70-year wait for Dalit Christians, Muslims on SC verdict over caste status

A petition challenging the Presidential (Scheduled Castes) Order, issued on August 10, 1950, is now pending in the Supreme Court. (Representative image of the Supreme Court in New Delhi)  

Five days before India celebrates her 73rd anniversary of Independence, Dalit Christians and Muslims will mark a grimmer anniversary of the date when the Presidential (Scheduled Castes) Order was issued on August 10, 1950. A petition challenging that order, which limited SC status to Hindus and was later amended to include Sikhs and Buddhists, is now pending in the Supreme Court.

“We have been denied our constitutional rights for the last seventy years now,” says Franklin Caesar Thomas, a Dalit Christian advocate who has been fighting the case for delinking religion from SC status for the last 16 years. “They claim that the Christian religion does not preach caste and thus we do not need protection from discrimination. I agree that Christianity does not preach caste, but it is Christians who still practice caste and continue to oppress and discriminate those from Dalit communities.”

Born into a Christian family in the Paraiyar community in Tamil Nadu, Mr. Thomas says his grandfather was a butcher involved in the skin trade and faced daily discrimination from fellow villagers. The grandson may have better education and employment, but discrimination remains. “I remember when I had just completed my graduation and visited a grocery shop in my mother’s native place, the Chettiar shop owner threw away my money just because I had touched his hand,” Mr. Thomas recalls, adding that many Dalit Christians are segregated in churches, excluded from burial grounds and shunned in marriage proposals.

Although an engineering graduate, he shifted to law partly as a means of fighting injustice. “We face triple discrimination: from the church itself, the wider society, and the government,” he added.

Beyond personal experience, multiple studies and commissions — including the Mandal and Misra commissions — have recommended that Christians and Muslims from Dalit communities be given SC status as they continue to face discrimination. With SC status, they would be able to avail quota benefits for education, government jobs, and panchayat elections, as well as receive protection under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989.

“Approximately 70% of the Christian population in India are from Scheduled Caste backgrounds,” says a statement issued by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) on the 70th anniversary of the order. It notes that although many Dalits embraced Christianity as a “faith affirmation against caste slavery”, they are still identified first by their caste by a large section of the Indian society.

A 2004 writ petition challenging the order, filed by Mr. Thomas and the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, has been joined by a slew of other petitions including a case filed by the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC) as recently as January 2020, and is currently being heard by a bench led by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde.

“Our 70 years of struggle for justice should be supported by all people who believe in equality and democracy. The Supreme Court has a monumental opportunity now to render justice to millions of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims who continue to suffer from social stigma and the horrors of untouchability,” said NCCI general secretary Asir Ebenezer.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 4:14:32 PM |

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