Ranganath Misra Report: Boon or Bane for Indian Christians?
by R L Francis & Joseph G Anthony on 16 May 2010 2 Comments

The Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM), also known as Ranganath Misra Commission Report, has triggered off bitter controversy in general and fear among the Hindu Scheduled Castes. The Ranganath Misra Commission has recommended reservation for Muslims and Christians on the basis of religion and deletion of Para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 which restricted the reservation to the Hindus and later opened it to Sikhs and Buddhists.


In our opinion, implementation of the Ranganath Misra Report would have serious repercussions for egalitarian faiths like Christianity and Islam. Also the implementation of the Report would seriously impact the growth and survival of Christianity in India.


The Constitutional Provisions for reservation, understood as a package of protective, preferential and developmental practices, are intended to create conditions for the social advancement of the historically disadvantaged groups, their integration into mainstream society, and participation in its opportunity structure on equal terms with advanced groups. In the report of the Karnataka Third Backward Classes Commission, Justice Chinnappa Reddy rightly emphasized the need for the continuation of these provisions for calling attention to India’s despairingly vast socio economic inequalities. 


While the justification for reservation is thus self evident, it is mainly in Article 15(4), on special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward class of citizens, and Article 16(4), on reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any ‘backward class of citizen’ which, in the opinion of the State is not adequately represented in its services, that the other Backward Classes (OBCs) figure as a category apart from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes. 


Background of Religious Conversion


A dictionary gives the meaning of the word `religion’ as “monastic condition, monastic order, practice of sacred rites, one of the prevalent systems of faith and worship” etc. All these definitions would fit well to describe Hinduism as a religion. The concept of an organized religion arose, as far as India is concerned, from the time Buddhism and Jainism came into existence with religious philosophies distinct from those of Hinduism - or that which existed at the time of their birth. Basically the philosophy of pre-Buddhist and Jain times was based on the Vedas and the Upanishads and the concepts and teachings conveyed by the great seers and saints.

It would be inadequate to say that Hindu society is nothing more than the caste system, whose foundations rest on the earliest Vedic sources. Nevertheless, the social ethics of the Hindu religion is certainly governed by Jati or caste. The caste system is fundamental to Hinduism. According to Hinduism the Brahman was born of creator’s mouth, the Rajput from arms, the Vaisya from thighs and the Sudra sprang from his feet.


Apart from its religious justification, the caste system is a complex phenomenon which is hard to define. However, there are certain characteristics that stand out to distinguish it from any comparable structure in other religions. Each caste may be considered a closed social group, theoretically based on heredity, so that a person belongs to the caste in which he is born.


The evolution of caste system postulating hereditary orders functioning within rigid spheres of social intercourse is a phenomenon peculiar to the organization of Hindu society. In other communities, the principal factor determining class and status are wealth, pedigree, or profession. In case of Hindus, however, membership of a caste is determined by birth. The hereditary classes into which the Hindu community is divided still refrain from eating and intermarrying with those not of their caste. Their differences are taken to be innate, such as cannot be annulled. A Shudra can never become a priest. 


Contrary to this, Christianity propagates that all men are equal and made in the image of God. A Christian from any background can choose to become a priest or a nun. This distinction must be remembered while suggesting the caste based reserved for Christians. 


What is so great about Christianity?


The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church published recently explains that ‘The name of Christ is the way of salvation. The Book of Genesis says that ‘man’ was created in the image of God. Christianity also propagates equality and human dignity created in such salvation is not only achieved in the new life after death, “but it also permeates this world in the realities of the economy and labour, of technology and communications, of society and politics, of the international community and the relations among cultures and peoples,” the Compendium says in part No. 1.  


The salvation offered by Christ is of the whole person in all dimensions, personal, social, spiritual and corporeal. This salvation is also universal. Thus, there is a link “between the relationship that the person is called to have with God and the responsibility he has towards his neighbour in the concrete circumstances of history” (No. 40).  


The Compendium also defends the Church’s right to proclaim its teaching on social matters. This proclamation is part of the role of the Church as a teacher and the truths in its content stem from human nature itself and from the Gospel. The Church has a right, and a duty, to proclaim “the liberating word of the Gospel” (No. 70), to the world.  


