June 2008 
Year 14    No.132
Global Minorities

New islands of underdevelopment

Christians pose a few questions to Indian secularism


Do a few Christians murdered or half a dozen nuns raped in as many years really matter in a country where gender violence is an urban norm and impunity accepted by government, courts and the people? They may seem inconsequential in the context of flagrant violation of human rights in India but issues of persecution, anti-conversion laws and full constitutional rights for Dalit Christians remain critical for the church and the community as erosion of constitutional guarantees.

A million Indians were reportedly butchered in the partition riots of 1947, almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims. No one kept count. In independent India, there was no effort at determining the truth and feeble efforts at reconciliation. That was then. More accurate counts have been kept since then. Over 3,500 Sikhs were killed, most of them torched alive, in 1984. Over 1,000 Muslims died in Ahmedabad in the early 1970s and over 2,000 more in Ahmedabad and the rest of Gujarat in 2002. The then president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr LK Advani’s Rath Yatra and its inevitable finale in the demolition of the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on December 6, 1992, the Mumbai riots thereafter in 1992-93 in which another few thousand were killed on the roads of the financial capital and the serial bomb explosions in Mumbai that followed, remain as known for their intensity as for the fact that, like other acts of hate, the perpetrators remain unpunished. As they indeed also remain unpunished in cases of violence against Dalits, the situation only theoretically better than it must have been in the Dark Ages.

The state, which should mean the government and civil society, also remains culpable, by what it has done and what it has failed to do. We cannot even begin talking of recent revelations of the scale of suicide by farmers in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, every death that could have been avoided by state intervention in the processes of agricultural loans. There has never been a discussion of any strength in Parliament on matters of military and police impunity in the killings in Kashmir, the North-east and the Punjab. Fake encounters, mysterious disappearances of activists, custodial deaths. If there were examples needed of state impunity, the crowning statement was made by the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Narendra Modi, who defended the reported death of a suspect, Mr Sohrabuddin Sheikh, and his wife, while he was in police custody on suspicion of being a terrorist, as something quite desirable. In fact, at an election rally Mr Modi put the question to his teeming supporters quite in the manner of Pontius Pilate, “What should I have done with him?” “Kill him. Kill him,” the people spoke in one voice as Indian television cameras telecast the proceedings live on satellite channels. (Civil society groups have come together in 2007 to form a nodal monitoring and advocacy group on custodial deaths and so-called fake police encounters. The group is called Article 21 – Now.)

I participated in an exercise early in November 2007 to prepare the civil society document on India’s human rights situation to be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The council, which will report directly to the UN General Assembly, recently replaced the old and toothless UN Commission on Human Rights. India [was] in the first batch of countries whose records [would] be examined by fellow UN members in what is called a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) [that was] held in April 2008. As India will come up for review again in distant 2012, the human rights groups were keen to pack as much as they could in the five pages permitted them, owing to time constraints, by the UN secretariat. The UN, as a body of governments, of course allows both more time and space to the states to make their submissions, counter civil society allegations or otherwise explain away in the name of defence and security all that has been imputed to them.

The civil society report to the UPR meeting makes for a depressing document. Gender, labour, tribals, religious minorities, displacement, impunity – you name the issue and India has much of which it needs to be ashamed. Marginalised people have not been given the protection they deserve. The state and its brutal agencies have gone scot-free, not just in Gujarat and in special economic zones such as Nandigram in Bengal, the anti-MNC movements in Orissa, Maharashtra, Kashmir and Nagaland, Punjab and Orissa.

India’s 10 per cent growth is not reflected on the ground. The growth of its middle class apparently has been at the cost of the hidden multitudes below the poverty line. The ideological inclinations of parties such as the BJP, the political label of the hypernationalist Hindutva group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which ruled the nation for six years and continues to rule a third of the country’s states, have in fact taken state impunity and hostility to new depths.

