Fate of India's Dalits in New Government's Hands

Muslim and Christian ‘Untouchables’ Seeking Basic Rights Protections

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By Tehmina Arora of the Alliance Defending Freedom

On May 16, India will announce a new national government and face a number of grave issues, including the persecution of more than 200 million Dalits throughout the country.

Dalits, once considered “Untouchables,” are Indians believed to be tainted by their birth and designated to a caste system as an inferior class.

The Constitution of India recognizes Dalits as Scheduled Castes, a group of historically disadvantaged people protected in the Constitution of India. Although discrimination based on caste has been prohibited under the constitution, discrimination and prejudice against Dalits persists daily.

Ninety percent of India’s poor are Dalits. They are relegated to the lowest jobs and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, beaten, raped, and murdered by the upper castes. It is estimated that a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes. According to India’s National Crime Record Bureau, 33,719 crimes against Dalits were committed in 2011.

Dalits also face rampant discrimination. In rural areas, 38 percent of government-run schools segregate Dalit children from other children. In 70 percent of rural villages, Dalits are forced to sit and eat together, forbidden to interact with non-Dalits. Dalit women are especially targeted, enduring sexual abuse by police and upper caste men. They often experience discrimination in employment and wages, and are forced into prostitution.

Christian and Muslim Dalits face further discrimination by being excluded from the protections established in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950. The Order specifies the different caste groups who would be treated as Scheduled Castes and receive special government benefits, jobs, housing, and educational opportunities. They also receive special protection under hate crime laws established in the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Unfortunately, the Indian government grants complete protection and freedom only to Scheduled Castes who are Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist. Paragraph 3 of the 1950 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.” As a result, Christian and Muslim Dalits are denied Scheduled Caste status and all ensuing privileges.

The original Order did not include Sikhs and Buddhists but was amended to include both groups in 1956 and 1990, respectively. No provisions were made for Christian or Muslim Dalits. Therefore, Dalits who adopt a faith not approved by the government lose all their rights and protections.

The denial of Scheduled Caste status has severely affected the millions of Christian and Muslim Dalits who suffer extreme poverty. A 2008 report by the National Commission for Minorities explains that Christian and Muslim Dalits are treated as “socially inferior” and points to the growing evidence of their “social economic and educational backwardness.” Many are poor and illiterate, forced to work as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, and street sweepers. Given the stark findings, the report concludes “that there is no compelling evidence to justify denying SC status to Dalit Muslims and Christians.”

In 2004, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation filed a petition before the Supreme Court of India challenging the 1950 Presidential Order. The petition claims the Order is discriminatory and violates the right to equality, freedom of conscience, and the right to practice the religion of one’s choice as protected by India’s Constitution.

Since then, several groups have joined the fight, including the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the National Council of Church in India. In 2007, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities strongly recommended that Paragraph 3 of the Order be deleted “so as to completely de-link the Scheduled Caste status from religion and make the Scheduled Castes net fully religion-neutral.” These groups understand the widespread discrimination experienced by Christian and Muslim Dalits and hope the Supreme Court of India will rule in their favor.

A decade has passed since CPIL’s petition was filed with no resolution in sight. Legal and bureaucratic delays continue to prolong the Dalits’ suffering. In an effort to secure a swift victory, the Dalit community in India has launched a vigorous advocacy campaign seeking international support. Their efforts continue to be in vain.

Regardless of the outcome of India’s election, the discrimination and persecution of Dalits must come to an end. They no longer should be treated as second-class citizens with limited rights. In 2006, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh compared the treatment of Dalits to the crime of apartheid, calling untouchability “a blot on humanity.”

This week, a newly elected Indian government will have the opportunity to erase this “blot” and recognize Dalits’ human dignity, safeguarding their fundamental freedoms. A humane society requires no less.

Tehmina Arora is a legal consultant with Alliance Defending Freedom in India. Alliance Defending Freedom is an international Christian legal association dedicated to the protection of religious freedom, life from conception until natural death, and the sanctity of marriage. With more than 40 full time attorneys, 2300 allied lawyers, and having participated in over 500 cases, ADF is a legal leader in the area of religious liberty. ADF is also accredited with the European Parliament, EU Fundamental Rights Agency, Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe and has Consultative Status with the United Nations.

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