The Compendium observes that the Church’s social doctrine has gradually been formed over time, through a series of statements on diverse issues. This helps to understand that over time some changes have taken place regarding its nature and structure.  


This process is still under way. In No. 86 the Compendium refers to social doctrine as a “work site,” in which “perennial truth penetrates and permeates new circumstances, indicating paths of justice and peace.”  


But this teaching cannot be reduced to a socio-economic level. Social doctrine is theological in nature and has its foundation in biblical Revelation and in the Tradition of the Church (Nos. 72-4). In this sense faith interacts with reason in a process whereby “the mystery of Christ illuminates the mystery of man” (No. 75). Along with Revelation and Tradition, social doctrine is also enriched by philosophy and the social sciences.


“In all its activities the Church seeks to preach and act in ways that lead to greater justice for all people. Its ministry cannot neglect the violations of human rights resulting from racism, poverty, poor housing, inadequate education and health care, widespread apathy and indifference, and a lack of freedom. These realities are fundamentally incompatible with our faith, and the Church is required to oppose them.”  


Many Dalit Catholics have spoken out against discrimination against them by the Church. A famous Dalit activist Bama has written books that are critical of the discrimination by the nuns and priests in Churches in South India. Pope John Paul II also criticized the caste discrimination in the Roman Catholic Church of India when addressing the bishops of: Madras, Mylapore, Madurai, Cuddalore, and Puducherry in late 2003. He went on to say “It is the Church’s obligation to work unceasingly to change hearts, helping all people to see every human being as a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ, and therefore a member of our own family.”

It is in the light of these facts that the Ranganath Commission Report needs to be understood. What is the nature or problem and where is the problem. The Times of India reported (20 July 2007 ) that the campaign of Dalit Christians for Scheduled Caste status took an interesting turn when the Supreme Court asked the petitioners   whether Christians also practiced caste system. “Would the Christians admit that they practice caste system and that Dalits (among them) face social discrimination requiring reservation to uplift their cause? This is not all that easy,” a Bench headed by Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan said.


Resisting demand for instant recognition, SC’s poser can put the Christian leaders in a quandary. They have been demanding SC status for Dalit Christians saying that the change of faith does not improve social status, but may find it difficult to admit that Dalits in the fold faced the same sort of discrimination as their counterparts in the Hindu community.  


Christians claim to be a casteless society. Dalit Christian activists, who have agitated for Dalit status for long, recently got a shot in the arm when the Justice Ranganath Misra Commission endorsed their case.  


The petitioner’s lawyer stated that previously the Congress government had brought in a Bill in 1996 with the objective of giving Dalits equal rights irrespective of the religion they profess. Additional solicitor said the government is seeking the opinion of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes on the report of the Misra Commission and sought time for this purpose.


The bill presented by the congress party in 1996 was nothing but “VOTE POLITICS”. When the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the centre, the minority communities receiving overseas support and funding got worried. On 25 Nov, 1995 the Christian leaders organized a huge rally demanding reservation to Christians of Dalit background. Even Mother Teresa participated in the dharma at New Delhi.


In their long struggle for equality, India’s Dalits, or “untouchables,” have often exchanged Hinduism for Islam, Christianity, Sikhism or Buddhism, believing that they will better their lives by doing so. They have been persuaded that Hinduism, with its varna ashramas (caste distinctions), has been solely responsible for all their ills. But when they switch to other religious faiths and experience the same distinctions - albeit in different forms - they realize that such a change neither improves their social status nor remedies their economic problems of unemployment and poverty - the real source of their social discrimination.  


A letter written by M. Mary John, president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement, to Pope John Paul II during his 1999 visit to India speaks volumes about the treatment meted out to dalit Christians within the churches of India. The dalits are oppressed and persecuted by “the hierarchy, the congregation, the authorities and the institutions of the Catholic Church.” Despite the condemnation of such practices by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), casteism still persists among Christian communities. A state commission on Dalits has pointed out that they are “twice discriminated against” - in society and within the church. At the time of conversion, they are assured that they are being inducted into a religious fold that is egalitarian and free from the twin curses of caste and untouchability. But the reality is altogether different.  