The church in India, of course, has to introspect and realise if they have stood up to be counted in the struggle for human dignity and constitutional rights. Or if they have been satisfied with whatever development efforts they have contributed to in programmes heavily funded by western church contributions routed through the so-called Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act which the government effectively uses to monitor and put the squeeze on Christian religious groups as much as national human rights activists and NGOs. Articulation and empowerment remain matters on which the church can be interrogated.

But bigger threats lurk in the shadows of small towns and the vast rural landscape on three issues that are critical to the health and indeed future of the Christian community in India, today a tiny 2.3 per cent of the 1.20 billion population and really visible in a handful of states in small, defined areas. The first is the matter of restoring affirmative action given in the Constitution to the former untouchable communities, called scheduled castes, and denied only to those sections who, or whose parents, converted to Christianity and Islam. There is no official census data but Christians from the former untouchable castes constitute a full 60 per cent or so of the 26 million Christians in India, concentrated in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Orissa. The second issue is the proliferation of the so-called Freedom of Religion bills in both BJP and Congress ruled states. The third is the matter of economic and development deprivation of Christians, especially the rural landless, tribals without scheduled tribes’ rights and Dalits.

The Dalit Christian issue

The established church and its hierarchy and institutions are not direct participants in the legal or court struggle of the Dalit Christians though the church is an active litigant in protecting minority rights of schools and colleges, particularly in the management of the high-end sector, which are assured under Article 30 of the Indian Constitution. The Dalit Christian matter is in the Supreme Court because of the action of a civil society group called the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) Centre which was set up by the Janata Party (1977-79) government’s union law minister, Shanti Bhushan, and his son, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan.

The Constitution of India when it came into force on January 26, 1950 assured representation in Parliament and special reservations in government jobs and educational institutions for persons belonging to a range of castes and communities who were traditionally deemed to be untouchables in the purity boundaries prevailing in the subcontinent. But apparently at some stage in the first few weeks of the nascent republic, the upper caste elements in the ruling classes, and powerful castes, came to the conclusion that this new law could be used by people to desert Hinduism en masse to join what were argued to be the egalitarian religions of Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. In what amounted to a midnight order, the then president, Rajendra Prasad, himself a strong votary of the North Indian Hindi ethos, signed a government order dictating that the rights be confined only to those who chose to remain Hindus. The stable doors were locked, firmly.

The people however would have nothing of it. Their faith was not the issue – society was. Whatever religion they espoused, at one level they were governed by clan loyalties and intermarried with their clans-people. On the other hand, they continued to live in a society predominantly caste-ridden where they were collectively deemed to be impure, untouchable. Several agitations were launched by Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians. The Sikhs were the first to win a victory, after 25 years, and were extended reservation in jobs and education. The Buddhists were next, after another two decades or so they too were given the jobs and the seats in professional colleges. The Christians went to court, all the way to the Supreme Court, and lost. That was the petition of a Tamil Nadu cobbler, Mr Soosai. He at least got his name into the law books.

The legal challenge was revived in a public interest litigation petition in the Supreme Court, moved by an NGO, the PIL Centre. The PIL has subsequently been supported by similar PILs by individuals and various groups. Not surprisingly, the RSS and its activists have also filed PILs in the court. The Christian Dalits have been active in advocating their cause. Small but persistent demonstrations have been held in New Delhi, larger ones in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and petitions have been taken to the prime minister, to Mrs Sonia Gandhi and various chief ministers. The delegations are often led by bishops, leaders of the All India Catholic Union, in this struggle. Some of these demonstrations of solidarity have succeeded in collecting up to half a million people in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh where the bulk of these people live as landless labour and marginal farmers.

But church unity on the Dalit Christian issue still remains a matter of doubt. It does seem often that Dalit Christians have been left to their own devices and that it is a matter of concern only to a section of the Latin church, especially in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Punjab. Congregations of the so-called Indian national church and the leaders and congregations of the tribal groups from the North-east and Central India and the middle-class groups along the east and west coasts seem not to relate to this matter as much as they would relate to an assault on their Article 30 rights.

