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"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Saturday, February 03, 2001

Churches Angry that Indian Census Ignores 14 Million Christian Dalits

Author: Anto Akkara in New Delhi
Date: February 3, 2001

Only Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist members of "untouchable" caste being counted.

India's churches have threatened to take legal action against the government unless the discrimination against low-caste Christians and other minorities in the national census "is set right."

"We demand that the classification related to castes and tribes be delinked from religious categorization if the categorization does not include all religions," the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) said in a statement February 23.

The census of India's billion citizens, which is taken once every 10 years, was held from February 9 to 28 with 2.4 million "enumerators" visiting 200 million households. Churches have declared that the form prepared by India's census commissioner for the nation-wide head-count is discriminatory.

The source of the churches' anger is the government's refusal to recognize that among the total population of 250 million Dalits (low-caste Indians), there are about 14 million Christians. Muslim Dalits, who account for most of India's 130 million Muslims, were also ignored in the census.

Numerous church activists have described the "manipulation" of the census as part of the government's ongoing refusal to grant to Christian Dalits privileges accorded long ago to Dalits who belong to the country's Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths. Church officials believe that the root cause of this discrimination is prejudice towards Christianity which many powerful Hindus detest as a videshi (foreign) religion. Muslim Dalits are the victims of similar prejudices. (Hardline Hindu groups treat both Buddhism and Sikhism as offshoots of Hinduism.)

Expressing the concern of its 29 Orthodox and Protestant member churches, the NCCI said it was "appalled at the manner in which the present census is being conducted [excluding] Dalits who do not belong to the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths."

Ipe Joseph, NCCI's general secretary, told ENI: "They can collect any nonsense. But, we will challenge publishing that as a [government] document."

During the weeks of the census, Christians and Muslims have protested at a question in the census form which states that "Scheduled Castes can be only among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists."

Scheduled Caste (SC) is the official name given by the government to the Dalits who comprise a quarter of India's population of one billion.

In 1950 the federal government granted rights such as free education and quotas in government jobs and legislatures to Hindu Dalits in a bid to improve their social status. The same rights were later extended to Sikh and Buddhist Dalits. But Christian and Muslim Dalits are yet to be granted these rights.

In New Delhi on 23 February, leaders of the Church of North India (CNI) and the Roman Catholic Church told a joint press conference of their "apprehension" over the apparent attempt to "deprive" Christians Dalits of their identity. They called for a freeze on the data collected in the "flawed" census forms.

"Why is it that if one is a Dalit, he can be only a Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh?" asked Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, vice- president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

"Dalits should have the freedom to belong to any religion. Why are they being deprived of this fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution?" the archbishop said.

The CNI's bishop of Delhi, Karam Masih, said he "endorsed" Archbishop Concessao's declarations and added that the census was flawed as it had "violated" the fundamental rights of Christians.

A statement released by the Catholic bishops said that "there are ulterior motives in several questions which seem to vitiate the authenticity of the entire census, therefore seriously compromising its scientific demographic veracity."

Archbishop Concessao said that if the government did not address the Christian grievance, the churches would launch a "mass movement of Dalits of all faiths" to protest against the denial of their identity.

The archbishop said the question in the census violated "the fundamental freedom to profess, practice and propagate the religion of one's choice" under the Indian constitution.

"The hidden agenda behind this is that Christians will have to wait for another 10 years to record their [Dalit] percentage in government records," a prominent Dalit activist and CNI pastor, James Massey, told the press conference.

Massey, who is general secretary of Dalit Solidarity Peoples (DSP), told ENI: "They [the government] are trying to isolate Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits from Christian and Muslim Dalits."

This attempt, Massey said, was based on the Hindu fundamentalists' argument that Christianity and Islam were "foreign religions" which did not approve of the caste system in India.

However, Massey said, "caste is not a problem confined to any religion. It is a social reality. Whatever your religion may be, a Dalit always remains a Dalit."

Father S. Lourduswamy, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribals, told ENI that the manipulation of the census "is a step in declaring that India is a Hindutva [Hindu nationalist] country to keep all Dalits under the Hindu clutches."

In an article published in several magazines, John Dayal, a leading campaigner for Christian rights, declared that "the great Indian census has turned into a Great Identity Theft as tens of millions of Dalits and Tribals are forced into religious identities dictated neither by law nor by statute, but purely by the bigotry of a partisan government and the cultural illiteracy of a pliant bureaucracy."

However, the Christian appeals to India's Census Commissioner "to suspend the census until proper amendment is made" fell on deaf ears.

The NCCI executive committee will hold an emergency meeting in New Delhi late this month to plan the churches' response to the census "manipulation."


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