Catholic Church in India Opposes New Government Commission to Study Social Status of Converts

According to Church leaders, the commission is another stalling tactic to avoid meeting the demand for equal benefits for members of the discriminated Dalit caste who convert to Christianity or Islam.

Clockwise from Left: Delhi Dalit Christian protest on Dec. 11, 2013. Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi addresses protesetrs. Christian protest in Delhi in Dec. 2013 that was sprayed with dirty water by the police.
Clockwise from Left: Delhi Dalit Christian protest on Dec. 11, 2013. Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi addresses protesetrs. Christian protest in Delhi in Dec. 2013 that was sprayed with dirty water by the police. (photo: Courtesy photos / Anto Akkara)

NEW DELHI — The Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) opposes the move of India’s federal government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to appoint a new commission to study the “social status” of converts of low caste origins,.

The bishops publicly oppose the new commission on the grounds that it’s merely a stalling tactic by the government to avoid addressing the discrimination converts to Christianity continue to experience.

“This is just delaying tactics and weakens our demand,” Father Bijoy Kumar Nayak, executive secretary of the CBCI’s Commission for Dalits, told the Register Oct. 25. 

“What is the need for setting up another commission, after several commissions including one led by the former chief justice of India, have brought out the discrimination Christian converts face?” asked Father Nayak, former provincial of the Congregation of Missions based in eastern Odisha state.

Father Nayak’s remarks followed a press statement by the CBCI Commission opposing the Oct. 7 establishment of the new commission into the status of Dalit converts, to determine whether Scheduled Caste status should extend to them.

“Dalit” literally meaning “trampled upon” and refers to low caste social communities that historically have been treated as “untouchables” in India’s caste-ridden society. Often, they eke out a living by carrying out menial jobs like scavenging while living in segregation from upper castes in rural areas.  

In 1950, the federal government enacted special legislation that laid the constitutional foundation for the subsequent discrimination against Dalit Christians. This legislation listed Hindu Dalits as “Scheduled Caste,” and made them eligible for free education and a 15% quota in government jobs and legislatures to improve their social status. 

Although these statutory Scheduled Caste privileges were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and Buddhist Dalits in 1990, they have continued to be denied to Muslim and Christian Dalits. Christian Dalits account for approximately two-thirds of India’s population of more than 30 million Christians.

“The [federal] governments of past and present have failed to amend the Constitution Order 1950 … which discriminates against them solely on the basis of religion,” the CBCI Dalit commission said in its press statement.


Previous Investigations

In 2004, Catholic Dalit activists demanded that the Supreme Court end this undeclared apartheid with the CBCI Dalit Commission being included among the petitioners. The case continues to drag on without resolution 18 years later, with successive national governments refusing to accommodate Christian concerns and raising technical objections that have delayed a verdict. 

Several previous judicial commissions, including the one appointed in 2004 and led by former chief Justice Ranganath Mishra, have endorsed the demand to extend the Scheduled Caste reservation quota to Dalit converts to Islam or Christianity.  

Father Nayak pointed out that “leaders of most of the main political parties and prominent Dalit leaders have written to the Prime Minister strongly recommending support for the demand. But nothing has been done. Now an attempt is being made to scuttle our demand with the appointment of the new commission.” 

“We will demand scrapping of this new commission when our case comes up for its next hearing [in weeks],” Father Nayak said.

“This is just a trick to delay and scuttle our just demand,” Franklin Caesar, the lay Catholic engineer who had initiated the original court petition in 2004 and is still pursuing it, told the Register.

Since other reports like the Satish Despande study, on behalf of the National Commission for Minorities, have also endorsed extension of Scheduled Caste status to Christian and Muslim Dalits, Caesar said “the (BJP) government is even trying to bury the Christian demand with the new commission.”

“We fear for the worst with the new commission,” Father S Lourdusamy, former secretary of CBCI Dalit commission from 1994-2002, told the Register.

Justice KG Balakrishnan, the former chief justice of India appointed to head the commission, Father Lourdusamy noted, is “one who had opposed the Christian demand in court as a judge.”

“We do not expect him to make a different conclusion,” said the priest, who is now laity commission director of the southern Tamil Nadu Catholic Bishops’ Council.


Media Debate

On Oct. 21, the national daily newspaper The Hindu published a half-page debate addressing the issue. 

Subhajit Naskar, a professor at Jadhavpur University in Kolkata, opposed the Christian-Muslim position, arguing that as non-Indian religions, both Christianity and Islam are “egalitarian” religions and therefore lack a theological foundation of caste-based discrimination that requires redress via the extension of Scheduled Caste status to Christian and Muslim converts.

Professor Sukhdep Thorat, former chairman of the University Grants Commission that oversees universities in India, countered that there is no theological difference between Buddhism and Sikhism and Christianity and Islam, with respect to this issue

Emphasizing that caste discrimination continued against Sikh and Buddhist converts, Thorat maintained there is “no reason to say this does not happen in Christianity or Islam,” as well.

“If the constitution guarantees equality before law, equal opportunity… and if discrimination continues after conversion, it is an obligation… to provide protection in whichever form — reservation and law,” Thorat wrote.

Despite its legal and constitutional base, the demand for equal rights to Christian and Muslim Dalits faces strong opposition from the Hindu nationalist BJP and even to some extent from the more secular-minded Congress party that dominated India for decades, prior to the BJP’s rise to political prominence in 1998.

“Big political parties want to please the [Hindu] majority and keep their votes,” said Father Lourdusamy. “That is why our demand for equality is still pending.” 

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