For their own reasons, many of which relate to the conditions of their funding and some to their ideological or religious biases, the so-called secular Dalit movements have distanced themselves from the struggle of Dalit Christians. Dalit Christians were not allowed a voice even at the UN World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination held in Durban towards the beginning of this century and major Dalit movements, national and international, Hindu, Neo-Buddhist or even church led, do not focus as much on freedom of faith as a Dalit right and Dalit Christians as a part of the crisis on which they are focusing.

It is not the lack of universal Christian unity on the Dalit issue that is singularly responsible for the delay in persuading the government to amend the law as it did to benefit Sikh and Buddhist communities. The most recent rally organised by Dalit Christians was in New Delhi on November 29, 2007, which saw about 10 Catholic bishops and an equal number of Protestant hierarchy, about 200 priests and nuns and another 200 activists from Tamil Nadu and other states stage a three-hour protest close to Parliament House.

The tortuous course of the Dalit Christian struggle has exposed political parties and government. They support the cause when they are not in power. Even current chief ministers such as those of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, who have supported the cause, do not say it with the same vigour as they do other local matters when negotiating with the central government which depends on them for its survival.

The Congress government in New Delhi has failed to give any cheer to the disempowered community. The BJP could perhaps have been excused – it says rights to Dalit Christians will lead to an exodus from Hinduism and by supporting the existing rule it is preventing mass conversions. That is the plea its leaders have taken in the Supreme Court. Prime ministers HD Deve Gowda, even before his alliance with the BJP in Karnataka, and Inder Kumar Gujral, long before he sought BJP support in Punjab, perhaps did not have the ideological or political will to act.

But surely the Congress has the numbers and the stability, one would have thought. Its allies, the Marxists and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, controlling state governments in Kerala, Bengal and Tamil Nadu, have written their support in letters to the prime minister. Even Ms Mayawati, the Dalit leader now ruling the massive state of Uttar Pradesh, has written such a letter. What then is the explanation or the hidden reason for this pathetic lack of political will? I understand that the Congress, despite its pretensions of inner party unity and ideological commitment, has not been able to prevent a large chunk of the Hindu leadership of the party, especially of the Dalit segment, from being swayed by the Hindutva argument. They have made it into a Hindu Dalit versus Christian Dalit confrontation. These leaders argue that Christian Dalits, because of their marginally better standards of education, will take away the benefits given to scheduled castes. They say their cake of jobs and vacancies in professional colleges is too small and they cannot share it with Dalit Christians.

They, of course, make the mistake, perhaps deliberately, of confusing Dalit rights with just government jobs. Dalit rights are for dignity, for political empowerment, for self-employment and for participation in panchayati raj. Here the cake is very large. Everyone can share. The Congress party and the United Progressive Alliance government which it heads has so far made no effort to educate its cadres and MPs, etc. Instead, it has left advocacy with MPs to members of the church. The church, really speaking, is in no way outfitted or trained to lobby with politicians. If it could have done, it would have done so right in 1950 and this crisis would not have happened in the first place. Nor, for that matter, would it have come into conflict with the Marxist governments in Kerala, for instance. Politics is not church business!

The government continues in its refusal to act. When it comes to speaking in the Supreme Court, top government lawyers waffle and pass the buck. First, the government passed the buck to the national commission under former chief justice, Ranganath Misra, which was looking at the development issues of religious and linguistic minorities.

The Misra Commission has long completed its report (though its surveys were loaded in favour of the Hindutva argument). Its full report has not been published but it has published its recommendations in favour of giving Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims scheduled caste status. The commission has since then been wound up and its full documentation, to which we all contributed rare documents, is now lying in some government godown.

Since the union government had been telling the Supreme Court that it was waiting for Justice Misra to submit his report, it should have arguably immediately given the court its decision – speaking out whether it was accepting the report, the best course, or rejecting it, the worst case scenario from the Christian point of view. It did neither. Using an obscure provision in the revised National Commission for Scheduled Castes (which is a statutory commission), the government said it was mandatory for it to refer the matter to the commission, now headed by former union home minister and later Bihar governor, Dr Buta Singh. The government has still not said it will respect the recommendations of its own commissions. It merely refers the matter to them. It forgot that even when the pro-Hindutva Mr PV Narasimha Rao was prime minister and Mr Sitaram Kesri the welfare minister, they introduced a bill in the Lok Sabha to grant Dalit Christians their well-deserved rights. The cabinet had agreed. That the bill was not taken up because the Lok Sabha was dissolved is another matter altogether.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes has a terrible record. Under past Congress and BJP chairpersons and members, the commission has taken a very Hindu attitude to most matters. It has not been true even to its charter relating to Dalits of the Hindu faith. The last few chairmen have been very hostile to the Christian cause and have publicly announced their rejection of these rights.

Dr Buta Singh is a Dalit himself, of course, but as a Dalit from Punjab he has lived in close proximity with Christians and even has a few Christians in his near and extended family. He is on record as saying he is very sympathetic to the Dalit Christian cause and his report will be very positive. But he has also made it clear that rights for Dalit Christians will only be available once the government changes the rules and gives additional quotas for Muslims and Christians in the scheduled castes list. This reservation now stands at 15 per cent. Unless the Supreme Court okays it, and the government shows the political will, there is no constitutional method through which the additional two per cent or so reservation for Christians and maybe more then seven per cent additional quota for Dalit Muslims can be created. This effectively means another stalling for many more years and for us a grim future of continued struggle.

The matter came up once again before the Supreme Court on November 28, 2007 and as predicted, the government once again sought two months’ time before it came up with a response. Senior counsel and former law minister, Mr Ram Jethmalani questioned the government as to what was stopping it from hurrying up with its report. And an annoyed chief justice of India, Mr Justice Balakrishnan told the government’s additional solicitor general, Mr Gopal Subramaniam, that he would have to hurry up and tell the court in four weeks time.

But even if the government were to tell the Supreme Court that it has decided to allot the quota, there are only two ways it can become a reality. The government has to issue a presidential proclamation by way of an ordinance, adding the word Christians in the law where it covers Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. The second option is all but mandated. We will have to continue with proceedings in the Supreme Court. Senior advocates tell me that even if the Supreme Court admits the writ petitions, the actual hearings and legal callisthenics may take months if not years. Christian leaders say they will continue national and international advocacy as also mass mobilisation in the national capital, state and district headquarters and everywhere else possible.

The politics of hate

The second issue, of the so-called Freedom of Religion bills, also speaks of political perfidy, lack of political will among those who rule and an assertion that though the Constitution may speak of a secular state with equal distance from and equal respect for all religions, in actual fact Hinduism is the default religion of India and the state and government follow it with diligence and enthusiasm. I am not referring to the obvious heavy public exchequer financing of religious festivals, the media abuse in favour of one religion and so on. I speak of issues of Constitution.

Despite the caution of the first prime minister, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla, set up the Niyogi Committee in the 1950s to investigate Christian work in his then undivided state. Mr Ravi Shankar Shukla and Mr Niyogi were both pathologically hostile to Christianity. Their target was the Catholic church, working among tribals who they and their group had been exploiting for decades. The All India Catholic Union’s associations in the state gave extensive documentation. As did the church. But the report was a foregone conclusion. Acting on it, Madhya Pradesh passed the Freedom of Religion Act, effectively banning all conversions and as effectively coercing the tribals to espouse the Hindu faith, a practice the sangh parivar codified in its criminal Ghar Vapasi programme. Mr Ravi Shankar Shukla was a Congressman. Later, the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal’s (United Legislators’ Group) and other governments in various states followed suit. In short order, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh joined the fray; Arunachal Pradesh after a violent suppression of whatever Christianity then existed in that remote state. Since then Gujarat, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh have passed the law. Tamil Nadu passed the law but the then chief minister, Ms Jayalalitha, who had first bowed to her Hindutva allies, learnt her lesson and quickly rescinded the ugly act.

