Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Ecclesiophobia in our Land
Suhas Chakma analyses the treatment reserved for Dalit Christians in the country.
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 offense. 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 discrimination.
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 organizations 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 organizations 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 practiced. 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 Christiano phobic.
Suhas Chakma is director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights.