Heartbreak for Dalit Christians; fillip for ‘Ghar Wapsi’
Twice last February, the Supreme Court of India gave two rulings that have a grave import for the Christian community – and for that matter, the Muslims. And, as directly, for the social discourse of political Hindutva and the sometimes very violent organisations that enforce its diktat in the country.
On 6th February 2015, the Supreme Court referred the Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims Scheduled Caste status issue case (Civil Writ Petition 180/2004) to a Constitution Bench of the court. This marked a period of further heartbreak for the perhaps 15 million [1.5 crore] if not more Christians who have converted from what were once the untouchable castes of Hinduism, later called the politically-incorrect Harijans by Mahatma Gandhi, and known under law as the Scheduled Castes. Their numbers remain indeterminate for many are loth to register themselves in the Census by their practiced faith for fear of legal repercussions or social wrath. They had been fighting in the court for the restoration of their rights of reservations in elective posts, government jobs and education, since 2005, which had been taken away by the infamous Presidential Order of 1950, enacted as Article 341 [iii] later through a Constitutional amendment. They will now have to wait many more years for justice. The Chief Justice of India is yet to name the Constitutional bench to hear the important case. When it is set up, it will have to consider the two issues together.
In the second judgment on 26th February, in a case known as the K. P. Manu vs. Chairman, Scrutiny Committee for Verification of Community Certificate, [CIVIL APPEAL No. 7065 OF 2008], the court ruled that a Dalit Hindu who had embraced Christianity and then re-converted to Hinduism would be eligible for reservation benefits for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes if the re-conversion was genuine. The bench held that a person shall not be deprived of quota benefits if he or she decides to “reconvert” to Hinduism and adopts the caste of his forefathers just because he has a Christian spouse or was born to Christian parents. It further held that “There has been detailed study to indicate that the Scheduled Caste persons belonging to Hindu religion, who had embraced Christianity with some kind of hope or aspiration, have remained socially, educationally and economically backward.”
The Supreme Court bench laid down three main parameters for deciding whether a person who had reconverted to Hinduism from another religion embraced earlier was eligible to get the government benefits Dalit and tribal Hindus are entitled to. There must be “absolutely clear-cut proof that he belongs to the caste that has been recognised by the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950″. Second, it has to be established that there has been “re-conversion to the original religion to which the (person’s) parents and earlier generations had belonged”. And, third, there has to be “evidence establishing the acceptance by the community”.
The second judgment has been widely panned, by social activists as much as by jurists. “I am taken aback by the verdict as it has opened the door for a particular ideology to impose its agenda,” Supreme Court lawyer Rebecca Mammen John was quoted in Firstpost. Suggesting the judiciary to be more careful while pronouncing judgement on controversial issues, she said, “Given the kind of politics being practiced these days in the country, the judiciary should be circumspect before such rulings.” Nitya Ramachandran, another senior lawyer said, “The SC verdict has certified the fact that class and caste bias persist even after the conversion. All religious communities should seriously think over it to make the society free from all kind of discrimination.” Describing the SC verdict “unfortunate” in the sense that it “gives reservation benefits to only those who re-convert, not those who converted because of atrocities in Hinduism”, Samar Anarya of Asian Human Rights Commission said, “We demand reservation benefits to all Dalits irrespective of relgion.”
Quite expectedly, the Sangh Parivar has enthusiastically welcomed it. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad describes the ruling as an “approval” for its controversial Ghar Wapsi programme According to VHP national joint secretary Surendra Jain, quoted in Firstpost, “Pseudo secularists who were objecting to our campaign should now change their minds and start supporting us if they have faith in the judicial system of the country. If there is a problem in the Hindu community, its solution lies also within the community. Those who converted to Christianity are facing worst discrimination. Dalit Christians are not free to offer prayers in any church they want. They have separate churches and graveyards. They are fed up and want to return the Hindu fold. If we are facilitating their homecoming, what is wrong in this.
The judgement does indeed seem to legitimize ‘Ghar Wapsi’, while making it prohibitive and punitive for any Dalit to exercise his or her freedom of faith and convert to Islam or Christianity. Conversions to Buddhism and Sikhism do not invite this punishment.
The entire question of caste and religion needs to be decided by a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court once and for all. How can one religion be called a ‘Way of Life’ and not a religion, as in the well known Justice J. S. Verma ruling, and yet conversions to or from it invite such contradictory results? Leaving Hinduism means losing all rights, including reserved seats to legislatures and parliamentarians apart from quotas in jobs and education. Dalit Christians and Muslims had challenged this dichotomy in a PIL before the court.
This is not the first time a Supreme Court Judge has interpreted religious “scripture”. One did so in his last judgment (on the Babri Masjid Case) on the eve of his retirement. It is harder in India to separate church from state because religion plays dominates so many social rituals. Still, it needs to be done.
The court has acknowledged there has been detailed study to indicate the Scheduled Caste persons belonging to Hindu religion, who had embraced Christianity with some kind of hope or aspiration, have remained socially, educationally and economically backward. But the implication seems to be that this is a failure of the church to lift the status of such people, and not what several national commissions have found that it is inherent in the Indian social milieu. [A sad aside to this is that Rev Dr. James Massey, who the court cited as confirming disempowerment of the community, died a few days ago, as did Dr. Ninan Koshy whose indictment of caste divisions in the Christian community of Kerala first brought the issue in the open. Both were also pioneers of the Dalit Christian movement.]
The government also tacitly accepted that these castes were not merely confined to Hinduism too, which soon extended these rights to Dalits who converted to Sikhism and to Buddhism, religions which had challenged the Vedic stranglehold. While conversions to Sikhism has been a continuous process since the religion was founded by Guru Nanak, there have been a series of mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism after 1956 when the constitution writer Dr. B R Ambedkar, changed his faith to Buddhism along with 5,00,000 of his Dalit followers in Nagpur. But the Congress government under Dr. Manmohan Singh refused to give the affidavit that the Supreme Court asked for in the tortuous course of the PIL hearings between 2005 and 2014, apparently for fear it would politically antagonize powerful Hindu upper caste groups. The Bharatiya Janata Party had categorically rejected the Christian demand, and its members had impleaded themselves in the hearings to argue against the PIL.
The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, headed by former chief Justice Misra, and a committee report by academics had also recorded that castes and its infirmities followed Dalits in whichever religion they went. Justice Misra, found, and ruled, that caste in India transcends religion, and exists and is practiced in this day and age in Hinduism, of course, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity. This was also the conclusion of research studies by universities which found considerable evidence of caste-based discrimination exists in Kerala, but also in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra, Telengana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, Bengal, Punjab, Jammu, Haryana and Rajasthan. It has led to caste violence within the church in several areas.
Theologian John C. B Webster, Dr. James Massey and others have also worked on aspects of Dalit Christians. This is now a matter of deep study by theologians, sociologists and activists at par with the study of Race in the Western church.
Other than material issues, there remains the more complex issue of political empowerment. There are seats for SCs in state legislatures as well as in the Lok Sabha, in Panchayats and other forums. Dalits professing Christianity, and Islam for
that matter, do not qualify under the Representation of People’s Act and the Panchayati Raj legislation. There is also the matter of caste persecution and the protection of the law. Discrimination continues to exist in the larger society. The struggle for Dalit Christians for this political empowerment continues even if the Church were to find resources — keeping future changes in the FCRA also in mind — to ensure economic uplift as also universal education for the community. [See accompanying article on the debate in Cyberspace]
Not that Hinduism escapes scrutiny. Another fallout of this judgement will be for the reformists in the Hindu faith because of its implications that caste prejudice is alive and active in the religion. Or is the Indian government’s point of view that untouchability and discrimination is still a hallmark of Hinduism despite being outlawed in 1950?
For human rights activists stressing citizenship, this focuses on the wider issue of whether Freedom of Faith, a Constitutional guarantee, be just for People Like Us? Why should a Dalit lose all his little hard earned perks if choses Christ, or Allah? And is affirmative action only for Dalits who remain within Hinduism, and by extension, Buddhism and Sikhism. Article 341 [iii] therefore is not a sociological fence. It is a legal barrier constructed to prevent Dalits leaving the Hindu fold. This, in fact, was the first anti Conversion law. And it covers the entire country.
It needs be remembered that among the many assertions in their agenda of religious and caste supremacy that the Bharatiya Janata Party_ and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh tandem wants to impose in the Hindu Rashtra of their dreams, a national Anti-Conversion Act is at the top of the list.