‘We’ll Keep Opposing:’ – National Protest of Dalit Christians & Dalit Muslims organised by NCDC after a three-year gap

Delegations from different states of the National Council of Dalit Christians attend protest at Jantar Mantar on 28th March 2023 Picture: Riya Talitha

Riya Talitha | TwoCircles.net

NEW DELHI –On March 28, around 1,500 demonstrators gathered at Jantar Mantar to demand the inclusion of Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste (SC) category, and to protest against the formation of the Balakrishnan Commission by the Central government. The three-member commission, set up in October last year and headed by former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan, has been assigned the task of assessing whether the SC status can be granted to “new persons who have historically belonged to the Scheduled Castes’’ but have converted to religions other than Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

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The commission was formed after the Supreme Court in August last year asked the Centre to provide its stand on a PIL filed by the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC). The PIL demanded the implementation of the 2007 Ranganath Mishra Commission report that
recommended providing the SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims.

“In the court, we will win through. Definitely,” said Franklin C Thomas, Supreme Court
advocate and co-founder of the NCDC, which also organised Tuesday’s protest.
“The Balakrishnan commission is not a quasi-judicial body and so it should not bind the court or the government. I have hope that the final verdict of the Supreme Court will be better. Constitutionality is on our side. We also have evidence in hand from the churches and from civil society groups in our petitions,” he said.

The protest was attended by delegations of Dalit Christians from Punjab, Gujarat and
Maharashtra to Kerala and Tamil Nadu. According to NCDC president VJ George, this was their “19th protest” to demand SC status, albeit after a break of three years, because of the pandemic. The denominations of Dalit Christians present at the dharna included the Catholic Church, Lutheran groups, the Church of South India, the Church of North India, and the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

Dalit parliamentarians such as Chidambaram MP Thol Thirumavalavan and Villapuram MP Dr D Ravikumar, both belonging to Tamil Nadu-based Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi political
party, briefly attended the dharna to show their solidarity.

‘Unwanted and Unnecessary’
Dr M Mary John, President of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement and National Advisor of the NCDC, who was also in attendance on Tuesday, called the Balakrishnan Commission
“Unwarranted and unnecessary”.

Caption: Delegations from different states of the National Council of Dalit Christians attend protest at Jantar Mantar on 28th March 2023
Credit: Riya Talitha

“Dalit Christians are a microscopic minority. This selective opposition we are facing must be on the basis of religion. Why didn’t people oppose granting SC status to Buddhists and Sikhs then?” he asked. He said that Dalit Christians nationwide were against the commission and that there was a worry that it would be used by the government as a “mouthpiece to propagate ideas against granting SC status to Dalit Christians”.
Besides opposing the establishment of the Balakrishnan commission, the protestors demanded deletion of “paragraph 3 of the Presidential (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950”. The Order states that only Hindus can have SC status. It was later amended in 1956 to include Sikhism and in 1990 to include Buddhism. Effectively, the Presidential order denies the same constitutional status to those members of a Scheduled Caste who converted to Islam or Christianity and deprives them of advantages such as contesting in reserved constituencies and availing scholarship or employment reservations.

“We have been fighting for 72 years”, said Sister Robancy Amal Helen, executive editor of the online news portal Dalit Christian Digest, in reference to the order.
The Modi government endorsed the 1950 order in its Supreme Court affidavit and explicitly
opposed the expansion of Scheduled Caste (SC) status earlier this year. “They already said no, but then also then referred the issue to yet another commission. What is this?” said Thomas.

States and Dalit Christians

On March 24, the Andhra Pradesh Assembly passed a resolution granting SC status to Dalit
Christians, subject to approval by the Centre. The Assembly requested the Centre to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, in order to extend SC status to the Dalit Christians.
However, a delegation of state BJP leaders called on Governor S Abdul Nazeer to stall the move. The state government, headed by Jagan Mohan Reddy, follows several representations of Dalit Christians from Andhra Pradesh. In other states like Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal, Dalit Christians are given either Backward Class (BC) or Most Backward Class (MBC) status. For example, in Tamil Nadu, Dalit Christians can be registered as Adi-Dravida Christians on their caste certificates which can be used to avail of OBC reservation benefits. Some 60 percent of India’s 25 million Christians are of Dalit and tribal origin.

Caption: Delegations from different states of the National Council of Dalit Christians attend protest at Jantar Mantar on 28th March 2023 Credit: Riya Talitha

During the demonstration on Tuesday, the NCDC also submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister’s Office, demanding that the government resolve this long-standing issue as soon as possible. “Since we are Christians, we believe that sooner or later, we will get the justice we are expecting. We speak about hope because we are Christians. We believe that no oppression lasts forever,” said Robancy.

In the event of an unfavourable verdict, according to John, the plan is to continue the struggle. “We’ll keep opposing. We’re asking all minorities to face this government in the next election we have to take some political decisions. Politically, we have to mobilise” he said.

Riya Talitha is a TCN-SEED fellow