A legal challenge filed 16 years ago to the Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi is finally about to receive a hearing.
The challenge is against a 1950 presidential order, which bars Dalit Christians and Muslims from receiving the same basic rights as Dalits who are Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist.
In Sanskrit, Dalit means ‘broken’, and the word refers to those people who were traditionally among the lowest of all the castes in India.
According to advocacy organisation ADF India, lawyers are set to argue that, because of the order, Christian and Muslim Dalits are denied basic services, such as access to government services, simply because of their faith.
Tehmina Arora (pictured), director of ADF India, said the case had the potential to influence millions of Christians and other religious minorities in the country.
She commented, ‘Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. Estimates say 70 percent of Christians in India are Dalits.
‘Because of the law as it currently stands, Dalit Christians are left out of the ambit of legal protections and benefits available to similarly placed Dalit Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists.’
According to Ms Arora, overturning the presidential order would come as a ‘huge relief’ to some of the poorest and most neglected people and groups in India, bringing them more protection.
She added, ‘We hope the court will recognise the plight of Dalit Christians and ensure their fundamental rights are protected.’
Human rights campaigners say the caste system in India is still in existence in practice, if not in law. When India started to reform its caste system, the 1950s presidential order granted Dalit status to Hindus.
Subsequently, the government expanded this protection to Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists. This gave them equal rights and access to government services and special protections under law, as well as participation and representation in politics.
But the Order excluded Christians and Muslims, stating, ‘No person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste.’
The case, Centre for Public Interest Litigation & Anr v. Union of India & Ors, had been pending for 16 years, but the Supreme Court has now directed the government of India to file its reply in the various cases within four weeks.