KARNATAKA, May 17 (IPS) – Renuka Kumari is a 45-year-old Christian woman from the Dalit community in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. She faces many challenges every day and hopes for a day when her struggle ends and she can live a comfortable life.
Her husband, Subhash Kumar, sells the handmade brooms she makes from trees in the open market to earn a living. Kumari’s family lives in makeshift huts and finds it difficult to make ends meet.
In the original Hindu social structure, Dalits held the lowest social position, and they continue to be regarded as impure in the majority of states where caste Hindus see their presence as contaminating. Many Hindus consider their occupations degrading, such as dealing in leather, night soil and other dirty work, which explains their impure status in society.
Kumari has two children studying in a nearby government school, and she wants them to get an education and eventually earn a good living. However, Kumari says society and the government are leaving her family in dire straits because of their Christian faith. She believes that Dalits who practice other religions get government grants, health and education benefits and reservations in government jobs, but as Christians they are overlooked.
Despite being economically disadvantaged, Kumari’s family does not qualify for government schemes. Her husband, Subhash Kumar, says they earn no more than 5,000 rupees ($80) a month and giving their children a good education is a challenge without government support. Dalit Christians are discriminated against and denied benefits simply because of their faith, which adds to their struggle.
Background to discrimination
After India gained independence from British rule in 1947, the government introduced significant initiatives to uplift the lower castes. These initiatives included reserving seats in various legislatures, government jobs and enrollment in higher educational institutions. The reservation system was implemented to address the historical oppression, inequality and discrimination experienced by these communities and to provide them with representation. The purpose was to fulfill the promise of equality that is inscribed in the country’s constitution.
On 11 August 1950, the President of India promulgated the Constitution (Scheduled Castes Order, which provided members of the Scheduled Castes with various rights under Article 341(1) of the Indian Constitution. However, the third paragraph of the order stated that “no person professing a religion other than Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste”.
In 1956, Dalit-Sikhs demanded inclusion in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 and succeeded in getting listed in the President’s SC/ST Order, 1950, by an amendment to Clause 3 of Article 341. Dalit Buddhists were also included by an amendment to Clause 3 of Article 341 in 1990.
Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin are now demanding that they get social benefits meant for the upliftment of the Dalit people. Both communities have been denied these benefits since 1950 because the government says their religions do not follow the old Hindu caste system.
Nearly 14 Christian organizations in India have filed petitions in the country’s Supreme Court seeking reservations in education and employment for the 20 million Dalit Christians, who account for 75 percent of India’s total Christian population. In India, people are segregated into different castes based on birth, and 80% of the population is Hindu. Although Parliament outlawed the practice of untouchability in 1955, India’s lower castes, especially Dalits, continue to face social discrimination and exclusion.
In April this year, India’s Supreme Court asked the federal government to take a stand on granting reservation benefits in government jobs and educational institutions to Christian converts among Dalits. The court is scheduled to hear the petition and decide on the status of Dalit Christians.
The Indian government had formed a committee to look into the possibility of granting Scheduled Caste status to those who had converted to other religions but claimed to have belonged to the community historically. This was the second panel set up by the government after it rejected the recommendations of the first commission, which had recommended their inclusion.
According to Tehmina Arora, a prominent Christian activist and advocate in India, denying individuals rights based solely on their religious beliefs goes against the country’s fundamental secular values. Arora emphasized that even if individuals convert to Christianity or Islam, they continue to live in the same societies that treat them as untouchables, and their circumstances do not change. Therefore, she believes that people should not be denied the benefits they previously had because of their faith.
God is our hope
Renuka Kumari says she prays for her children’s success every day, hoping that God will help them excel in life. She laments that their rights are denied simply because they chose Christianity as their faith. She finds it ironic that they are denied government grants for this reason, causing them to live miserable lives and struggle every day to give their children education and a better future. Kumari’s two children, Virander and Prerna, are currently in classes two and seven. Sujata aspires to become a teacher one day and is passionate about mathematics. She dreams of teaching at her school, just like her favorite teacher, and is particularly fond of algebra.
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