By Rita Joseph
Cutting across party lines, Indian parliamentarians have made a strong pitch to extend quota benefits to Christians and Muslims from Dalit communities and pledged to fight for the cause.
At a function held on Aug. 9 by the All India Christian Federation in New Delhi, parliamentarians agreed it was nothing but discrimination based on religion to deny constitutional benefits meant for socially poor Dalit people to Christians and Muslims on grounds that their religions do not recognize caste differences.
Dalit people from the Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh religions enjoy benefits such as quotas for places in educational institutions and government jobs but Christians and Muslims suffering the same socioeconomic poverty are denied them “against the spirit of the constitution,” said P.J. Kurien, former deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India’s parliament.
The constitution made such a provision for the uplift of all those suffering social suppression and does not discriminate on the basis of caste or creed, said Kurien, a Christian from Kerala’s Mar Thoma Church.
These benefits are now linked to change of religion as a Dalit who converts to Christianity or Islam stands to lose them, again against the spirit of a constitution that guarantees the right to profess any religion of choice, he said.
Kurien, a Congress party member, said the aberration has been going on since 1950 when a presidential order restricted these benefits only to Dalits of the Hindu religion. It was later amended twice to include Buddhists and Sikhs.
It is not impossible to solve the issue, said Sitaram Yechuri, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “All that is required is a commitment; a political will to extend the reservation to the religious minorities,” he said.
He said caste continues to be a social phenomenon that does not end with a change of religion. Caste status should have been separated from religion when the 1950 order was issued, he noted.
Several commissions that studied the issue reiterated socioeconomic poverty among Dalit people cutting across religious lines.
A petition to remove the 1950 order has been pending in the Supreme Court for eight years but the government has not responded yet, Yechuri said. “This is impermissible as justice delayed is justice denied,” he said.
Amid peals of laughter, Sharad Yadav, a member of the Loktantrik Janata Dal Party, said discrimination was propagated by people who claim that Christians and Muslim Gods were not born in India, while Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and Sikh gurus were all indigenous Gods.
Senior Congress leader and former minister Jaipal Reddy said Dalit people continue to suffer socioeconomic poverty as they did in the pre-independence era.
He said the Ranganath Misra commission (2004-07) recommended that Dalit Christians deserve a quota. “It is a pity that the matter remains unresolved until today,” Reddy said.
Reddy and Yechuri agreed that the present government run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not include Christians and Muslims in the list as it could antagonize its Hindu vote base, which would have to share the cake of benefits with a larger population.
Moreover, pro-Hindu groups that support the BJP have been always opposed to the idea on grounds that the prospect of losing benefits stops many Dalit people from joining Christianity. They fear an exodus of conversions from Hindu Dalits if Christians are included in the quota.
The BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “far from showing any commitment” to the cause of Dalit Christians and Muslims, Yechuri said.
Some parliamentarians noted that Congress was in power from 1950 for a long period but failed to take a positive step on this issue.
BJP leader and Nagaland Minister of Higher Education and Technical Education Temjen Imna Along said the issue went beyond political ideologies and strategies.
“The BJP has been in power for just four years. What did the Congress government do for 10 years? What did the parties prior to that do for over 50 years? Why single out the BJP government? How many have engaged in meaningful dialogue and reasoned with the top leaders of the country?” he asked.
Ramdas Athwale, minister for social justice and empowerment in the Modi government, promised to take up the matter with the prime minister.
Christians form 28 million or just 2.3 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people but more than 60 percent of them come from Dalit and tribal communities.