On 24 March, the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSRCP government in Andhra Pradesh passed two resolutions in the state Assembly.
One resolution urged the Centre to include the Boya Valmiki community on the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list so that they could get the benefit of reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.
The other resolution called for granting Scheduled Caste (SC) status to Dalit Christians. Though the resolutions were passed unanimously, both ran into troubled waters.
Other tribal communities opposed the inclusion of Boyas on the list fearing that it would affect their reservation quota. And the BJP unleashed a massive campaign against the government, saying according SC status to Dalit Christians would encourage religious conversions.
Dalit Christians are people from SC communities who have embraced Christianity. Currently, Dalit Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, enjoy the fruits of reservation, but not Dalit Christians.
The resolution favouring Dalit Christians added fuel to a raging debate in the state. It has been alleged that Jagan, ever since assuming power in 2019, is trying to consolidate his vote bank with sights firmly set on the 2024 elections.
BJP, SC/ST body oppose move
Jagan is also under rapid fire from the BJP-led Hindutva forces. He has been accused of encouraging conversions. The chief minister is a practising Christian.
“Providing SC status to Dalit Christians is an attempt to encourage conversions. We oppose any such move. The YSRCP government should immediately withdraw the resolution,” BJP state chief Somu Veerraju said at a protest meeting held two days ago.
A group of Veerraju-led BJP leaders also met the state Governor, S Abdul Nazeer, urging him to use his discretionary powers to rescind the resolution.
Several Scheduled Caste groups, too, are opposed to according SC status to Dalit Christians.
“SC status to Dalit Christians is totally against the Constitution. There are many judgements against granting SC status to Dalit Christians,” SC/ST Hakkula Parirakshana Vedika state general secretary Garikimukku Subbaiah told South First.
“It’s nothing but a ploy to encourage conversions or give legitimacy to the activity. Christians are already eligible for reservation benefits under the BC-C category. Let all the converted SCs claim their benefits under the BC-C category,” he opined.
“Why do they want to claim the benefits under the Hindu SC reservation quota when they don’t believe in Hinduism and have converted to Christianity,” he asked.
The SC/ST Hakkula Parirakshana Vedika has been working to prevent the conversion of Hindu Dalits to Christianity.
Also read: Jagan caught between Kapus and OBCs
No socio-economic change
In the Assembly, Chief Minister Jagan noted that the economic and social status of the neo-convert Dalits has remain unchanged.
Yalamanchali Praveen, former director of the Andhra Pradesh Christian Finance Corporation (APCFC) explained this contention in detail, citing an example.
“Take, for instance, a man from an SC family who converts to Christianity, while his brother doesn’t. How justifiable is it that one brother receives reservation benefits and the other loses it just due to a change in his faith,” he asked.
“It’s a justifiable demand that Dalit Christians should be given SC status and all reservation benefits,” he told South First.
Minister for Social Welfare Meruga Nagarjuna observed that the converts continue to remain in backwardness. They still face the evils of untouchability, discrimination, and humiliation.
“The socio-economic conditions of Hindu Scheduled Castes and those who have converted to Christianity are the same. They still live on the margins of the society, following the same traditions and customs,” the minister said in a letter to the Union government on 28 March.
Plea to amend the Constitution
Minister Nagarjuna apprised the Centre of the several representations the state government had received. The representations demanded better treatment for SC converts.
The minister also reminded that the southern state had extended, in 1977, certain non-statutory concessions available to Hindu SCs to Dalit Christians as well. The concessions included economic support schemes sanctioned by the AP Scheduled Castes Cooperative Finance Corporation Ltd.
“The Government of India is requested to consider amending the Constitution to extend SC status to the members of Scheduled Castes community in India who have converted to Christianity so that they can enjoy the same rights, protection and benefits as all the other Scheduled Castes,” Nagarjuna added.
‘Move to consolidate Christian votes’
Critics, however, are seeing a larger ploy by Jagan as the state is just a year shy of both Assembly and Parliament elections.
“He has been doing such activities for some time to consolidate his vote bank, especially the Dalit and Christian base,” political columnist Duggaraju Srinivas told South First.
“Now, it has reached its pinnacle with the government passing the resolution. It is a desperate attempt after the major jolt his party received in the MLC polls in the graduates’ segments,” he said.
“We should understand the context and timing of the resolution. He is trying to create a church-based vote bank,” he added.
In an article in the RSS mouthpiece, The Organiser, in October 2021, Srinivas alleged that the Church’s activities, including conversions, have been receiving official patronage ever since Jagan came to power in May 2019.
The Hindu society, in general, and the Schedule Caste people in particular, are the targets of the current administration, he wrote.
NCSC seeks report
Meanwhile, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) wrote to the Andhra Pradesh chief secretary seeking clarification on the issue.
The NCSC wrote to the state after it received several petitions, including one from the SC/ST Rights Forum president, K Nagaraja. The petitioners complained against what they termed as the misuse of SC reservation benefits in Andhra Pradesh by Christian converts.
“In the absence of a mandatory provision to register a change of religion, most of the conversions from Hinduism to Christianity are not being neither noticed nor recorded in any official records,” K Nagaraja told South First.
“The majority of the conversions are from the SC Hindu population. The enormity of the problem can be gauged by the fact that the words ‘SC’ and ‘Christian’ are being used interchangeably and exploited,” he added.
Legal Rights Protection Forum working president AS Santosh said large-scale conversions from Hinduism to Christianity have been on in Andhra Pradesh for several years.
“Unfortunately, Andhra Pradesh does not have any legislation to regulate or monitor the change from one religion to another,” he said, citing three different RTI replies.
“The government is treating the entire SC population as Christians and they extended the previous government’s ‘Chandranna Christmas Kanuka’ scheme to all SC people. It should be given only to Christians,” he added.
Sharp dip in Christian population, rise in SCs
Interestingly, demographic data presented in a report, ‘What Happened to the Christians of Andhra Pradesh?’, prepared by the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) showed a sharp decline in proclaimed Christians between 1971 and 2011 in the state.
The report stated that the Christian population was on an uptick until 1971. The population was 18.23 lakh in the then undivided state in 1971.
The downslide began in 1971. Their population dropped to 14.33 lakhs in 1981 and to 11.30 lakh in 2011. The Christians were 1.68 percent of the total population in 1911, which rose to 4.39 percent in 1971, before dropping to 2.68 percent in 1981 and further dipping to 1.34 percent in 2011.
“This sharp decline in Christians in the Census counts in the state is directly related to a corresponding rise in the number of Scheduled Castes,” the CPS report noted.
“This can mean two things: Either, the converts are choosing to deny it before the Census and other authorities; or, they have chosen to revert to their original faith,” it said.
“The former seems more likely from the great divergence between the number of Christians counted by the Census and those estimated by the international Church,” the CPS said.
A 2021 study on the socio-economic characteristics of Dalit Christians in the Guntur district revealed their deplorable living conditions.
The majority of respondents of the study are landless poor, agriculture daily-wage labourers, workers in the non-farm sector, and marginal cultivators, earning below the poverty line income.
The uneducated Dalits are engaged in their traditional jobs. Most of their houses lacked toilet facilities.
The study also revealed 44.7 percent of respondents were illiterate.