The shenanigans in Himachal Pradesh are the most inexplicable. When the Rajasthan state legislative assembly had become the latest to pass such an act, the noted constitutional lawyer, Dr Rajeev Dhawan, gave a considered opinion to NGOs that the bill was against the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution. Many decades ago Rev Fr Stanislaus of Madhya Pradesh had challenged these laws in the Supreme Court, as also others who moved the courts on the Orissa laws. The Supreme Court in a strange decision upheld both the Christian faith’s right to profess and propagate the faith but said they did not have the right to convert. The absurdity inherent in, and the contradictions between, various court pronouncements on religious faith as a fundamental right has been the subject of much debate but no one has yet gone to court to challenge the Stanislaus judgement in its entirety and in a coherent holistic manner.

Dr Rajeev Dhawan, senior advocate Ms Indira Jaising and even the solicitor general of India in his own legal opinion to a state governor have held that this law is ultra vires the Constitution for a long list of reasons. The then governor of Rajasthan and today president of India, Advocate Pratibha Patil agreed with the logic of the Christian protest and withheld her consent to the bill, sending it to the then president, Dr Abdul Kalam, in New Delhi. He too withheld his signature. In Madhya Pradesh, Governor Balram Jakhar has also refused to sign certain amendments to the act into law. Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party president, in a signed letter to the Catholic Union said she and her party were against any restrictions on freedom of expression and faith, and they would stand against it both inside legislatures and outside if required.

And yet the Congress chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, Mr Virbhadra Singh, one of an anachronistic group of princelings who was facing a serious Hindutva challenge in the state legislative assembly elections, brought such a law into being and the state governor promptly signed it into law. Mr Singh told the media he was trying to prevent threats to local religion and culture. No one asked him just how many Christians there were in the state – barely measurable in census operations – and how many fraudulent conversions – none in reality.

The National Commission for Minorities, headed then by the scholar-diplomat, Mr M. Hamid Ansari, now vice-president of the Indian republic, wrote to many states to find out how many fraudulent conversions to Christianity had taken place to merit such laws. The reply he got was startling to him but not to me. Every state that responded had to admit there were no cases of forcible and fraudulent conversions to Christianity or Islam.

There have been large-scale conversions to Buddhism and people join the Sikh Panth in Punjab and Delhi almost on a daily basis. But the law never takes notice because for some peculiar reason never fully explained the official system agrees with the sangh parivar that these are not individual religions but parts of Hinduism. In effect, the Indian legal system denies these religions, which they call Indic religions, the right to an independent identity. The All India Christian Council and the Christian Legal Association are challenging the Himachal Pradesh law in the Shimla high court. The preliminary work has been done. An application has also been filed under the Right to Information Act to force the government to disclose just how many Christians exist in the state and what provoked it to go in for such a barbaric law.

And the law is really barbaric. These laws are directed only against Christianity and to a lesser extent, against Islam. Even if the police do not arrest priests and pastors, the existence of the law on the statute books encourages widespread and well-organised hate campaigns and criminalisation of genuine religious activity. They also mislead even senior police officers to believe they can move against religious personnel of the Christian church and even against the laity. The acts create a tinderbox situation which leads eventually to widespread persecution of Christians on the one hand and a coercion of Dalits, tribals and the marginalised who are terrorised by provisions of the Freedom of Religion Act to remain silent in the face of great exploitation.

Salient features of the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act are: “1) A person intending to convert from one religion to another shall give prior notice of at least 30 days to the district magistrate of the district concerned of his intention to do so and the district magistrate shall get the matter inquired into by such agency as he may deem fit: Provided that no notice shall be required if a person reverts back to his original religion. 2) Any person who fails to give prior notice as required under subsection (1) shall be punishable with fine which may extend to 1,000 rupees...

“Any person contravening the provisions contained in Section 3 shall, without prejudice to any civil liability, be punishable with imprisonment of either description which may extend to two years or with fine may extend to 25,000 rupees or with both: Provided that in case the offence is committed in respect of a minor, a woman or a person belonging to scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, the punishment of imprisonment may extend to three years and fine may extend to 50,000 rupees...

“An offence under this act shall be cognisable and shall not be investigated by an officer below the rank of an inspector of police.”

