Preventing atrocities against marginalized sections of the Indian society: What is the right way forward?
“Marginalization of Dalit Christians and Muslims in India”
Social Exclusion. A word that barely matters if you’re privileged enough to be born in a society where discrimination does not occur based on your sex, colour, sexuality, class or religion. However, if you are not privileged enough and happen to be on the other side of the “privilege spectrum”, you are bound to be marginalised. To be marginalised means to be excluded from what society perceives to be “normal”. India, a nation which brags about its rich and varied heritage also happens to be the same nation where ‘untouchability’ arose.
Everyone talks about the marginalisation of Dalits in India, and even recognizes it as an issue, but however, many are not yet aware of the marginalisation of Dalit Christians and Muslims in India. They do not get to relish the rights which should be their fundamental rights in the Constitution of India. They do not even get recognized as Dalit, just because they choose to follow a different religion. There needs to be more conversation over this topic and the inclusion of them as Dalits so that they can benefit from the protective discrimination rights which are rightfully theirstoo.
The caste system in India is found not only in one book, but has been mentioned in many shastras of the Hindus, the most ancient one being the Rig Veda. This caste system was known as the ‘Varna’ System, and was divided into 4 main castes. The first was the Brahmins, which included priests, scholars and teacher. They were recognized as the highest caste which prevailed. The next were the Kshatriyas, which included the rulers, warriors and administrators. They were also looked up at, due to their strength and power. The lower two, were the Vaishyas and the Shudras. The Vaishyas were the cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans and merchants, and at the bottom of the Varnas, were the Shudras. The Shudras were the labourers and the service providers.1
Dalits in India were not even made a part of the four varnas and were considered as the lowest form of human life. But, contrary to popular belief, Hinduism isn’t the only religion which has Dalits. Over a period, as new religions made their way into the country, new beliefs started to be practised, Dalits became a part of this journey of conversion. Earlier, Dalits were only identified as Hindus, but now, over a period of time, there exists a section of society who call themselves Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.
According to the Mandal Commission Report, casteism among the Indian Christians is as prevalent as in any other community. 2Based on one background, they are further divided into smaller denominations. In Kerala, the lower caste Christians remove their headdress when they are around Syrian Christians, who are meant to be the rich, higher caste Christians. Even with regard to place of worship- members of the same church perform religious rituals separately in separate buildings.
However, the Biblical texts are very clear to point out that everyone is equal in front of God, and being a very egalitarian religion, many lower class people converted to Christianity to find a place for themselves in society, but all was in vain. It is important to note that this does not include majority of the religion, however, is still practiced in many parts of the nation, especially, the south.
The Mandal Commission Report has concluded without any doubt that among Indian Christians caste is a reality. According to the report “social and educational backwardness among the Christian community is more or less the same as among Hindu communities. Though the caste system is peculiar to Hindu society, in actual practice, it also pervades
2 BP Mandal, Commission of Backward Classes under the chairmanship of B.P.Mandal, 1980
Christian society. The Christians of Scheduled Caste Origin (Christian Dalits) suffer the same disabilities as their counterparts belonging to other religions.”3
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution said: “Has Christianity been able to save the converts from the sufferings and ignominy which is the misfortune of everyone who is born an untouchable? Can an untouchable after his conversion to Christianity take water from a public well? Are his children admitted to a public school? …. Will a barber shave him? Will a washerman wash his clothes? Will the Hindus take water from him? Will they dine withhim?”4
Dr.BR Ambedkar has rightly said in his words that suffering to the Christian Dalits still occur after conversion and their plight is the same as their counterparts in other religions. The matter of issue arises when everyone acknowledges that Christian and Muslim Dalits suffer injustice, but are not recognized under Schedules Castes list, as they should be. Many government commissions have accepted and proclaimed that fact that Christian and Muslim Dalits go through the same tragedy of being ill-treated and looked down upon by society, however, only the government can help in making legislative changes.
In 1935, the British who were then ruling India took note of the suffering of the Dalits and acknowledged the fact that they belonged to lower castes and something had to be done for their upliftment. In this course, they made a list of lower castes and their names were reflected on a schedule.5 They were given certain special privileges and reservations. These castes were not distinguished by religion, thus, everyone, be it Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, under the purview of being “Dalit” could benefit from these special privileges.