Sikh places of worship have separate quarters for Dalit Sikhs. High-caste Muslims do not marry Dalit Muslims. Dalit Christians can hardly hope to reach any high position within the church. (They are not even allowed to occupy the pews meant for higher-caste Christians.) And Buddhist monasteries have not been able to prevent their converts from continuing their earlier caste practices.  


At the same time, in breaking away from Hinduism, dalits lose out on the basic safeguards provided to them in the Indian Constitution. In 1981, thousands of Dalits in southern India converted to Islam to escape social victimization - only to find that they had forfeited whatever state privileges they enjoyed earlier as Scheduled Caste Hindus. Converted Dalits are now fighting for these privileges, having perceived the age-old caste system still dogging their footsteps. The very fact that they still have to label themselves as “Dalits” even after conversion in order to seek special privileges exposes the futility of that exercise.


A mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in recent months in India poses the question once again whether religious conversion alone can improve the social and economic status of people who have been marginalized for centuries. Some 50,000 Dalits assembled in New Delhi in November 2000 to embrace Buddhism. In January another 25,000 followed suit in the southern state of Kerala. Such conversions expose the hypocrisy of the religious and political leaders who exploit the socially and economically backward groups for their own ends.  


Discrimination within the Church 


There is discrimination against Dalits within the Church itself. A study titled Discrimination Against Dalit Christians in Tamil Naidu, conduced by Fr Antony Raj SJ, a Dalit Jesuit and sociologist, was published in 1992 by the Institute of Development, Education, Action and Studies (IDEAS) Centre Madurai.


This study was an attempt at assessing the existence and the extent of the practice of untouchability within the Christian Church (principally the Roman Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu). It intended to persuade the government of India to make the necessary constitutional amendments to list Dalit Christians in the schedule caste category so that they too benefit from the policy of protective or favoured discrimination. It was hoped that the findings of this study would enlighten the authorities in the Church to correct and rectify archaic and regressive caste practices. 


The sampling involved 9,000 respondents, which roughly works out to 1.2 per cent of the total Christian population in the Tamil Nadu. The following discriminatory practices were found from the data collected:  


-        Construction of two chapels, one for non-Dalits and the other for the Dalits. In some parishes liturgical services are conducted separately. 


-        Separate seating arrangements within the same chapel. Dalits are usually seated at the two aisles. Even if there are benches or chairs, dalits are required only to be seated on the floor. The existence of two separate cemeteries and two separate hearses to carry the dead. 


-        The operation of two separate queues to receive the sacrament or Christ. In some places, Dalits are required to receive communion only after the non-Dalits. Dalit boys are not allowed to be altar boys and lectors at the sacred liturgy. 


-        Non-dalits restrict the Corpus Christi procession, Palm Sunday procession and other processions to the limits of their streets. Dalits are not invited to participate in the washing of feet ceremony on Maundy Thursday. 


-        For fear of claiming equal participation in the celebration of the feast of the parish patron saint, Parish Councils decide not to collect financial contribution from Dalits. The feast of the village patron saint is celebrated separately. 


-        Using various statistical computations, namely, combined frequency technique, ratio technique, average and dispersion technique, Fr Antony Raj has tried to gauge the nature and extent of discrimination. Questions relating to the nature and extent of discrimination as practiced by high caste Hindus, caste Christians, caste nuns and caste priests are: Do they visit your home? Do they drink water in your home when offered? Do they eat in your home when invited? Are you able to have them as your close friends? Do they accept you as colleagues? Do they admit you into their homes? Do they expect submissive forms of address and body postures when you speak to them? Do they address your elders respectfully? Do they speak about your caste mentality? Do they call you by your caste appellation? 


-        Economic discrimination: The plight of the Dalits’ economic position has been to the issue of landlessness. In an agricultural society like India, land is an important consideration. The landed high caste had deprived the dalits of owning land or property of any kind. This is intended to ensure the supply of a stream of continuous and permanent labour force. Landless and dependent, the lower castes lead an economical unfree and penurious life. 


The Church has under its control vast land property, medical and educational institutions, and developmental organs like multi-purpose society. These various departments are largely manned by non-Dalits. In fact, the authority of the Church is in the hands of non-Dalit priests. Non-Dalit priests occupy 92.3 per cent of the offices in the five Catholic dioceses. The lack of Dalit representation in the administrative and consultative bodies means lack of opportunity to present their cause at the decision-making level. This is a crucial factor. For example, out of the 9,000 respondents, 5,766 (64 per cent) said they were not consulted by their priests on parish activities. Only 305 (9.43 per cent) said that they had been consulted. That too not in any significant way. 


