Freedom of conscience is imperative and larger than the freedom of religion or belief. It covers all ethics and values a human being cherishes, whether of religious nature or not. There are no admissible limitations to this freedom, as long as personal convictions are not imposed on others and do not harm them. In plain words, freedom of conscience means that a person may choose any religion or may choose not to follow any religion.
The status of other CDWD communities with regard to religion and religious institutions and their freedom to choose the religion they want to pursue remains a matter of much debate, especially with State actors having a large say on the subject. In India, for instance, an individual’s personal choice to convert to or to adopt another religion is regulated by the State, and is rarely a possibility.
The freedom of conscience is not a privilege for many of the communities discriminated on the basis of their work and descent (CDWD). One such community is the Burakumin, or the small settlement people of Japan.
Confirming to Confucian theory, the Japanese social order, encompassing socio-ethical groups, namely the warrior-rulers (or samurai), peasants, artisans and merchants left out those living on the margins, or the hereditary pariahs. The Burakumins came from among these.
This Japanese social minority is considered an outcaste community from the feudal era and is relegated to impure occupations considered “tainted” with death or ritual impurity. Because of this impurity associated with them, they lived in their own secluded ghettos.
The impurity of the Burakumin people was considered to be spreadable to other people (hence, the untouchability) and they were classified as Eta (pollution in abundance). This condition was considered to be hereditary and they were not even allowed to leave the communities of their birth.
Needless to say, this impurity reflected in their personal pursuit of individual religious goals.
Shintoism, as practiced in Japan, placed huge emphasis on purity and cleanliness, or conversely, “pollution and avoidance of defilement (which was associated with death).” Together, these teachings gave religious impetus and justification for discrimination against outcasts. “Those who were engaged in the unpleasant but essential tasks of handling the deceased and disposing of dead animals from the temple grounds [and those who worked in such occupations as butchering and processing raw skins] were considered polluted and they were prohibited from participating in religious rites.
As the proceedings of the Fourth World Conference on Religion and Peace notes: “The significance of continuing dialogue in this context was demonstrated in the manner in which the Buraku people’s problem in Japan came to be rightly understood. In WDRP III(,) a delegate from (Japan) completely denied the existence of discrimination against the Buraku people (i.e. outcastes), but with continuing study of the problem the same delegate at WCRP IV frankly admitted the fact of (his) being in the camp of discriminating agents. (as quoted by Taylor and Gebhardt 1986, p. 232).
For over 70 years, Indian Dalits have been denied freedom of religion – through a presidential order. But worse, Dalits who converted to Islam and Christianity preceding this order continue to be outside the fold of affirmative action benefits.
The rationale seems to be that Islam and Christianity are more egalitarian religions and therefore a Dalit would not face the same discrimination in their new found faith. Sadly, however, Dalits converting to Islam and Christianity found that their “Dalitness” clung to them and followed them, even after their religious conversion.
In May 2018, Kevin Joseph, a Dalit Christian youth, was murdered by his wife’s relatives in Kerala. His only crime was that he had dared to love and marry an upper caste woman. The trial court judge noted in the judgment that the motive of the murder was caste prejudice. Sadly, this was but one of many incidents.
Dalit communities were for centuries told that they had no agency, they could not make the most fundamental decisions freely about where they work, who they marry and how they worship. They were denied entry into homes, schools and places of worship. They continue to be abused and targeted even to this day. Dalits have been killed for daring to ride a horse to their wedding, for entering a temple and for daring to fall in love with an “upper caste”.
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