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The United Nations recently appointed two special rapporteurs to prepare a comprehensive study on discrimination based on work and descent. This note is based on a submission made by Surepally Sujatha to the 11th Session of the Working Group on Minorities of the UN Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in June 2005.

The Indian Constitution: Minorities in India have been recognised only on the basis of “religion or language”. The Indian Constitution guarantees equality, freedom, justice and human dignity to every citizen and Article 14 specifically assures an Indian citizen’s right to equality. While Article 15 prohibits any discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, Article 17 of the Indian Constitution specifically takes into cognizance the practice of untouchability against the Dalits and forbids its practice. The constitutional safeguards are of course important, but Dalits continue to face multiple problems – in whichever religion they are.

Dalits in Hinduism: The Indian National Human Rights Commission noted that Dalits continue to live in segregated settlements, and work in bad conditions despite decades of attempts to redress the situation. Dalits are not allowed to enter temples, or to celebrate festivals like the other Hindus. They cannot drink or dine along with the caste Hindus. Most of the atrocities against Hindu Dalits are committed by members of the dominant castes, but not necessarily the upper-most ones. During communal conflicts Dalits always carry a double burden – they are discriminated against by caste Hindus, and at the same time they are easy targets of others who consider them Hindus!

Dalits in Christianity: Many Dalits converted to Christianity as a result of work by missionaries. In fact, more than 50% of India’s Christian population is of Dalit origin. Unfortunately, the caste system and associated discriminatory practices exist in the Christian religion too. Almost everywhere Christian Dalits are forced to have separate churches, and untouchablity is practised within the religion.

Dalits in Islam: Indian Muslims are broadly divided along caste lines or into caste-like groups, despite Islam’s claim to equitable treatment of all its members. Most of today’s Muslims in India are Dalit in origin. ‘Low caste’ converts to Islam are called Ajlaf which means ‘base’ or ‘lowly’. The group All India Backward Muslim Morcha raises the issue of Dalit Muslim Rights and leads the ‘Dalit Muslim’ movement in India. Muslims are not a homogenised lot and are not represented properly in the Government and other services.

Converts: In India religious conversion of Dalits into Christianity and Islam takes place due to discrimination and suffocation within the Hindu religion. Other factors like economic benefits as well as a genuine desire to find ‘the true faith’ play an important role too. But since a convert carries his or her social and economic disability into the new religion too, there is a case for recognising Dalits among all the religions equally.

In this context it must be noted that the Indian Constitution defines ‘Scheduled Castes’ under Article 366, and the Presidential Orders of 1950 provide Scheduled Caste status to the Dalits. Scheduled Caste status was further extended to Sikhs in 1956 and to Buddhists in 1990, giving them the right to avail special provisions in education, employment and other benefits from the Government. But the Dalits in Christianity and Islam were not given such status, for they are no-longer Hindus. This strategy of denying Scheduled Castes status to such groups not only denies rightful entitlements but also creates animosity within Dalit communities.

Considering the overall situation, the following needs to be done in the very least:

1. Government should encourage secular intellectuals and NGOs to provide training and information to people on Human Rights. People must be encouraged to examine religion from a Human Rights perspective. Through national Human Rights bodies, and through the National Commission on Minorities or the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes welfare departments, the Government should hold regional workshops and encourage Dalits to be aware of their rights.

2. Government must strictly implement the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Rules, 1995.

3. Most school text books have lessons that teach dominant Hindu beliefs like Caste, Karma, rebirth etc. Some of the Dalit intellectuals are already initiating the process for reforming text books and this must be given a boost.

4. Reservations (positive discrimination in college admissions and in jobs) should be extended to all Dalits, which ever religion they are in. This action could help the Dalit communities in future to unite and to fight for their rights.

5. There is a need to strengthen the UN’s Working Group on Minorities. It must set up a body to undertake studies on different religions and Government policies in different countries. The body thus created must pressurise Governments, inform activists, academicians, and NGOs monitoring the situation through regular meetings, reports and workshops.

6. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights must encourage the Working Group by providing sufficient funding to take up Minority related activities efficiently, and to take up studies regarding the status of Dalits in all the religions in the Indian sub- continent. Such a step will lead to equal treatment of all the disadvantaged, and help build a strong united Dalit alliance.

7. Govt must consult with civil society on ways to reduce discriminatory practices on the basis of birth and descent.

Surepally Sujatha is a Sociologist and a secular Dalit, active in the Dalit Social Forum, Hyderabad, India. She has represented the Dalit cause at various forums both in India and abroad.

(Courtesy: International Humanist and Ethical Union)