Excerpts from the report, “Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India”, by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA):
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution officially makes the practice of “untouchability”—the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their birth into “untouchable” castes—a punishable offense. Article 15 eliminated untouchability and discrimination based on caste. However, the caste system is a fundamental part of Hinduism, the majority religion of India. According to Hindu scripture, individuals are born inherently unequal into a graded, caste-based structure that defines their status and opportunities in life.
The core Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) declares: “Four castes have been created by Hindu god Krishna.” Manu-Smriti, an ancient Hindu legal text, sets out the main castes as each having been created from a different part of God’s form, and codifies the respective God-given duties of each. Hinduism has described this caste system based on the principles of varna (the Sanskrit word for “color”). The system is based on four main castes: the Brahmins (priests and teachers), Ksyatriyas (rulers and soldiers), Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and Shudras (laborers and artisans).
A fifth category falls outside the varna system and consists of those known as untouchables, or Dalits. Dalits—which literally means “broken, destroyed, crushed”—fall outside the four-fold caste system of Hinduism, and are considered “untouchables” by the Hindu community.
Matters related to caste-based offenses and discrimination are dealt with under the Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). However, India’s National Crime Bureau statistics exhibit a 44 percent rise in caste atrocities over the past five years. The practice of untouchability continues to blight the lives of millions of Dalits today. The manifestation of such oppression has taken and continues to take many forms.
Age-old customs included prohibiting Dalits from walking public streets in the event they cross “upper-caste” Hindus, and requiring Dalits to mark themselves with black bracelets, string a broom around their waists so as to sweep the path they walk on, or hang an earthen pot around their necks “lest [their] spit falling on the earth should pollute a Hindu who might unknowingly happen to tread on it.”
Indian Prime Minister Manmoohan Singh became the first Indian prime minister to publicly acknowledge discrimination against the Dalits, the practice of untouchability, and apartheid. In a speech delivered at the Dalit-Minority International Conference in New Delhi on December 27, 2006, Prime Minister Singh explained that “Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability was Apartheid in South Africa. Untouchability is not just social discrimination. It is a blot on human society.”
The majority of Dalits live on less than US$1 per day. Every week, thirteen Dalits are murdered and five Dalit homes are destroyed. Three Dalit women are raped and eleven Dalits are assaulted every day—a crime is committed against a Dalit every eighteen minutes. Caste discrimination persists and caste categories are legally recognized in order to implement a form of affirmative action known as “reservations.”
Reservations are a quota-based system that classifies individuals and communities as “Scheduled Castes”. The basis for this discrimination is provided by the Presidential Order of 1950, in which clause 3 states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph 2, 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.”
Fifteen percent of all places in educational institutions, as well as jobs, are reserved for the Scheduled Castes. The Presidential Order of 1950, by describing Scheduled Castes as only belonging to the Hindu faith, also denies reservation benefits to any Scheduled Caste person who converts to Islam or Christianity. India’s Centre for Public Interest Litigation filed a writ petition (no.180 of 2004) in the Indian Supreme Court to challenge the constitutional validity of the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order of 1950, which excludes Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims from the Scheduled Caste list, thus denying them religious freedom in India.
It has now been more than a decade that the Supreme Court of India has unnecessarily delayed its judgment on the case. A Zee News editorial raises a very important question: when the government has amended the constitution to give reservations to Dalit Sikhs (1956) and Buddhists (1990), why is it delaying the matter when it comes to Dalit Muslim and Christians?
The policy of reservations has benefited very few Dalits in the country. Growing illiteracy and dropout rates among Dalits mean very few are able to avail themselves of constitutional rights in public sector employment and education. A number of key sectors also continue to remain outside the purview of the reservation policy, and caste-based discrimination continues to be practiced in the sectors where reservations are secured, leading to under-enforcement.
Segregation between Dalits and non-Dalits is routinely practiced in housing, schools, and access to public and private sector services. Article 46 of the Indian Constitution states: “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and forms of exploitation.” Furthermore, Article 15 (4) encourages the state to make any special provisions for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens, or for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The majority of Dalit students are registered in government schools with inadequate classrooms, teachers, and learning resources. Government schools by and large teach in local languages, as opposed to private schools—whose students are predominantly upper caste—that teach in English. The inability to speak English further disadvantages Dalits in the private sector and the global market. The discrimination and untouchability practices in schools remain a reason for the disturbingly high rates of dropping out and illiteracy among Dalit children, particularly Dalit girls.
Dalit women and children are primarily engaged in “civic sanitation work” (e.g., manual scavenging, even though this has been outlawed), followed by leather fraying in tanning. Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper-caste creditors.
In 2004, the Indian government constituted a National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities under the chairmanship of the former chief justice of India, Ranganath Misra. In 2007, the Commission recommended as follows:
“Para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order 1950—which originally restricted the Scheduled Caste net to Hindus and later opened it to Sikhs and Buddhists, thus still excluding from its purview the Muslims, Christians, Jains and Parsis, etc.—should be wholly deleted by appropriate action so as to completely delink the Scheduled Caste status from religion and make the Scheduled Castes net fully religion-neutral like that of the Scheduled Tribes.”
It has been nine years, but the government of India has yet to implement the recommendations of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, and the BJP has publicly criticized the Commission’s recommendations. On February 9, 2014, during his prime ministerial campaign, Narendra Modi strongly criticized the Commission’s report.
Download full report HERE