A society will ultimately be judged by how those in power treat those who are most vulnerable—those who have next to nothing, whether it be money or power.
In India, it is largely Hindus who are in power. It is the Dalits—the term means ‘broken’—who are the most vulnerable.
They are often referred to as ‘Untouchables,’ tainted by their birth and designated to a caste system as an inferior class. Many Dalits face violence and cruel abuse on a daily basis.
The Indian constitution recognizes Dalits as Scheduled Castes, a group of historically disadvantaged people protected in the Constitution of India. Although discrimination based on caste has been prohibited under the Constitution of India, discrimination and prejudice against Dalits persists in everyday society.
They are relegated to the lowest jobs and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, beaten, raped, and murdered by upper-caste Hindus. It is estimated that a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes.
Dalits also face rampant discrimination. In rural areas, 38 per cent of government-run schools segregate Dalit children from other children. In 70 per cent of rural villages, Dalits are forced to sit and eat together, forbidden to interact with non-Dalits.
On a daily basis, Dalits suffer under this system of dehumanization.
Christian and Muslim Dalits face further discrimination by being excluded from the protections established in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950. The Order specifies the different caste groups who would be treated as Scheduled Castes and receive special government benefits, jobs, housing, and educational opportunities and special protection under hate crime laws.
Paragraph three of the Order states, ‘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.’ As a result, Christian and Muslim Dalits are denied this special status and these privileges and protections.
Unfortunately, the Indian government grants complete protection and freedom only to Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists, with the latter two being granted protection and freedom in 1956 and 1990 respectively. No provisions were made for Christian and Muslim Dalits. Therefore, Dalits who adopt a faith not approved by the government continue to lose all their rights and protections.
Studies reveal that Dalits, who embrace Christianity or Islam, continue to suffer the same disadvantages and disabilities arising out of the traditional practice of untouchability in spite of their conversion. It is conservatively estimated that approximately 70 per cent of the Christian population in India is from Dalit backgrounds and are economically poor and engaged in menial occupations.
Recognizing the extreme social, educational and economic backwardness arising out of the traditional practice of untouchability faced, several government bodies, including the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, recommended that Paragraph three of the Constitution (Schedule Caste) Order, 1950 be deleted so as to delink the Scheduled Caste status from religion.
In 2004, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation filed a petition before the Supreme Court of India challenging the 1950 Presidential Order. The petition claims the Order is discriminatory and violates the right to equality, freedom of conscience, and the right to practice the religion of one’s choice as protected by India’s Constitution.
More than a decade has passed since this petition was filed with no resolution in sight. Legal and bureaucratic delays continue to prolong the Dalits’ suffering. Any efforts to remedy their suffering remain in vain.
The discrimination and persecution of Dalits must come to an end. They no longer should be treated as second-class citizens with no rights. Their human dignity and fundamental freedoms must be protected. A humane society requires no less.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 70 years ago, states that:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
In India, the Dalits’ fundamental human rights under Article 1 (among others) are violated daily.
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On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the UDHR, ADF International reaffirms the fundamental understanding that human rights are based on the inherent dignity of each person.
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