India’s Christians mark 70th anniversary of decree denying them rights

India’s Christians mark 70th anniversary of decree denying them rights

In this Aug. 15, 2016 file photo, hundreds of members of India's low-caste Dalit community gather for a rally in Una, Gujarat state, India. (Credit: Ajit Solanki/AP.)

Indian Christians marked the annual Black Day on August 10, marking the 70th anniversary of a government decision to deny Christians and Muslims access to benefits offered to other citizens of the same caste background.

MUMBAI, India – Indian Christians marked the annual Black Day on August 10, marking the 70th anniversary of a government decision to deny Christians and Muslims access to benefits offered to other citizens of the same caste background.

India has long offered affirmative action-style benefits to Dalits – members of the lowest rungs of Hinduism’s caste system, and formerly knowns as Untouchables – and its indigenous Tribal community. Both classes have longer suffered discrimination on the Indian subcontinent and remain marginalized to this day.

On August 10, 1950, the first president of India, Rajendra Prasad, signed a presidential order stating that no person belonging to “a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” (Scheduled Caste is another term for Dalits.) Sikhs (1956) and Buddhists (1990) have since been allowed to also benefit from laws applying to Dalits.

For this reason, the Catholic Church has designated August 10 to be observed as a “Black day,” and called for meetings, rallies, candle-light vigils, and other forms of demonstrations to be organized to show support and solidarity to those Christians and Muslims belonging to scheduled castes who are suffering the injustice of having their legal rights denied.

“Today [August 10] is 70 years of discrimination based on religion. The Church in India observes Black Day, it is a day of mourning for the millions of Dalit Christian in India, to protest against the discrimination that low-caste Christians and Muslims continue to face in the country. This is the 70th year of our struggle for justice for the nearly 75 percent of Christians belong to scheduled caste communities numbering to 20 million,” said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak, the chairman of the Commission for Scheduled Castes (SCs)/other Backward Castes (BCs) at the Indian bishops’ conference.

Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.

Since then, incidents of harassment against religious minorities have increased, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.

Christians only make up around 2.3 percent of India’s population, and suffer discrimination by the Hindu majority. Dalit Christians often suffer “double discrimination” based on both their religion and their caste background. Hindu nationalists often accuse churches of targeting low-caste Hindus for conversion, and several Indian states have passed anti-conversion laws which disproportionately affect Dalit Christians.

The Black Day is organized by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), the National Council of Churches in India and the National Council of Dalit Christians and was first held in 2009.

“The Indian Constitution went into effect in January 1950. It guaranteed equal fundamental rights for all of its citizens, irrespective of caste and creed,” Nayak explained.

“On Aug. 10, 1950, a presidential order went into effect to grant Dalits affirmative action benefits to compensate for their low socio-economic status after centuries of neglect and discrimination. Dalits belonging to other religions, however, were not included. Eventually, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits were granted the so-called ‘Scheduled Castes’ status along with the benefits. However, Muslim and Christian Dalits remain deprived of these rights to this day, despite continuous protests and appeals to the government for the past 70 years,” the bishop told Crux.

“The 1950 Presidential order discriminates purely on the basis of religion, which runs against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution that hold that all citizens must be treated equally – irrespective of caste, creed, gender or religion. The Church in India has observed peaceful protests in a democratic manner, but this discriminatory order continues to deprive millions of Dalit Christians justice,” he added.

The bishop said Dalit Christians and Muslims regard the presidential order and its amendments as “discriminatory and a violation of ‎the Indian Constitution that upholds equality before the law and prohibits discrimination of any citizen on the ground of only religion, and guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom to profess any religion.”

“Our struggle for justice is going on for 70 years. This case is still pending in the Supreme Court for 16 years. This long delay affecting the Constitutional rights of nearly 20 million Dalit Christians is a gross injustice, who continue to suffer discrimination, socio-economic and religious discriminations,” Nayak said.

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