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ICC's India Correspondent
International Christian Concern
The term "Dalit" is a term used in India to describe people from Hinduism's lowest caste. Forced into poverty for generations from the India's Caste system, the people from this caste used to be called "Untouchables," but for the most part, that term died out with the British Empire. Today, an estimated 25 million Dalits across India have converted to Christianity, but are forced to choose between openly out their faith and a government benefit program that gives benefits only to Dalits coming from select religious backgrounds.
This choice has significantly affected the constitutional right India's citizens have to freely choose a religion for themselves. It also has left millions of Dalits to have to decide between choosing to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior and receiving government benefits that have the ability to take their families out of poverty. All added up, this discrimination has affected the official appearance of India's religious landscape.
The Scheduled Caste Order of 1950
The Scheduled Caste Order of 1950 was signed on August 10, 1950 by the then President of India and states that, "No person who professes a religion other than Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of the Scheduled Caste." This order was later amended to include Sikhs in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990. Essentially, this order has come to define who can receive India's Scheduled Caste benefits and who can and cannot. Scheduled Caste benefits were introduced by India's government shortly after independence in order to assist Dalits climb the social ladder and break free of the poverty they were locked into by the caste system.
Rev. Madhu Chandra Singh told ICC that, "Dalit Christians suffer caste oppression both before and after their conversion." This is something that India's Supreme Court denies happens. According to the supreme court, once a person leaves Hinduism that person also leaves the caste system and is no longer in need government assistance. Unfortunately, this in untrue and Dalits often face more oppression after their conversions, as Rev. Singh went on to explain."After their conversion, Dalit Christians begin to suffer religious persecution from religious fanatics but also a denial of Scheduled Caste benefits because of the Schedule Caste Order of 1950 which I term a double discrimination of Dalit Christians."
Government Benefits vs. Christianity
Mr. Ratnam, whose name has been changed for security reasons, is an elder of a Baptist church in his village. Every Sunday, thirty to forty Christians, all from the Dalit caste, gather for worship in a structure intentionally located outside of the village.
Recently, Mr. Ratnam approached his pastor, Pastor Aharon, and requested the pastor issue a letter that would say Mr. Ratnam and his family are not Christians and are not the members of the local Baptist church. Mr. Ratnam told ICC that, "I need this letter in order to show the government that we are low caste Hindus, so that my son can do higher studies under the Schedule Caste reservation quota." Without this letter, Mr. Ratnam's son would not be considered allegeable for this government assistance and would likely not be able to continue his education.
Mr. Ratnam continued saying, "I know that I love Jesus and I will continue to do so. God understands my situation. I do not want my children to struggle like we do as unskilled laborers barely meeting the ends. I want my children to study and to escape the struggles that we are going through because we are uneducated. Myself and my family could be denied the Scheduled Caste benefits because I go to church and believe in Jesus."
Every Christian family in this village has similar stories of what they term discrimination. Both by the government, because of being denied the Scheduled Caste reservation benefit, and by general society for still being from the Dalit caste. For many in the village, once the authorities discover a Dalit is a Christian, their Scheduled Caste benefits are taken away and they become a target for Hindu radicals; all while remaining on India's lowest social rung.
For Hindu radicals, this connection between government benefits and religious identity is a very convenient way of de-incentivizing Hindu Dalits from choosing to convert to Christianity. It also is a way radicals convince Christian Dalits to convert to Hinduism, using the promise of Scheduled Caste benefits, which would provide greater opportunities for Dalits, to convince them to convert. One such incident took place in Asroi village, 19 miles from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu radicals in Aligarh declared a "successful ghar wapasi" (re-conversion) of 72 Dalits who had become Christians in 1995.
One of the 72 Dalits, who converted to Hinduism, said it was because they were unhappy with the rights they were denied under the Scheduled Caste benefits system because they changed their religion. "We found ourselves in a worse position being Christians," he said. "As Hindus we had no status, but at least we were given Scheduled Caste benefits."
India's Great Lie?
"The government is forcing us to lie," a government official in the Andhra Pradesh's bureaucracy, who was able to rise to his post thanks to the Scheduled Caste benefits, said. To accomplish this, the official was forced to hide his Christian faith. The official told ICC that he has decided to finally come out, as he could no longer maintain this double life. "Whatever the consequences, God will take care of us," the official told ICC.
Franklin Caesar, a Christian rights activists told ICC that, "This system is against the fundamental rights provided to all India's citizens in the Constitution. The Presidential Order of 1950 has destroyed fundamental and constitutional rights of Dalits from Christian and Muslim backgrounds; the benefits must be delink from religion."
According to sources at the Catholic Church in India, more than 60 percent of India's 25 million Christians are from the Dalit caste, despite the fact that changing religion causes them to lose Scheduled Caste benefits. Unofficially, it is rumored there are millions more Dalits who consider themselves Christians privately, but due to fear of losing their Scheduled Caste benefits, officially report themselves as Hindus. If Dalits from Christian backgrounds would be allowed to receive Scheduled Caste benefits, India's religious landscape would likely change overnight.
Everyday in India, Dalit Christians are forced to choose between living openly as a Christian and receiving government benefits meant to assist Dalits who have suffered discrimination in India for generations. This choice between government aid and the ability to openly believe one's religion of choice is a clear denial of Dalit Christians' Article 25 freedom of religion rights. With Hindu nationals currently in power, it is highly unlikely that this situation will change any time soon, denying constitutional rights for millions and artificially inflating the numbers of Hindu in India's multi-religious society.
For interviews, contact William Stark, Regional Manager for South Asia: RM-SAsia@persecution.org
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