02/14/2005, 00.00
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Hopes for the rights of Dalit Christians

Supreme Court will consider the constitutional status of Dalit converts to Christianity hitherto marginalised and rejected by Indian society.

New Delhi (AsiaNews) – In a decision that may have far-reaching implications, the Supreme Court on Friday decided to consider afresh the crucial constitutional issue of affirmative action in the public sector for Dalit converts to Christianity.

Attorney-General Milon Bannerjee told the Court that he had submitted a request to that effect before the government.

The decision was welcomed by Dalit rights advocates like John Dayal, president All India Catholic Union and secretary of the All India Christian Council, who told AsiaNews that "it was a joyous day".

A Presidential Order dating back to 1950 excluded Dalit convert to Christianity from the quota system that reserved jobs to members of the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes in the public service. The same exclusion applies to those who convert to Islam but not to those who become Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh.

The issue has led to a potential constitutional crisis. The government is in fact challenging the jurisdiction of the Court claiming that any change to a Presidential Order falls to the legislative branch of government, not the judiciary.

This type of conflict is not new to India. In 2002, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (defeated in the May 2004 elections), which is strongly Hindu fundamentalist, rejected a request to add Dalit Christians to the list of groups included in the Scheduled Castes. However, in 2004 the Supreme Court ruled that a Dalit who converted to Christianity did not lose his or her status as a member of the Scheduled Castes or Tribes. The judges said: "The same law should be applicable to Dalit Christians also. Reservation was available to Dalits followers of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism and there was no reason why Dalit Christians should not be given a similar benefit."

The BJP criticised the Court's decision. Its The National Secretary, L Ganesan, said in Chennai, that the promise to work for a separate quota of reservation for Muslims and Dalit Christians in jobs was 'dangerous' and would only pave the way for secessionism in the country.

Speaking to AsiaNews about the Court's decision, John Dayal said: "We hope that the Supreme Court will soon finally end a historic injustice that was done in 1950 to the Dalits professing the Christian faith."

"Whenever the Supreme Court gives its final judgement recognising that the cruel and debilitating inequities and injuries of the 3,000 year old caste system [. . .], it will also change the law books that penalised Dalit Christians".

"The Dalit Christian was a victim of injustices and suffering for the last fifty years," he added, and "we are hopeful that justice will be done, finally."

According to the Catholic activist, the Catholic Bishops' Conference, the All India Catholic Union, the All India Christian Council, the Church of North India and other groups have spoken to government and opposition leaders to sway them in favour of changes in favour of Dalit Christians.

This is part of an advocacy campaign launched last year to get the government to "grant Dalit Christians the same rights now available to Dalits of other major religions such as Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism," Mr Dayal said. (NC)

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