Finally, the ennui of powerlessness faced by the Dalit Christians in the Church is a matter of deep concern. Out of despair, frustration and confusion, the powerless dalits may garner and muster enough strength and conviction to fight back. If they do, the struggle could be violent. When violence is the end product, the outcome will be uncertain.


All these, prime facie, are evidences to substantiate the stand taken by the pro reservation Christians. According to the Parliamentary Assurances Committee’s rules and regulations, the assurances are the positive cogent authoritative evidences to prove Dalit Christians’ social, educational, economical and cultural backwardness.  


Caste and Christians in India


Caste among Christians in India has survived many missionary onslaughts; however the condemnation of caste as unchristian has always been in the theological perspective of Christianity. Although such condemnation have generally not been accompanied by any action that disturbs the status quo within the churches, there is increasing pressure today from rising movements of Christians from Dalit background. Many campaigners from this background claim that the word ‘Dalit’ has occurred several times in the Bible. The term Dalit in India is used to refer to ex-Untouchables known in the literature as Harijans. However, the world Dalit in the Old Testament refers to all poor, marginalized and persecuted people and not to caste-based group.


Christianity is one of the prominent religions in India. At present there are about 24 million Christians in India. It is interesting to note that the Christian population in India is more than the entire population of Australia and New Zealand.


India’s 24 million Christians now account for 2.34 percent of the country’s population - up from 2.32 percent at the last previous census in 1991. The rate of population growth among the country’s Christians also rose slightly, from 21.5 percent to 22.6 percent.


About 73% of the Christians in India are Catholics. To revert to the Christian Data: The average Christian population in India is 2.3 per cent. The North East India traditionally has considerable Christian presence. Nagaland 90; Mizoram 87; Meghalaya 70.3; Manipur 34; Goa 26.7; Andaman 21.7; Kerala 19; Arunachal Pradesh 18.7; Puducherry 6.9; Sikkim 6.7; Tamil Nadu 6.1; Jharkhand 4.1; Assam 3.7; Tripura 3.2; Dadra & Nagar 2.7; Orissa 2.4; Daman Diu 2.1; Karnataka 1.9; Chattisgarh 1.9; Andhra Pradesh 1.6; Punjab 1.2; Maharashtra 1.1; Lakshadweep 1; Delhi 0.9; Chandigarh 0.8; Gujarat 0.6; West Bengal 0.6; Madhya Pradesh 0.3; Uttaranchal 0.3; Jammu & Kashmir 0.2; Bihar 0.1; Uttar Pradesh 0.1; Rajasthan 0.1; Haryana 0.1; Himachal Pradesh 0.1.


Data indicates that some 63 per cent of the country’s Christian population is in the four southern states with about 32 percent being in Kerala alone. Nevertheless, the Christian community reflects the general heterogeneity of the people of this vast country. Christian differs greatly not only in their theological, denominational and ritual traditions, but in ethnic social and caste origin. The upper caste Christians are probably not more than 25 per cent. The earliest Christian community in India is that of the Syrian Christians of Kerala whose origin goes back to early centuries of the Christian era. They made no conversion and were closed community located only in Kerala. The conversion started with the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in fifteenth century. In the second half of the nineteenth century both Catholics and Protestant missionaries experienced considerable success in converting tribal population of India. Tribal areas such as the North East hill region, the Santhal Parganas and Chotanagpur have become important Christian centers.


Christians in general made considerable gain in education and health. The 2001 Census shows that female literacy among Christian Women is 76 per cent and male female ratio among Christian is 996, highest comparing the all India average of 936. But it so happened that the considerable opportunities provided by the Christian missions were disproportionately taken advantage by a few sections of Christians. One is surprised to note that there is not a single medical or engineering college in India run by the Catholic Church.


North Indian Catholics have suffered due to lack of higher education facilities (Gathia 2000). Only Protestants have one medical college at Ludhiana. Why? We would venture the guess that the failure of the churches to improve the economic and job conditions is directly co-related with the dominance of a few. Also with the departure of the foreign missionaries there was a ‘mad- rush’ to capture positions and power within the church in India. This also led to discrimination of services to poor Christians, particularly neo-converts from Dalit background.


