When the winter session of Parliament begins next month, members of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC) will begin a relay hunger strike at Delhi's Jantar Mantar, demanding inclusion of Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste (SC) list. Their hunger strike is planned to last the entire parliament session; the decision to take this course was made at a meeting held in Indian Social Institute, Bangalore last month. The national Chairman of NCDC, Dr. Mary John says that "Political leaders have time and again promised us that this issue will be addressed. UPA allies have said it in their manifestos. But in reality there has been no progress. That is why we are intensifying our protest. If the government still does not heed us and bring out a bill to this effect we will organise more forceful means of agitation."

Statistics show that more than 70% of the Christians in India are Dalits. When Christian missionaries began their work in India in the decades before Independence, their promise of equal treatment and opportunity for all castes became the prime reason for Dalits - who find themselves at the socio-economic lowest rung of Hinduism's hierarchy - to embrace the missionary message. But as is now well documented, conversion offered no escape from caste prejudices. Now the population may worship Maria instead of Maariamma (a manifestation of goddess Kaali) but the discrimination continued. Conversion to Christianity did not automatically bring equal treatment, says Y Marisamy, Convener of Karnataka Dalit Christian Federation (KDCF). "In villages we are still not allowed into some areas where the upper caste population lives. We are offered menial labour, and most of the time not paid for it. At tea shops there are separate utensils for us just like for [Hindu] Dalits."

Dalit Christians at a rally in Bangalore.

How did the promise of equality go so wrong? The success of the faith in India may itself be part of the problem. As Christianity spread, upper caste members too embraced the new religion. And with them came the caste prejudices of old. Post independence, the administration of churches was taken over by these upper caste members. This meant that Dalit Christians faced discrimination at churches too. "We either have separate churches for Dalit Christians or have a separate section for them in the churches. We cannot mingle with the upper caste Christians within the church or outside" says Reverend D Manohar Chandra Prasad, a Dalit Christian priest. He adds that even being a priest does not come easy, as a Dalit Christian is not allowed to take up higher positions in the church's hierarchy. The statistics speak for themselves - out of 158 archbishops in India only seven are from the Backward Communities.

In 2000, when the Vatican appointed India's first Dalit archbishop in Andhra Pradesh, there was a furore from the majority of the upper caste church goers. The outgoing archbishop Samineni Arulappa made a public statement that the Vatican was ignoring "ground realities" by appointing Marampudi Joji as the new archbishop. Although the Church never openly acknowledged the presence of casteism within the church, it set up a Commission for Scheduled Castes/Tribes and Backward Classes of the Catholic Bishop's Conference of India (CBCI) to study and address the problems of backward communities within the Church. The biennial report submitted by this commission at the CBCI Annual General Body meeting in 2000 at Chennai, says "Dalit Christians, forming the majority in the Christian community, suffer humiliation, discrimination and socio-educational disabilities even after conversion due to the traditional practice of untouchability in the Church and in society."

The Commission had earlier submitted a memorandum to the Vajpayee Government demanding "restoration of rights to the Dalit Christians." However Dalit Christian leaders say the commission has not been proactive due to pressures from the upper caste Christians. Father K Amal, a catholic priest and the Head of Human Rights Cell at the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore, says "Although Christianity in principle does not have caste, the truth is different. There is a huge resistance from the upper caste members of the church when it comes to treating Dalit Christians as equals, or sharing power in the Church's hierarchy with them. And a handful of people like me who favour it are not welcomed at all."

The differences between Dalit Christians and upper caste Christians have come out in the open in the last few years. In 1994 a church had to be closed at K K Pudur near Chengalpattu district of Tamilnadu following clashes between Dalit Christians and Reddy Catholics. In 1999 a Dalit Christian woman Jeyaseliammal's funeral was not allowed to be held at the church in Eraiyur of Trichy district in Tamilnadu by the Vanniyar Christians of the region. In the year 2000, Jnanaprakash, a Dalit Christian from Hassan district in Karnataka, was allegedly murdered following a fight with an upper caste member. His family members say that the police did not even register a case.

The Indian Government, for its part, set up various commissions - from the Kaka Kalelkar heading the Backward Communities Commission in 1955, to the Mandal Commission in 1980, to the most recent Ranganath Misra Commission to look into the matter. Both the Kaka Kalelkar Commission and Mandal Commmission reported discrimination against Dalit Christians. The Mandal Commission report also suggested that "Scheduled Caste converts to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc., should not be denied the benefits extended to Scheduled Castes and the same should hold good in respect of other backward classes."

As Christianity spread, upper caste members too embraced the new religion. And with them came the caste prejudices of old. Post independence, the administration of churches was taken over by these upper caste members.

 •  The politics of illusion
 •  Ruth Manorama, voice of Dalits

There is precedent for this view. The Scheduled Castes Order, 1950 was modified to include Dalit Sikhs in 1956 and in 1990 to include Dalit Buddhists. But Dalit Christians remain outside its ambit. In the southern states the state governments have included Dalit Christians in what is known as "category one", which is considered the "most backward caste" category. According to this, the communities included are entitled to 4 per cent reservation in education, employment and local body elections. But Marisamy says "It is not very helpful. To avail this privilege we need to get certificates from various government departments which again become a problem in the caste ridden system."

In 2005, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutional validity of paragraph 3 of the 1950 Presidential Order, under which Scheduled Castes people professing and converting to religions different from Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism were deprived of reservation benefits. The judgment in the matter was to be based on the reports from the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission, which was to study the issue and submit a report by April 2006. The Commission then sought an extension and the hearing was postponed. On 11 October 2006, the Supreme Court adjourned the matter till April 2007, as the Commission sought a further extension of six months to submit its report.

Manoranjini, a Dalit Christian lawyer from Raichur, Karnataka met the commission along with other members, to present a petition. She says "it is all an eye wash. There is no political will to do this. Both upper caste Christians and right wing Hindus do not want to give us this privilege and the government is taking their side by not taking a decision on this matter." She adds, "We are not demanding reservation to get into IITs or to get jobs in Government offices. We need reservation to protect ourselves from the atrocities that are perpetrated upon us on a daily basis. My family converted to Christianity to get out of bonded labour. However we are still treated as untouchables by the upper castes in our villages. If someone attacks us for as small a reason as drinking water from a public well, we cannot get protection from the police, for they refuse to even file a First Information Report. Whereas if we are in the SC list they are obliged to at least register a complaint".

In all this, the Church itself isn't saying much; efforts to get Church authorities to comment for this article yielded no response. The doctrine forbids casteism, but the actual practice of Christianity in India has not adhered to this moral high ground; Arulappa's guarded reference to 'ground realities' in opposing the appointment of a Dalit archbishop is as close as the authorities are to admitting wide-spread casteism in the faith. This may be one reason that Dalit Christians, just like their fellow Dalits in Hinduism, are taking their protest beyond the religion and into the legal arena, hoping that the State will guard their interests any better - or that, at any rate, they can force the State to do so.

With more than six months to go before the Supreme Court hearing on the issue, Dalit Chrisitan leaders are hoping to change the minds of political parties during the upcoming session of Parliament, and garner support by intensifying their agitation. (Quest Features & Footage)