Thursday, January 26, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Ecclesiophobia in our land

Posted on 25 January 2012

Ecclesiophobia in our land

Suhas Chakma analyses the treatment reserved for Dalit Christians in the country

The lesser among the Dalits
Converted dalits get no justice

THAT SECULAR India suffers from entrenched Christianophobia is
well-established but not publicly acknowledged by the state and the
society at large. Nothing reflects it more than the denial of
reservations to dalits who converted to Christianity under the
Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, which provides that no
one other than those who profess the religion of Hinduism, Buddhism
and Sikhism will be considered as Scheduled Castes. India's
Christianophobia has come to the fore after the UPA government
promised 4.5 per cent quota for backward Muslims, believed to be
dalits who embraced Islam, in the run up to the forthcoming UP
Assembly election. The same government has been ducking reservations
to dalit Christians before the Supreme Court. Sadly, the apex court
itself took six years to consider the writ petition on the issue in
January 2011.

Historically, Britain ruled India from 1757 to 1947 — for 190 years —
but Britishers did not impose their religion, which was the case with
the previous rulers. No major group that had formal religions
converted to Christianity. In northeast India, which has the largest
concentration of Christian populations in the country, those who were
practicing formal religions did not convert to Christianity. The
tribals like the Chakmas and Mogs who practiced Buddhism from time
immemorial did not convert to Christianity. Similarly, Tripuris and
Manipuris, who were Vaishnavaites also did not convert. It was only
the ethnic groups who had their local religions, termed as animism,
who converted to Christianity.

The Christian population through post-independent India remained
static. They constituted about 2.35 per cent of the population in
1951, 2.44 per cent in 1961, 2.59 per cent in 1971, 2.45 per cent in
1981, 2.32 per cent in 1991 and 2.3 per cent in the 2001 census. Yet,
India enacted a number of laws to prohibit conversion, which were
essentially meant for the Christian missionaries.

The self-proclaimed secular Congress Party was the first one to enact
the Freedom of Religion Act in Odisha in 1967 followed by Madhya
Pradesh in 1968 and in Arunachal Pradesh in 1978. The Bharatiya Janata
Party followed suit and introduced the Freedom of Religion Act of
Gujarat in 2003 and in Chhattisgarh in 2006. While the Congress
opposed the Gujarat bill, it enacted the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of
Religion Act in 2006. Under this Act, conversion to Hinduism is
certainly not an offence. The Hindu groups have been openly converting
the tribals into Hinduism under the Ghar Wapasi movement while the
churches were kept under strict vigil and many missionaries had to
face prosecution.

Conversion to Christianity has not helped dalits. The Church itself
practises caste system. Across India, cemeteries for dalit Christians
are different from the upper castes so is the sitting arrangement.
Dalit Christians are not selected in the hierarchy of the church.
While in mainland India, the Catholics were mainly blamed for the
practice of the caste system, in the northeast India, which has the
Baptists, the complaint of domination by the Bishops from South India
is often echoed.

Apart from the Freedom of Religion Acts, the Foreign Contribution
Regulation Act 1976 has been used to monitor the missionaries. The
Restricted Area Permit has been used to control the entry of the
foreign missionaries in the northeast India. The Foreign Contribution
Regulation Act 2010 prohibits conversion. In post-independent India,
conversion has essentially been a consequence of expression of
negation and the failure of the state to reduce destitution and

The Tripuris, who did not convert to Christianity during the British
rule, started changing their religion mainly from the 1980s as an
expression of negation against the domination by Bengali Hindus. The
same Tripuris who are known as Reangs and Brus in Mizoram and had
converted into Christianity have been reconverting to Hinduism since
1990s as a protest against domination by the Mizo Christians. The
conversion to Christianity by dalits despite caste discrimination
within the Church has also to do with expression of negation against
the repressive caste system. Across mainland India, adivasis live in
absolute poverty and the Christian missionaries have played a critical
role in providing food, education, medical assistance, etc.

SINCE INDIA launched its tribal sub plan and special component plan in
1971-72, the contours of conversion have changed. Many of the front
organisations of the Hindu religious groups received grants made by
the Ministry of Social Justice, Ministry of Human Resources
Development, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, etc., for running schools and
hostels for the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. These Hindu
religious organisations have increasingly adopted the methods of
Christian missionaries such as providing food, medicine, shelter,
education, etc. In this context, the role of the Indian state
irrespective of whichever party is in power has been biased.

Religion is a personal issue and must not be regulated by the state.
There are a number of dalits who identify themselves legally as Hindus
to obtain the benefits of reservations but practice Christianity. The
denial of reservations to dalit Christians has kept a large chunk of
India's discriminated population in backwardness. India must address
caste discrimination with renewed vigour. The dalits, to a large
extent, are now politically empowered but the caste system is still
alive and being practised. The government, however, has stopped
itspublic campaign against the caste system as if it does not exist.
The matrimonial pages of Indian newspapers are full of advertisements
giving caste preferences. The Railways still clear human excreta
manually though it is illegal.

And mostly low caste people are hired for it. States must not
interfere in religious matters. They ought to realise certain
religious practises like caste discrimination are criminal offences
under national laws. The state governments ought to educate people and
enforce the law. However, when the state itself practices manual
scavenging and promotes one particular religion by not enforcing the
Religious Freedom Act against the Hindu religious groups who convert
adivasis, it can no longer claim to be secular and non-casteist. The
denial of reservation to dalit Christians solely based on their
religion also makes India Christianophobic.

Suhas Chakma is director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights.


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