In India, Hindus Wary of Christian Rights

NEW DELHI—India's opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) launched a campaign early this month to pressure the United Front government to abandon its promise of granting Christians of low caste origin equal status with their Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist counterparts.

“The Scheduled Castes of the country will not tolerate such politics of convenience which has led to an unholy alliance between the Church and the government. BJP, with the support of the dalits (low castes) of the country will oppose the bill tooth and nail and the struggle launched today will continue until the bill is buried for forever,” said a resolution adopted at a rally organized by BJP's Scheduled Caste Morcha (low caste forum).

A host of BJP national leaders addressed the Sept. 2 rally in New Delhi in which more than 6,000 low caste members of the BJP gathered to protest the government's move to respond to the decades-old Christian demand for extension of Scheduled Caste (SC) status to Christians of low caste origin.

Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, who assumed office June 1, had assured several Christian delegations, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), that the necessary amendment pass in Parliament during its current session.

Dalit literally means “trampled upon" and refers to low castes (officially called scheduled castes) who were once treated as “untouchables." Except for the Christians among them, scheduled Castes are entitled to free education, as well as a guaranteed quota of jobs reserved in the government and legislatures. A 1950 constitutional amendment made Hindu Dalits eligible for SC benefits; these were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and to Buddhists in 1990. Christian Dalits, who constitute more than 60 percent of India's 22 million Christians (15 million Catholics among them), are denied such benefits because Christianity does not recognize the caste system.

“We will not allow the government to include Christian converts in a list of scheduled castes and extend to them [the accompanying benefits]. If the bill is passed, we will take the struggle to the streets,” declared former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had to resign after 13 days in power as his BJP government failed to garner a majority in Parliament following the general election last spring.

“This is not a question of government jobs only. This move will encourage conversion on a large scale and divide Indian society,” Vajpayee said, expressing high caste Hindu fears that extending constitutional equality to Christian dalits would increase the conversion rate of Hindu Dalits to Christianity. He urged party members to oppose the bill and warned that if it passed, social tension would increase.

Calling the proposed legislation a “black bill,” Bangaru Laxman, organizer of the rally, said that if Christian dalits— who are “better off,” he charged, than non-Christian dalits— are added to the SC list, they will take most of the government jobs reserved for low castes.

BJPnever expressed regrets about the 1956 extension of SC status to Sikh dalits. But in 1990, when the National Front coalition tried to include both Buddhist and Christian dalits under the SC category, the BJP threatened to bring down the government which depended on its support. The government recanted and extended SC status to Buddhist dalits only. The BJP holds that SC status is a prerogative of Hindus and that both Sikhism and Buddhism are offshoots of Hinduism.

“BJP has now stolen the show from us. The sad part of it is that brahmins (high castes) have succeeded in dividing the dalit community to keep intact the upper caste hegemony over dalits." said Father Lourdusamy, secretary of CBCI Commission for dalits.

Father Lourdusamy, himself a dalit, said that low castes are “well aware that, whatever their religion, they live in the same segregated villages and have the same social status. Unfortunately BJP has succeeded in making some Hindu dalits come out openly against [Christian Dalits]."

Saral Chatterji, chairperson of All India Christian People's Forum, which seeks to end what it called the “undeclared apartheid" against Christian dalits, said: “Whatever their [BJP] arguments, the fact remains that dalit Christians are as depressed as Hindu dalits. They are discriminated against in a country with a constitution that guarantees equality and justice."

The United Front government has dropped the dalit Christian bill from the agenda of the current session of Parliament. In an Aug. 28 cabinet meeting, the government decided against introducing the bill during the current session, fearing it would bolster the BJP in the Sept. 30-Oct. 7 elections for the legislature of northern Uttar Pradesh state—which is India's most populous state with more than 140 million people.

Passing the bill now, said Father Lourdusamy, would boost the BJP, who would use it to garner the support of Hindu dalits who constitute more than 17 percent of the local population. The Christian population of Uttar Pradesh is less than 0.5 percent.

“Due to the political insignificance of Christians, especially at the national level, the government is taking [Christians] for a ride—that's what we have experienced for decades,” Chatterji said.

Christians have no plans to abandon their struggle. Activists expressing understanding for the dilemma of the United Front government are now working to dispel BJP's message that the bill would benefit Christian dalits at the expense of other dalits. In a move to appease critics, the Christian campaigners are now planning to demand only “proportional quotas" for Christian dalits.

Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi.