With two important cases of its own before the Supreme Court of India, and an equally important case against it in the same court, the Christian community in India could well be faced with some very uncomfortable and even existential questions soon.
This has nothing to do with the recent statements of Mr Mohan Bhagwat, the supreme leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which trains with long bamboo staves and the occasional airguns.
In his speech in the beautiful north-eastern city of Shillong recently, a month after his now infamous meeting with five Muslim retired bureaucrats and generals, Mr. Bhagwat said, “all Indians are the inhabitants of Hindustan, which is in the south of the Himalayas, north of Indian Ocean, on the bank of the Indus River. The habitants of this area are traditionally called Hindus. This is also called Bharat.”
Mr. Bhagwat said the term ‘Hindu’ covers all those who are the sons of ‘Bharat Mata’, descendants of Indian ancestors and who live in accordance with Indian culture, Shillong Times and other media reported. Mr. Bhagwat does not answer questions from the audience. Hence, the audience too does not ask questions to Mr. Bhagwat. So, any confusion in the minds of the people will remain unresolved till the next editorial in Panchjanya and Organiser, the official mouthpieces.
Mr Bhagwat’s statements are not new. In some form or the other, they have been the slogans of the Sangh ever since Independence, though during the premiership of Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee from 1998 till 2004, it had not trumpeted it with such vigour.
The RSS chief’s words are also not going to figure in the three separate cases, but in a way interconnected, that three separate Benches of the Supreme Court are now considering. But his thesis is comprehensively covered in the arguments made by the non-Christian and non-Muslim groups that are challenging the Christian positions on such issues as Dalit Christians, conversions, and targeted violence against Catholic churches and independent protestant pastors.
The Supreme Court Bench headed by Justice D. Y. Chandrachud has asked several state governments to submit data, if they have any, on incidents of targeted violence against Christians in various parts of the country. The issue had been raised by Archbishop of Bangalore Peter Machado and a host of civil society groups after a spate of incidents in Karnataka in the wake of the enactment of the state’s anti-conversion law which targets both Christians and Muslims.
The archbishop’s petition said there was a “sinister phenomenon of violence” and “targeted hate speech” against the Christian community by vigilante groups and members of right wing organisations. Such violence had been rising because the state’s law and order machinery had failed to protect innocent and vulnerable citizens.
The central and state governments have not taken immediate and necessary actions against groups that have caused widespread violence and hate speech against the Christian community, including attacks on churches and educational institutions. The court has reminded government that it had in the past issued guidelines that covered mob lynchings and targeted violence against identified communities.
The state and central governments have convenient excuses to deny such charges. Since local police seldom register cases of targeted violence against minority communities, there are hardly any records of serious violence. Most cases of attacks even on house churches are registered as scuffles and law and order cases, with often the itinerant independent pastor and his flock painted as the culprits.
The Supreme Court has been sharp in asking Centre and state governments on why they are not “taking stringent steps to control fraudulent religious conversion by ‘intimidation’ and through ‘gifts and monetary benefits.’” Justices M R Shah and Krishna Murari have asked the Home Ministry and the Law Ministry to file a reply by November 14.
The petition was filed by advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay seeking direction to the Centre and states to take stringent steps to control fraudulent religious conversion by "intimidation, threatening, deceivingly luring through gifts and monetary benefits.”
Mr Upadhyay says the “injury caused to the citizens is extremely large because there is not even one district which is free of religious conversion by hook and crook.” “Incidents are reported every week throughout the country where conversion is done by intimidating, threatening, deceivingly luring through gifts and monetary benefits and also by using black magic, superstition, miracles but Centre and States have not taken stringent steps to stop this menace.”
Experts have pointed out that while hearing a petition that challenged an earlier order of Madras High Court on “forceful conversion” Supreme Court justices Indira Banerjee and A S Bopanna had called such petitions “more about publicity interest than the public interest”. “You are actually disturbing the harmony with these kinds of petitions,” Live Law legal news portal had reported the judges as saying.
The fear of large-scale conversions from Hinduism to Christianity, and to Islam to a lesser extent, were at the root of the political decision that the government of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and his celebrated Law Minister and chair of the Constitution drafting committee, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, had been pressured into taking by powerful right wing lobbies in the Congress and others against giving political, employment and education quotas to Christian converts from the former untouchable castes.
The controversial decision, called the Presidential Order 1950, later inserted into the Constitution as Article 341 Part 3, said affirmative action of empowerment by reservations would be only for those who remained in the Hindu-fold, and not extend to those who converted to Islam, Christianity, and others.
Under pressure from Mazhabi Sikhs, a powerful block in Punjab, and Ambedkarite Buddhists of Maharashtra and Bihar, those two religions were also exempted from the ban on converts and now enjoy the fruits of the 15 per cent quotas which have not only brought 85 members of the three communities to the Lok Sabha and an equal percentage to the state legislatures and panchayats but have also ensured them higher education, and a role in civil and police administration.
The 1950 order, which is being challenged for the second time in the Supreme Court by the Christian and Muslim communities, says “No person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” It was amended twice in 1956 and 1990 to include Sikhs and Buddhists, respectively.
The Christian community in its earlier challenge had failed to convince the court that they suffered the same insults and inequities that Hindus of the same caste suffered at the hands of the upper castes in the towns and villages where they lived.
The church groups had no empirical data to show the real-life situation in education, employment, and social life, which includes such things as the inability to draw water from a common well, to issues such as physical assaults, ostracization and targeted indignities in schools, colleges, or places of employment. For Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, the anti-atrocity laws make all such issues criminal offences with police enjoined to take cognisance and courts to give strict punishment.
Many officers have had to face the law because they would not accept water at the hands of lower caste employee, or conversely, an upper caste junior staffer would refuse to execute orders given by a superior officer coming from socially lower castes. Sounds funny to someone not familiar with the Indian situation, but still not uncommon in India of 2022, specially in schools and offices in rural areas.
The plaintiffs feel their position is much stronger. They have done greater research and are now armed with official data from three important commissions and committees appointed by the government. These are the Justice Rajinder Sachar committee appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with its report in 2007; the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities headed by former Supreme Court Justice Ranganath Mishra; and the National Commission for Minorities, then headed by Mr Buta Singh, once the Railways Minister.
An expert group headed by the internationally well-known sociologist, and Delhi University professor, Dr. Satish Deshpande had also whetted the data in a celebrated report to confirm that certain strata of converts to Islam and Christianity still suffer from grave social discrimination that translates into education and employment infirmities.
Of the two main contending parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, it is the Congress that has been more dishonest, if truth be told. Mr. Modi’s BJP is ideologically opposed to granting of Scheduled Caste quota to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.
The BJP, whether it is Mr Modi leading it now or Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani leading it in the last few decades of the 20th century, has been honest in saying there is no question of the party encouraging an exodus from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam among the Dalit population by removing the barrier of the 1950 Presidential Order.
In a speech delivered on August 14, 2004, in Mumbai, BJP patriarch L.K. Advani said, “For a long time, there have been demands for extending reservations to so-called ‘Dalit’ Christians and ‘Dalit’ Muslims. However, successive governments have not paid heed to these demands. Why? This is because the framers of the Indian Constitution were very clear in their minds that caste is a feature of the Hindu society. If some lower caste Hindus converted to Islam or Christianity in the past, it was because of the claim and the promise of these religions that they were casteless and hence offered an equal station to the converts vis-a-vis original Muslims or Christians.”
Mr Advani admits caste is a problem of the Indian society. And though caste doesn’t exist in Islam or Christianity as a theological issue, in actual societies in India, caste systems are prevalent among the converts.
Former Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had in fact told the Rajya Sabha, “Dalits who had shunned their faith and converted to Islam and Christianity would not be permitted to contest parliamentary or assembly elections from constituencies reserved for Scheduled Castes and will not be allowed to claim other reservation benefits.”
The Congress has vacillated right from 1950, when its government passed the order. Mrs Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the United Progress Alliance, had once told me – in a private meeting with a priest colleague and I -- “your best chance for Dalit Christians getting their rights is in the courts. I cannot help you. No political party can.”
Despite civil society pressure, it never bothered to amend the 1950 order. Instead, it introduced a minority sub quota of 4.5 per cent in the lead up to the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections.
Mrs Gandhi had been advised by her senior advisers, including a Christian Minister, that there would be aggressive opposition not just from the Hindu right, or upper caste Congressmen, but also from Hindu Dalits both within and outside the ruling group.
Dalit leaders have been coached to believe the “cake” of reservations is not large enough to share with better educated Christians were they to be given Scheduled Caste status.
No one bothers that the 1950 order communalises some important aspects of the Constitution by introducing religion as an arbiter of welfare and empowerment measures.
Justice Ranganatha Misra Commission’s sole surviving member, Prof Tahir Mehmood, in a scathing article recently said the Congress government “had just slept over the entire report till it lost power seven years later.”
“Going by the stand then taken on its report by the present [BJP] government of the country, I am at a loss to comprehend the surprise move to set up another similar body. Given their known policies, it seems to be somewhat paradoxical,” Prof Mehmood, who was earlier chairman of the National Minorities Commission and then a member of the Law Commission of India, said. He was referring to a news item that the government was going to tell the Supreme Court it will ask a new panel to study the matter of granting Scheduled Caste status to Muslims and Christians.
Activists of Minority religions say though untouchability has been officially abolished since the Constitution was brought into force in 1950, it remains very strong on the ground, and not just in the villages. In fact, as seen in recent court cases from university towns in the US, Indians have taken it with them to foreign lands in modern times.
The rape of Dalit women in villages and towns is a matter of national shame and official concern. The lynchings and assaults on Dalit youth asserting their human dignity are legion. Government data has shown that Dalit, Tribal and Muslim men form a disproportionately large number of people in jail and awaiting trial.
Cases of crime against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes have risen progressively in the years between 2018 and 2020, according to figures tabled by the Ministry of Home Affairs in the Lok Sabha. Cases registered for crime against SCs rose from 42,793 in 2018 to over 50,000 in 2020, and of crime against STs from 6,528 to 8,272 in the same period.
The secretary for Dalit affairs of the 103-year-old All India Catholic Union, Mr. Alphonse. G. Kennedy, points out that affirmative action is not about just educational and employment opportunities. It is a matter of representation in administration apparatus and in the making of legislation. Also, the Prevention of Atrocities Act ensures that oral or physical violence against Dalits, including ostracization, will invite strict punitive action from the government.
Christian and Muslim Dalits are clear they want nothing less than the offending section of Article 341 abolished. It discriminates against them and, in fact, introduces religious bias and bigotry in social justice meant for all. The two groups also do not want to be fobbed off by being given backward status, an overcrowded field, which does not give them the protection under law as given to Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits.