Indian Church leaders welcome court support for tribal converts

Church leaders in India have commended the Supreme Court for upholding the constitutional privileges of tribals who change their religion, although a lawyer cautions the welcome may be premature.

Members of specified tribal and low-caste groups in India are entitled by law to special privileges to enhance their development. Such privileges, however, are denied to low-caste Christians and Muslims on the ground that Christianity and Islam do not recognise the caste system that traditionally determines social status in Indian society.

The Supreme Court ruled at the end of last month that a member of a tribe listed for benefits does not lose this tribal identity with a change of religion. It said tribals who change religion would continue to enjoy the statutory privileges if they retain traditional customs, rituals and other traits.

Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi, head of the Indian Catholic Church, said the apex court "on behalf of tribals" has answered groups that say tribals who convert to Christianity and other religions should no longer enjoy the special privileges. These constitutional privileges include free education, reserved quotas in government jobs and exclusive land rights.

He told UCA News, "Tribals have got the assurance that whatever religion they adopt or practice, their tribal status would remain forever."

The cardinal himself belongs to the Oraon, a leading tribe in eastern India. He said the court order would strengthen unity between tribal Christians and other tribal groups. "Dispute created among tribals in the name of religion by some forces during past decades will slowly vanish," he predicted.