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Less protection for those who change religion will deepen discrimination for India’s most marginalized group, says MRG

17 October 2006

India’s most marginalized social group, the Dalits or ‘untouchables’ will continue to face atrocities and discrimination, despite changing religion to try and escape the negative treatment they are subject to.

Hundreds of Dalits took part in mass ceremonies over the weekend to convert to Buddhism and Christianity. By converting, many hope to escape discrimination and exclusion.

Kathryn Ramsay, Asia and Pacific Programme Coordinator at MRG says: ‘Conversion will not stop the terrible discrimination. In rural areas, it is impossible to change your Dalit identity, even if you change your religion. The Constitutional protections for Dalits should be genuinely upheld so people are free to decide their religion and make their life choices without fear of discrimination.’

But if Dalits convert to Christianity, they will also give up the few protections the Indian Constitution and government offers them, such as reserving places in state funded education and state employment.

According to Ramsay: ‘If people convert to Christianity and are then discriminated against, they will have no recourse to the protections and safeguards that do exist for Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits.’

Even with the protections in place, attitudes in society take longer to change. Dalits are still forced to do jobs such as cleaning sewage by hand or ‘manual scavenging’, which has been made illegal, while Dalit women are forced into temple-sanctioned prostitution and are seen as easy targets for rape. They are considered the lowest in India’s ancient social structure, known as the caste system. According to the system, even the touch of a Dalit will contaminate another person’s higher caste.

Ramsay adds: ‘The fact that hundreds of Dalits feel they need to change their religion to escape discrimination is an indication of how desperate they feel. It shows that the non-discrimination measures in the Constitution are not working in practice.’

There are 30,000 35,000 reported cases of atrocities against Dalits every year. In reality the numbers are far higher, as many of these crimes go unreported for fear of violent reprisals.

Notes to editors

  • There are approximately 1.7m Dalits in India’s 1bn+ population
  • Minority Rights Group International is a non governmental organization (NGO) working to ensure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities worldwide.

For more information or to arrange interviews, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].