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Not Free to Choose: Restrictions on the Freedom of Conscience of India’s Dalits

A section of Indian society is being forced to choose between religious beliefs on one hand and protections and special benefits under the law on the other.

By Tehmina Arora for
Not Free to Choose: Restrictions on the Freedom of Conscience of India’s Dalits

India’s Dalits file land claims

Credit: ActionAid India/Flickr

Seventy years ago this month, India as a young nation passed a presidential order to ensure fundamental freedoms and rights for Dalit people. However, the same order also prevented them from exercising their freedom of conscience and belief.

The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 identified the caste communities – also referred to as Scheduled Castes or Dalits – who have experienced extreme social, educational and economic backwardness arising out of the traditional practice of “untouchability.” They were provided with affirmative action benefits under various government policies, including education and jobs, political representation and even protection under special penal provisions.

However, paragraph 3 of the presidential order limited the classification of Scheduled Castes initially only to Hindus. Subsequently, the order was amended to include Sikhs in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990. This means, if a Dalit converts to Sikhism or Buddhism, his or her protections will remain. But if they choose to adopt Christianity or Islam, they will no longer have access to the affirmative actions and other benefits.

This clause presumes that the suffering of a Dalit ends after they convert to Islam or Christianity.

The rationale seems to be that Islam and Christianity are more egalitarian religions and, therefore, a Dalit would not face the same discrimination in their new-found faith. Sadly, Dalits converting to Islam and Christianity have found that their “dalitness” clung to them and followed them, even after their religious conversion.

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In May 2018, a young Dalit Christian, Kevin Joseph, was murdered by his wife’s relatives in Kerala. His only crime was that he had dared to love and marry an “upper-caste” woman. Principal sessions court judge C. Jayachandran noted in the judgment that the motive of the murder was caste prejudice. This was one of many incidents that newspapers routinely report on.

“Though Christianity does not acknowledge caste system, the evils of caste system in some States are as prevalent as in Hindu society especially among the converts,” noted the Supreme Court of India in 1992 in a landmark judgment in Indra Sawhney and Others v. Union of India and Others. “In Andhra Pradesh, there are Harijan Christians, Reddy Christians, Kamma Christians etc. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, there are Pillai Christians, Marvar Christians, Nadar Christians and Harijan Christians etc. That is to say all the converts to Christianity have not divested or set themselves off from their caste labels and crossed the caste barrier but carry with them the banners of their caste labels. Like Hindus, they interact and have their familial relationship and marital alliances only within the converted caste groups,” the judgment added.

In a petition before the Supreme Court of India, two apex bodies of the church in India – the National Council of Churches in India and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, together representing close to 20 million Christians – have expressed their deep dismay at how the church in India continues to struggle with caste practices.

Even otherwise, Dalit Christians do not live in isolation. While they may interact with other Christians on Sunday mornings, their weekdays are filled with social interactions with all sections of society. Their names still betray their caste. And they are marked as both Christians and Dalits – neither of the two identities helps them, as the Christian minority has also been subjected to political targeting and propaganda.

“Non-Hindu minorities living in pre-dominantly Hindu India could not escape from its dominant social and cultural influences. Thus, both from within and without, caste amongst non-Hindu communities received continuous sustenance and stimulus,” stated the report of the Mandal Commission (the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission).

“Caste is in fact a social phenomenon shared by almost all Indian communities irrespective of their religious persuasions,” noted the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM), under the chairmanship of Justice Ranganath Misra, in its report in 2007. “Many of the particular castes are found simultaneously in various religious communities, equally facing problems of social degradation and mistreatment both by their co-religionists and the others.”

This stranglehold continues because the entire premise of the caste system is not about how individuals view themselves, but rather how the society does so. The prevalent prejudice and bias against them are based on the traditional work undertaken by them or due to their birth into a particular family. The caste system is deeply entrenched into the Indian mind, governing many areas of social interaction.

This results in double vulnerability for Dalit Christians without the protection of the law. According to MapViolence, a violence-tracking website, Dalit Christians have reported frequent social boycotts and violence on account of their caste and faith identity.

The problem is so acute that the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution observed in 2002, “In view of the fact that in some parts of the country, particularly in the south, converts to Christianity from specific SCs are subjected to crimes and atrocities as their exact Hindu counterparts are (difference of religion making no difference in this regard).” The Commission recommended that the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 be amended to include “converts to Christianity from Scheduled Castes.” But the act was never amended.

Dalits have to pay a heavy price if they choose to exercise the most basic of freedoms – the freedom of conscience and the freedom to follow the religion of one’s choice. They lose protections and benefits.

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Dalit communities had been told for centuries that they had no agency, they could not make the most fundamental decisions freely about where they work, who they marry and how they worship. They were denied entry into homes, schools and places of worship.

In an insidious manner, paragraph 3 of the presidential order works in the same way even today. It penalizes Dalits for choosing a religion or rejecting a faith tradition. It forces them to continue to operate in a religious tradition by failing to allow them the ability to make a free choice.

It is unjust to be forced to choose between one’s religious beliefs on one hand and protections and special benefits under the law on the other. The State should never force any person to compromise on their religious beliefs. This is a clear violation of the protections under the Constitution of India and numerous international conventions.

Religious conversions are an act of human agency. The ability to change one’s religious beliefs or to express one’s deeply held belief lies at the core of what it means to be human. The conversion of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit man who oversaw the framing of India’s Constitution, to Buddhism was as much a political act as an expression of his religious beliefs.

Freedom of conscience is the bedrock of any democratic society. Freedom of religion is entwined with the freedom of association, the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of equality and the right to life itself.

The NCRLM is right in recommending that the government “completely de-link the Scheduled Caste status from religion and make the Scheduled Castes net fully religion-neutral like that of the Scheduled Tribes.”

The 1950 Presidential Order was meant to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of Dalits, but sadly operates to limit the freedom of conscience and belief. The government should remedy this at the earliest so that all persons are able to enjoy the rights protected under the Constitution of India.

Tehmina Arora is a journalist with StoriesAsia