The Indian Supreme Court has begun hearings in a case 16 years in the making. The case will impact millions of Christians and members of other religious minorities in India.
In 2004, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation filed a petition with the Supreme Court of India to challenge a 1950 Presidential Order. The Order which gives Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist Dalits equal rights and access to government services, is at the center of the case. The Order also gave these Dalits special protections under the law, as well as afforded them participation and representation in politics.
However, the Order excluded Christian and Muslim Dalits. Paragraph three of the 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.’
The petition claims that the Order is discriminatory and violates the right to equality, freedom of conscience, and the right to practice the religion of one’s choice—all of which India’s Constitution guarantees.
In taking the case, the Supreme Court directed India’s government to file its reply to the petition within four weeks. Years ago, India’s National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities recommended that paragraph three of the 1950 Order be deleted, thus delinking Scheduled Caste status from religion.
When the Court took up the case, Tehmina Arora, Director of ADF India, said ‘Overturning this Presidential Order would come as a huge relief to some of the poorest and most neglected people and groups in this country, bringing them more protection. We hope that the court will recognize the plight of Dalit Christians and ensure that their fundamental rights are protected.’
In India’s caste system, Dalits—which means ‘broken’—live on society’s lowest rung. They are often referred to as ‘Untouchables’, tainted by birth and forever inferior in their fellow man’s eyes.
They are India’s most vulnerable group. Discrimination and prejudice based on caste, which is prohibited under the Constitution of India, persists daily against Dalits.
They work the lowest jobs. Their children are segregated from others in government-run schools. In most villages, they are forbidden from interacting with non-Dalits. They live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, beaten, raped, and murdered by upper-caste Hindus. As recently as 2018, The New York Times reported that violence against Dalits is rising.
Christian and Muslim Dalits face further discrimination by being excluded from the 1950 Order. Dalits who adopt a faith not approved by the government lose all their rights and protections. Estimates suggest that 70 per cent of Indian Christians are Dalits.
As has been well documented, Christians in India, even those who are not Dalits, face severe persecution. Just like the violence against Dalits, Christians are being increasingly targeted for their faith. This violence is often fueled by manufactured allegations of Christians attempting to forcibly convert others to the faith.
In India, ‘anti-conversion’ laws are on the books of many states in order to regulate religious conversions. Under the pretense of securing freedom of religion, anti-conversion laws foster hostility toward Christians and other religious minorities. Instead of achieving their stated purpose, these laws give mobs and other divisive forces the opportunity to target minority groups.
Children on the way to Christian camps have been detained under charges that they were being ‘kidnapped to be converted’, despite their parents knowing exactly where they were going. Church services have been interrupted by mobs. Pastors have been beaten and dragged to the police station.
Christians and other religious minorities face daily persecution. India’s dehumanized are unfortunately not limited to the Dalits.
It is high time India took a strong stand for its most vulnerable, and its most broken—as the growing nation will ultimately be judged by how it has treated its poorest in spirit. Overturning the religious discrimination at the heart of the 1950 Presidential Order would be a step in the right direction.