It is obvious that the district civil and police authorities are now arbiters of fundamental rights, including freedom of faith!!

Many in the Catholic church believe that the law will not impact on them and that radical church groups have brought it upon themselves because of their wild ways in evangelisation. There maybe a problem of ultra-evangelical groups failing to evolve an appropriate vocabulary to articulate the teachings of Christ but the law eventually is directed against social work and social action, the empowerment programme of the church in which the Catholic church is the leader. This patently calls for a wide-spectrum unity among church groups. People from Madhya Pradesh have told open court hearings organised by human rights groups that in the Jhabua region, for instance, it has now become difficult for pastors, nuns and clergy to even move about after sunset, reducing the faith to a “daylight” reality.

The last major issue that radically impacts on the everyday life and the very future of the Christians is the delay in economic empowerment of the large number of tribals, Dalits and landless peasants who constitute the bulk of this minority community in most of the states. Most tribals working outside the state of their birth do not get scheduled status and therefore do not have any educational and employment privileges. For the same reason, they are also denied benefits under the area plans and the special component plans under the five-year plan system. The Christians among them also lose out on traditional sharing of forest produce and cultivation. The vast landless peasantry and Dalits of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu seem to be entirely outside the development pale if they do not live in metropolitan cities and state capitals.

The Justice Misra Commission, now dissolved, had to speak on this issue when it was also saddled with the matter of determining the legitimacy of the demand of Dalit Christians and Muslims to scheduled status. No details have been made public of the main report of the Misra Commission.

The government has systematically refused many requests from representative organisations, including the Catholic Union, that the economic and development matters of the community should also be enumerated so that government aid is properly channelled to such microcommunities instead of being focused only on the numerically largest of the minorities.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a high-powered committee under former Delhi chief justice Rajindar Sachar to define Muslim development parameters, I wrote to him and others that Christians could also fruitfully be studied for their needs by the same committee. The government refused. It also has not bothered to set up a panel just for Christians.

The result is that after the Sachar Committee gave its report the government has announced a slew of development measures and special emphasis on the Muslim community. But these measures do not focus on Christians at all. Also, when it comes to discussions the government even denies there are marginalised sections in the Christian community and farcically enough, cites the fact that there are no reports and studies to prove the Christian need for special development efforts. It does not see the viciousness of the argument – there is no study, therefore no data, on Christian deprivation and since there is no data there can be no relief and because the Christians are apparently not deprived there is no need for a fact-finding committee!

Christian activists fear new islands of underdevelopment are being created. A development wedge is being driven between the community and the minorities which are either developed already or will receive the bounty of the government because of the Justice Sachar report. Such a mutually suspicious minority conglomeration can hardly be expected to unitedly fight the force of majoritarianism in the country. The threat therefore is to the democratic state and the republican way of life in India.

(John Dayal is a senior editor and political analyst active in the advocacy movement on issues of impunity, freedom of faith and transparency. He can be contacted at [email protected] Paper presented to the Global Minorities Meet, New Delhi, March 6-9, 2008.)


1. Religious Conversions in India: Modes, Motivations and Meanings, ed. Rowena Robinson and Sathianathan Clarke, Oxford University Press.

2. Dalit Christians, Dr James Massey, ISPCK, Kashmere Gate, New Delhi.

3. Report of the Prime Minister’s High-Level Committee for Preparation of the Report on the Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, Government of India, New Delhi.

4. Gujarat 2002 – Untold and Retold Stories from the Hindutva Lab, Media House, New Delhi, 2002.

5. A Matter of Equity: Freedom of Faith in Secular India, Anamika Publishers, New Delhi, 2007.

6. Universal Periodic Review and Asia – Report to the United Nations Human Rights Council on India by Asian Human Rights, Bangkok.

7. Report of the Registrar General of India (Census – Religious Groups), New Delhi.

8. Collected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, JLN Library and Museum, New Delhi.

9. Himachal Pradesh Gazette, Government of Himachal Pradesh, Shimla.









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