5 India’s Dalits still fighting untouchability, 27th June, 2012, BBC
After 1950, the Constitution of India, through a Presidential order, took away all the rights of Dalits who were not Hindus. Thus, these affirmative actions for Schedule Caste were only for Hindu Dalits and no one else. The Dalits from other religions opposed this order, and so the Article was amended twice, once in 1956 and 1990, respectively for the Sikh and Buddhist Dalits. While the cries of the Christian and Muslim Dalits were in vain.6
There have been several Writ Petitions which have been filed in the Supreme Court of India regarding the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims in the Scheduled Caste list mentioned in the Constitution of India. In 2004, Dalit Christians filed a Public Interest Litigation in Supreme Court (WP.180/2004).7 The question that was raised is whether Dalit Christians and Muslims were being deprived of the benefits of reservation which should be rightly be theirs, being Dalits. The petitioners also contested that this would be discriminatory against the Dalit Christians and Muslims, under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution which calls for equality for all. The main prayer of the petition was for equal scheduled caste rights for Dalits Christians in India.
Dalit Christian and Muslims are marginalised, firstly for being converts, giving up the religion they were born into, and secondly, for being Dalits. One must think, with all the education and modernisation that India is going through, matters like this would subside. Very little is spoken about the tragedy Christians and Muslims go through daily, that too, without the law providing them with the protective affirmative action which the Constitution should provide them with. Dalit Christians and Muslims experience the same amount of discrimination as a Dalit Hindu, then why is it that one is protected by the government, while the others arenot?
6 Staff Reporter, Dalit Muslims, Christians demand Schedule Caste Status, 16th November,2012, The Hindu,
7 Neelam Gaikwad, Press release: Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims , 27th October, 2017
There are several preventive measures that the government can take, and it all starts with equal provision of the law. It is said that the law is supreme, and every else beneath it. Thus, many who want to see the upliftment of these marginalised Dalit Christians and Muslims spoke out, in hopes of getting equal provision of the law. However, after several Writs Petitions being filed in the High Court and Supreme Court, not many have materialised.
I believe that at the heart of the problem is a problem of our collective hearts and minds- Society’s Conscience. The change has to start from within. The root of the rot has to be dealt with. One needs to recognise the truth that though many individual Dalits have overcome discrimination, becoming successful professionals, politicians and entrepreneurs but sadly they remain a minuscule speck on the vast horizon of this great land. One needs to ponder on the question as to why this huge disparity exists. The fact that the Indian Government did away with the 1935 act and revised it in1950 shows that there was an acknowledgement of the problem.8 But why deny privileges to a certain segment, specifically Muslim and Christian Dalits while conferring the said advantages to other Dalits. Is there a more insidious agenda to this so obvious bias? Are certain segments of our society still not liberated after 71 years ofindependence?
These questions need honest answers and honest answers can only be had if we create a climate of dialogue, a spirit of tolerance and a willingness to hear the other and try to understand even if one does not agree. Freedom of expression, action and belief are under extreme stress today. We need to hear different narratives and allow these to shape our thinking; our perspectives need to be broadened to allow others to live and thrive. We need to correct past discriminations. Candle light vigils, protest marches, vociferous speeches all
8 A memoir of the lowest cast, The Economist, July 27th,2017
have a role. But finally one needs to touch the law makers of the land. It takes a generation to change deep rooted mindsets, but it is never too late to start.
Reservation, according to me, is the only way forward for these marginalised. The idea of reservation started to uplift the downtrodden communities, and through this, over the years, many have come out of it. Protective Discrimination is not only an arbitrary law, but a fundamental right according to the Constitution of India. It is solely the States responsibility to make sure that these particular segments of the society are allowed to have access to the limitation on access to equal opportunities.9 They must carve out opportunities for education and jobs, and create drives that teach and educate the other people that the taboo that exists in society belongs in the past, and that the new progressive India needs to accept these people as their own rather than keeping them at adistance.
They should be given opportunity to participate in every activity, be it a government held, or private. They must be given a chance to overcome chronic underrepresentation, which is currently an issue, as Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims aren’t even allowed to make use of the rights under the Constitution. However, the only way this can happen is when people other than Dalit Christians and Muslims also go ahead and recognize that this marginalization is an issue. We cannot continue to side line these Dalits, just because they chose another religion to follow. They cannot assimilate into their new chosen religion, because even if the new religion accepts them, the society outside doesnot.
Solutions are many, but the collective conscience of people needs to wake up. Rabindranath Tagore in his poem, a prayer for India emphasizes on an atmosphere which he would like to see our nation awake to. Decades later, it still applies to our society, and our nation.
9 The Constitution of India, 1950
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
by narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depths of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward bythee
Into ever-widening thought andaction
Into that heaven of Freedom, my Father, let my countryawake.”10
The right way forward would be to recognize that we as a society are excluding people from rights they are entitled to too. As for Christian and Muslims Dalits, they should be provided with the protective rights they rightly deserve should be given onto them, The Dalits do not belong to a lesser God. The only people who belong to a lesser God would be the ones who judge them, treat them wrong and marginalisethem.
10 Where the mind is without fear, Rabindranath Tagore