If Dalits can be Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, why can’t they be Christians and Muslims?

Christian and Muslim Dalits have been denied benefits available to SC groups among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. A petition challenging the discrimination has been pending in Supreme Court for years

Representative Image (social media)
Representative Image (social media)
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Abraham Mathew

Monday, August 10 is the 70th anniversary of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, which sought to identify communities that come under the Scheduled Caste status in India

The Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950, however left out Muslims and Christians of scheduled caste origin. Both these communities since then have observed this day as a black day because they believe the order was discriminatory and denied them the right to be included in the Schedules Castes list. It is also violative of the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and belief, they have argued.

The third paragraph of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) order 1950, i.e., the Presidential Order, stipulates that “no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste”.

This is a clear contradiction to the spirit of the constitution which is supposed to ensure the equality of citizens. Further amendments to the order were made in subsequent years to include Sikh Dalits (1956) and Buddhist Dalits (1990). However, Dalits practising religions such as Christianity and Islam remained excluded from the categorisation.

The experience of untouchability coupled with extreme social, educational and economic backwardness are the criteria that determine Scheduled Caste status in India. Dalits in India share a common legacy of humiliation and segregation, because irrespective of their religious affinity, untouchability based on their birth has been rampant in both private and public spheres.

Take the case of Soosai (1985) who was a cobbler in Chennai, belonging to the Adi-Dravida caste, i.e., before he converted to Christianity. Since he belonged to the cobbler community, he was considered to be an untouchable. His caste was also mentioned in the Scheduled Caste list. Despite converting to Christianity, his economic and social condition saw no considerable change. But when free bunk beds were allotted to members of his caste-community, Soosai was excluded because he was not a Hindu or Sikh.

His religious identity made the state overlook his socio-economic condition, which was on par with others who were eligible and were not Muslims or Christians. Religion then becomes an obstacle and as a result many are forced to discard their beliefs so that they can avail of ‘reservation’, which is essential for their upward mobility. The order therefore also infringes on a Dalit individual’s right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion which is clearly guaranteed by Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

This is the reality that has been highlighted by Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians for a long time. They suspect an elitist state with a religious bias has turned a deaf ear to their legitimate plea. There are also political and social undercurrents to this nature of discrimination, because of which justice is being denied to many.

It has been argued that Christianity and Islam are egalitarian and has no caste hierarchy that segregates the communities. Although they rightly point out that these religions cannot, scripturally or theologically, promote such forms of segregation, it is also a reality that they remain victims of the deep-rooted nature of caste in Indian society.

Satish Deshpande with the assistance of Geetika Bapna (Department of Sociology, University of Delhi) had prepared a report for the National Commission for Minorities, Government of India in 2008 titled ‘Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities: A Status Report on Current Social Scientific Knowledge’.

In this report they affirmed ‘…there is a strong case for including Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste category. There are compelling arguments in favour of such an inclusion based on principles of natural justice and fairness. The balance of pragmatic considerations is also in favour of their inclusion…”

Many attempts have also been made to analyse this issue and identify if this discrimination is permitted by the Constitution.

The First Backward Classes Commission (Kaka Kalelkar Commission, 1955)) recommended that the State must take special steps to empower Christians and Muslims of SC origin. The Second Backward Classes Commission (Mandal Commission, 1983) stated that religious conversion does not change socio-economic status.

Sachar Committee Report (2006) and The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Ranganath Misra Commission, 2007) also highlighted the need for granting of Scheduled Caste status to Christian and Muslim Dalits. The UN Commission on the elimination of Racial Discrimination also recommended that the state party should restore the eligibility for affirmative action benefits of all members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes having converted to another religion.

Study after study conducted in the last 70 years, have recognised that severe socio-economic and educational backwardness continue to plague all Dalits, irrespective of their religious faith.

The reservation of seats on the basis of caste in India is not a post-independence development. They have been in existence since the end of the 19th century, mainly initiated by princely states. In 1932, The Communal award was introduced by the then British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and as a result the depressed classes were awarded separate electorates.

After independence, special privileges for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were allocated by Indian constitution through Articles 15 and 16 by reservation of seats in the educational institutions to continue their studies and further reserving employment for them. The main thrust behind these introductions was giving equal opportunity to the candidates from socially and economically deprived sections of the society.

The only hope for them is the Constitution because the Indian Constitution is an outcome of the aspiration of common masses to have an egalitarian society. They consider it an anti-thesis to all kinds of hegemonies and segregations that subjugate the common masses. Further, the role given to Ambedkar in drafting the Constitution went on to display the importance that the nation’s leaders were willing to assign to the ideal of equality in independent India.

A civil writ petition is still pending before the Hon’ble Supreme Court for further hearing. It was filed by Adv. Franklin Ceaser Thomas in which the National Council of Churches in India and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, two apex bodies representing churches in India are also a part.

Seventy years of struggle to establish the rights of a section of a marginalised group still continues with the dream of attaining justice, liberty, equality and fraternity in an India as envisioned in the Indian Constitution.

The author is the executive secretary of the National Council of Churches in India

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