Supreme Court Again Defers Ruling on Dalit Rights

New Delhi, India – India’s Supreme Court on Monday (November 28) for the third time deferred ruling on whether Dalit Christians (low-caste “untouchables”) can be denied job and education rights.

Dalits belonging to Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh faiths qualify for a government plan that reserves 26 percent of jobs and educational places for them. Under current laws, Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam lose their reservation privileges.

Supreme Court justices put off until February a ruling on the matter after government attorneys told the court they were awaiting the findings of a commission set up to study the issue.

The hearing had raised hopes among millions of Indian Christians who have been denied government benefits because they belong to a low caste and have converted to Christianity from Hinduism.

At the last court hearing on the matter in October, government attorneys delayed a ruling by telling justices that a commission had been set up to study a broad range of issues surrounding government reservations for Dalits. That commission, dismissed by Christian leaders, is due to finish its work next year.

All India Catholic Union (AICU) leader John Dayal told Compass that it was shocking that no commission was set up when the case of Hindu and Sikh Dalits was taken up.

“Why has our matter been referred to a commission? It defies logic,” Dayal said. “Sending the matter to this commission is an effort to buy time.”

An AICU statement released Monday evening noted India’s 16 million Dalit Christian are “extremely frustrated and demoralized” by the government’s position. “We as Dalit Christians are intrigued and saddened by the contrary positions taken by the ruling coalition in its public assurances to us and its arguments before the Supreme Court.”

On Monday the government counsel argued that the matter was “outside the purview of the courts and should be left to Parliament.”

Joseph D’Souza, international president of the Dalit Freedom Network, said in a statement that the government’s counsel was simply trying to stall the case in hopes that it will fade away.

“They in fact wanted the case dismissed, saying the issue was one that concerned Parliament and not the Supreme Court and that the government had done enough by setting up a commission to look into the matter,” D’Souza said.

An attorney for the Public Interest Litigation, Prashant Bhushan, responded to government counsel arguments by saying that enough commissions had already determined that Dalit Christians cannot be denied affirmative action benefits on the basis of religion. He further argued that the matter was a Supreme Court issue because the seminal presidential order of 1950 ran counter to the fundamental rights in the constitution, which prohibited discrimination based on religion.

The AICU statement said that denial of rights to Dalit Christians appears to be a conspiracy by “hand-picked bureaucrats planted by the Hindi opposition Bharatiya Janata Party regime” before it lost power to the Congress Party in 2004.

The Dalit Christian community held a massive rally in southern Hyderabad city on Saturday (November 26). D’Souza, who has spearheaded an international campaign on the Dalit cause, said grassroots Dalit Christians had now mobilized themselves.

“It was historic because we bluntly laid down our position for the government and the Congress Party that, ‘Don’t count on the political support of the Dalit Christians if you are not willing to support us on this matter,’” he said. “The time of waiting is over – 50 years is long enough. We as Christians need to stand and up act. And this rally is the beginning of our public agitation and movement.”