Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims voice their concerns
on religion based discrimination in India
to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief
The cry of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in India has not been heeded by successive Indian Governments. Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin face discrimination on several counts: in the society they face harassment and difficulties because they are born into Dalit families; and the Indian government discriminates against them because they are not Hindus. They are not eligible for affirmative action programmes of the Government, where as their counter parts in other religious groups - Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism – enjoy many entitlements. Regretfully they face discrimination even within the Indian churches due to their Dalit Identity.
These multiple forms of discrimination which have been at the heart of the struggles of Dalit Christian’s community in India for decades formed the thrust of the reports shared with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom and Belief, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt during his visit to India from the 18th to 27th February, this year. He was in India on the invitation of civil society organizations, the Indian Social Institute and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
During his visit, the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) organized a special meeting with him focusing on the right to freedom of religion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. This meeting was held on 20th February, 2014 at the YWCA National office in New Delhi. It was well attended by Human Rights activists, lawyers, academicians, leaders of the Christian and Muslim community, with representatives of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the NCCI. The meeting was chaired by Samuel Jayakumar, executive secretary, Commission on Policy, Governance and Public Witness of the NCCI.
Dr. Ramesh Nathan from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights spoke of the 120 forms of untouchability practiced in India and the forms of discrimination Dalits face in society. He said that Dalit Christians particularly are one of the most vulnerable groups in caste based violence and do not come under the protection of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes atrocities prevention act. Mr. Haji Hafeez Ahmad Hawari spoke of how his nomination to the elections in the Schedule caste reserved constituency was rejected because he is a follower of Islam. He experiences discrimination within the Muslim community as well as in the larger society because he is a Dalit; and yet he cannot seek empowerment through reservations available for marginalized communities in the Indian constitution.
Fr. Devasagayaraj of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India reiterated that Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims are denied affirmative action programmes that they are entitled to in education and employment. He too cited examples of the difficulties these communities face as they do not come under the SC/ST prevention of atrocities act; they do not have access to special programmes of the government for Dalits; nor can they contest in elections in the quota for the reserved constituency. Due to all this the development of the community has been seriously affected.
Ms. Leila Passah, the General Secretary of the YWCA of India brought to the attention of the Special Rapporteur, the inhumane treatment meted out to this community by the Indian police, when they organized a peaceful protest in Delhi on 11th December, 2013. The police beat the protestors back with lathis (sticks) as Christian and Mulim leaders marched towards the Parliament House to hand over to the Prime Minster of India a memorandum of demands. Around 30 people were badly injured in this incident and several protestors including Bishops were detained in the police station.
The illegal executive order which discriminates against Christians and Muslims has been challenged in the Supreme Court of India by these communities. The Indian government has failed to file its response for over eight years. This deplorable fact was brought to the notice of the Special Rapporteur by advocate Mr. Franklin Caesar Thomas. He requested the Rapporteur to raise this concern with the government of India, and expressed his anguish that even natural justice has been denied to this community.
Samuel Jayakumar from the NCCI brought to mind the recommendation of the former UN Rapporteur Ms. Asma Jahangir on her visit to India in 2008. She had made the following recommendation to the government of India, six years ago: “The Special Rapporteur would like to recall the recommendation by the commit on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (a/62/18.para.179) to restore the eligibility for affirmative action benefits of all members of Schedule Castes and Scheduled Tribes having converted to another religion. The Special Rapporteur recommends that the Scheduled Caste status be delinked from the individual’s religious affiliation”.
The Indian Government had appointed a commission headed by the former Chief Justice of India Ranganath Mishra, who in their report of National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) had recommended the de-linking of scheduled caste status from religion so as to make scheduled caste status fully religion-neutral.
After listening intently to the various voices Prof. Bielefeldt responded. He recognized that Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims are living under structures of dehumanization in India. Religious conversion is a test case for Freedom of Religion he said. He added that it is also the right to equality that has been denied to the Dalit Community in India. Dalits in India cannot be forced to follow a particular religion. He assured the gathered representatives that the UN Human Rights mechanism will continue to raise these concerns at various UN forums.
Commission on Policy, Governance and Public Witness
NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES IN INDIA