Unfortunately, contrary to the belief of Christianity, there are discriminatory practices among Christians in India. There are reports that Dalit Christians are physically segregated in their quarters. Caste Christians do not visit these quarters, dine with the Dalits or drink water from them. In Tamil Nadu, OBC Christians do not enter the colonies of their coreligionist Adi Dravida for fear of pollution. Even priests do this. In Kerala, despite high literacy, Christians practice discrimination among themselves. But this is breaking down.


It is therefore important to note that caste is retreating in the context of modern urban life. With the growth of information technology, awareness is increasing and local Christians are increasingly connecting themselves with the world Christian community. The evidence suggests the situation among educated Christians is better than counterpart Dalit Hindus. 


The issue of pollution among Christians is not as problematic as among Hindus. There are no specific practices and much less conceptions among Christians in general in India. Syrian Christians freely eat beef, pork and fish and work as fish and leather dealers and butchers. In the North India nearly 90 per cent convert Christians do not consume beef or pork and follow what ‘secular Indian values’. They are not discriminated by the local people. It is also worth noting that many Christians in North India are in favour of banning cow slaughter. They (North Indian Christians) are pained to learn that a section of Christian leaders campaigned with a Hindu Dalit intellectual from Andhra Pradesh that eating beef was Dalit Hindu’s “human right” and in that context converted Christians too must follow this practice. Such absurd campaign has created much bad feeling and diverted attention from the real problems of poor Christians. The experience is that North Indian Christians are not discriminated when they follow ‘secular Indian values’ in their daily life.


Today, once again caste-based treatment is recommended for Christians in India. Some writers point out that with the departure of cosmopolitan missionaries, and the arrival of the sons (and daughters) of the soil, caste is back with a bang. The aspirations of neo-converts for equality and dignity are frustrated by legal arguments. Those who adopted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour want all the Churches in India (Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox) to condemn caste with one voice as unchristian.


The Poor Christians Liberation Movement (PCLM) has been fighting for the rights of poor Christians for a long time. The PCLM wrote to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in January 2008 explaining the situation and opposing caste base reservation for Christians. The letter is available at http//www.nationalfreepress.org/An-open-Letter-to-Hon-Prime-Minister-of-India and www.Dalitchristian.com On the whole, the concept of untouchability as practiced in Hinduism is not prevalent among Christians of India.




In 1939 Bishop Azariah wrote: “We do not wish to call our Christians Harijan (read Dalit here) for the sake of concessions.” In Travancore State, Dalit women were not allowed to cover their breast. Women from Christian families defied this. When the princely state objected the missionaries argued that these women are no more Dalits hence this rule does not apply to them. Protestant missionaries aggressively and consistently attacked caste and carried on a relentless onslaught against it as being inconsistent with Christianity.

The statement by the Catholic bishops Conference of India in 1982 is representative of all church discourse: “We state categorically that caste, with its consequent effects on discrimination and “caste mentality”, has no place in Christianity… It violates the God-given dignity and equality of the human person.” (CBCI, 1982:148 quoted by J Tharamangalam).


Christianity is unique. Downtrodden people adopt it for equality, human dignity and liberty and not for bread alone. But many are ‘rice and curry Christians, ‘chapatti Christian’ and so on, though the majority wants to be identified as Christians and not as Dalit Christians. Once they adopted Christianity they are no more Dalits. Conversion is a deliberate, definite, conscious, positive turning over to someone for something. Conversion is an individual affirmation, essentially an independent action. Conversion at the root is an inward movement, but it gets manifested in the outward life.


The Ranganath Misra Commission has submitted ‘controversial’ recommendations. Many Christian groups are rejoicing, but our inner voice says to emphasize our basic belief: that all men are created equal and are made in the image of God.


We pray to Our Lord Jesus, our Savior and to the Holy Spirit to guide our leaders to rethink the caste-religion based reservations for Christians. The Ranganath Misra Commission Report is a satanic verse and would do great harm to Christianity in India in the long run.


R L Francis is president, Poor Christians Liberation Movement (PCLM) and Joseph G Anthony is president, Indian Christian Righteous Action Forum (ICRA)

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