that laid the constitutional groundwork for subsequent discrimination against Dalit Christians. This legislation classified Hindu Dalits as “scheduled caste” and made them eligible for free education and a 15% quota in government jobs and legislatures to improve their social status.

Although these statutory Scheduled Caste privileges were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and Buddhist Dalits in 1990, they continued to be denied to Muslim and Christian Dalits. Christian Dalits make up about two-thirds of India’s population of more than 30 million Christians.

“The [federal] past and present governments have not amended the 1950 Constitutional Decree… which discriminates against them solely on the basis of religion,” the CBCI Dalit Commission said in its press release.

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In 2004 Dalit Catholic activists demanded that the Supreme Court end this undeclared apartheid, with the CBCI Dalit Commission among the petitioners. The case continues to drag on 18 years later, with successive national governments refusing to address Christian concerns and raising technical objections that have delayed the verdict.

Several previous judicial commissions, including the one appointed in 2004 and headed by former chief Judge Ranganath Mishraapproved the request to extend the Scheduled Caste reservation quota to Dalits who have converted to Islam or Christianity.

Father Nayak pointed out that “Leaders of most major political parties and prominent Dalit leaders have written to the Prime Minister strongly recommending support for the request. But nothing was done. Now an attempt is being made to scuttle our request with the appointment of the new commission.

“We will demand the removal of this new commission at the next hearing of our case. [in weeks]said Father Nayak.

“This is just a trick to delay and scuttle our just demand,” Franklin Caesar, the lay Catholic engineer who initiated the first lawsuit in 2004 and is still pursuing, told the Register.

Since other reports such as the Satish Despande Studyon behalf of the National Commission for Minorities, also endorsed the extension of Scheduled Caste status to Christian and Muslim Dalits, Caesar said that “the government (BJP) is even trying to bury the Christian demand with the new commission” .

“We fear the worst with the new commission,” Fr S Lourdusamy, former secretary of the CBCI Dalit commission from 1994 to 2002, told The Register.

Justice KG Balakrishnan, the former Chief Justice of India appointed to head the commission, Fr Lourdusamy noted, is “the one who had opposed the Christian claim in court as a judge.”

“We don’t expect him to come to a different conclusion,” said the priest, who is now director of the laity commission of the Southern Tamil Nadu Council of Catholic Bishops.

Media debate

On October 21, the national daily The Hindu published a half-page debate tackle the problem.

Subhajit Naskar, a professor at Jadhavpur University in Calcutta, argued against the Christian-Muslim position, arguing that as non-Indian religions, Christianity and Islam are “egalitarian” religions and therefore lack a theological basis for caste-based discrimination that requires redress through the extension of Scheduled Caste status to Christian and Muslim converts.

Professor Sukhdep Thorat, former chairman of the University Grants Commission which oversees universities in India, countered that there is no theological difference between Buddhism and Sikhism and Christianity and Islam, as far as relates to this issue.

Pointing out that caste discrimination continued against Sikh and Buddhist converts, Thorat argued that there was “no reason to say that this does not happen in Christianity or Islam”, as well.

“If the constitution guarantees equality before the law, equality of opportunity…and if discrimination persists after conversion, it is an obligation…to provide protection in any form – reservation and law,” wrote Thorat.

Despite its legal and constitutional basis, the demand for equal rights for Christian and Muslim Dalits faces strong opposition from the Hindu nationalist BJP and even, to some extent, the more secular Congress party which has dominated India for decades, before the BJP’s rise to political prominence in 1998.

“The major political parties want to please the [Hindu] majority and retain their votes,” said Fr. Lourdusamy. “That’s why our request for equality is still pending.”

Denise W. Whigham