Indian govt to look into quotas for Dalit Christians, Muslims – UCA News

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Christians of Dalit origin see the setting up of yet another study panel as a delay tactic, fear being tricked again

Indian govt to look into quotas for Dalit Christians, Muslims – UCA News
Dalit Christians protest against the discrimination they face in Kumbakonam Diocese in southern India in February 2021

Dalit Christians protest against the discrimination they face in Kumbakonam Diocese in southern India in February 2021. (Photo supplied)

By UCA News reporter Published: October 11, 2022 09:47 AM GMT

A Catholic Church official has welcomed the Indian government’s decision to appoint a commission to examine if Dalits who converted to Christianity or Islam can be accorded Scheduled Caste (SC) status.

The federal government in a notification issued on Oct. 6 announced the setting up of a three-member inquiry commission headed by former Chief Justice of India, Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, to look into granting SC status, its implications and submit a report within two years.

However, Dalit Christian leaders dismissed this as a tactic to delay their recognition as SCs, the official name for former untouchables in the country.

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The SC status will ensure them a share in the15 percent reserved quota in parliament and state legislatures, government jobs and education, at present extended only to Dalits belonging to Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist religions

“It is a welcome move. We have to take it positively as it will give us an opportunity to highlight the issues plaguing our brothers and sisters,” Bishop Moses D Prakasam, a member of Indian Bishops’ Conference’s Office of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes, told UCA News on Oct. 8.

Bishop Prakasam welcomed the appointment of Justice Balakrishnan who is a Dalit.

But R L Francis, president of the Poor Christian Liberation Movement (PCLM), felt the government seemed to want to delay the ongoing hearings of a batch of petitions in the Supreme Court seeking the removal of the religion criteria for inclusion as SCs. 

He said the commission was announced after the country’s top court told the government to submit its stand on extending constitutional benefits to Christians or Muslims of Dalit origin.

“The government was supposed to file its reply on the issue in the Supreme Court on Oct. 11. So there is no doubt that this is an attempt to keep the reservation issue hanging until the upcoming parliamentary polls in 2024,” he said.

Dalit leaders say there was no need for a third commission as the Ranganath Misra Commission in 2004 and Rajinder Sachar Commission in 2005 had recommended quotas and other benefits while observing that conversion to Christianity and Islam had not improved the socio-economic conditions of Dalit people.

Yet, Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin are denied the SC status on grounds that their religion does not follow the Indian caste system.

Political parties including India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also fear adverse reactions from existing SC communities whose quotas will have to be cut down to accommodate those from Christian and Muslim communities.  

“The government is certain to face a backlash in the elections if its grants our wish. So it made a clever political move and appointed the commission. By the time it submits its report, the election will be over,” Francis added.

The Federal Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment said the commission will examine the changes a Dalit person undergoes after converting to Christianity or Islam and the wider implications of including them in the SC category.

The ministry said the issue was “a seminal and historically complex sociological and constitutional question, and a definite matter of public importance.”

Dalits, who are former untouchables within the centuries-old Hindu caste hierarchy, have converted to Christianity and Islam over the past several decades, though in reality, the religions offer limited protection from age-old societal prejudices.

Government data shows that 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this socially deprived category. Some 60 percent of India’s 25 million Christians trace their origins to Dalit and tribal communities.

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