Moving to Christianity, Dalits have missed out on, among other things, caste-based reservation benefiting only Hindus
Priyanka P. Narain
New Delhi: When Abhishek John’s father died last year and he couldn’t pay the Rs900 fee for his final school term, he was thrown out of St John’s Cathedral College in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, and barred by the principal from taking the class IX exam.
Nothing’s changed: R.L. Francis, founder of the Poor Christian Liberation Movement, an organization campaigning for Dalit rights, says the condition of Dalit Christians hasn’t changed since independence. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
“We told him (principal) we would pay as soon as we could arrange for the money, but he refused to listen,” Anthony Parminder, the student’s brother-in-law, said in a phone interview. John, 15, is appearing as a private candidate for his class X examination this year.
John’s scheduled caste (SC) Hindu family had converted to Christianity hoping to escape caste-based discrimination. But the so-called Dalit Christians, as such converts are known, are finding that a change of religious identity does not mean a change in their social situation. And converts who proclaim their change of faith openly lose out on benefits such as caste-based reservations offered for SC candidates.
Now, some Christian leaders are demanding reservations for Dalit Christians, who make up an estimated 70% of the 24-million-strong Christian community in India. A growing section of Dalit Christians, however, say they are being forced back to an abusive system they had sought to flee.
Vinod Peter, president of the Jhansi Catholic Association, says John’s case is just one instance of what has been happening to many other young boys and girls in the town.
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“We went to plead with the principal, but to no avail. He simply asked us why don’t we find a way to help him pay his fees. Even we are poor people, where do we get money from?” asks Peter.
“Children from other communities become doctors and government officers,” he says. “Our children become high-school dropouts and waiters. We know there is a lot of donation coming into India to help poor Christians. What I want to know is where is it all going. What I see is that priests who used to travel on cycles now have cars and fancy homes to live. But they don’t have Rs900 to help for a boy’s education.”
The Indian system provides reservations under the SC category only for Dalit Hindus, meaning they renounce the benefits of affirmative action such as reservations in government jobs and education institutions when they convert. A presidential order issued in 1950 laid down that “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.”