The concept of identifying a caste or community as a backward class or scheduled caste has now become archaic and has created a vested interest in backwardness. There have been demands and efforts from time to time to get Scheduled Caste status to persons of Scheduled Caste origin professing Christianity or Islam in spite of the fact that their representation in services was adequate and that they were already getting the benefits of reservations as OBCs. The Ranganatha Misra Commission appointed by UPA government recommended extending SC status to the converts. The report and recommendations of the Commission were not accepted by the Modi Government and Justice Balakrishna Commission was appointed to look into the matter. Instead of waiting for the recommendations of the Balakrishna Commission, the Honorable Supreme Court wants to adjudicate a batch of petitions pending before it.
The term “Scheduled Caste” appeared for the first time in the Government of India Act, 1935. The Government of India Scheduled Castes Order 1936 was issued under this Act. Paragraph 3 of the 1936 Order explicitly states, “No Indian Christian shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste.” The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 reiterates this and, in its present version, states that “no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.”
Discrimination on the grounds of religion?
The Muslim and Christian political leaders lament that the converts from the SCs into their respective religions are deprived of the benefits of reservation, support, and development schemes formulated for their counterparts in Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist religions. They vehemently argue that the exclusion of Christianity and Islam from the purview of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 is discriminatory and unconstitutional, being violative of the provisions of Fundamental Rights guaranteed under Articles 14,15, 16, and 25 of the Constitution. In their view, this amounts to discrimination by the State on the ground of religion.
The followers of these religions are now alleging that they are being discriminated against not only by the society but even by their own religious institutions like churches or mosques. They show as evidence the existence of separate churches/ mosques or separate prayer halls or prayer timings in the same church/mosque for them and earmarked areas for the burial of their dead.
Historical Context of the Constitutional Order
The Constitution (SC) Order,1950 confers a special status to the” Castes” discriminated against within the Hindu religious system for certain historical reasons. Parameters or criteria applied by the British authorities for identifying depressed classes (which later came to be known as Scheduled Castes) were largely related to the practices and prejudices associated with untouchability. Inclusion of all socially or economically backward classes, irrespective of religion, in paragraph 3 of the 1950 Order would be tantamount to a failure to recognise the specific historical discrimination suffered by these Scheduled Castes. Inclusion of all backward classes in the 1950 Order would constitute discrimination against Scheduled Castes by treating the experience of all sections of backward classes as similar to the historical discrimination faced by Scheduled Castes in India. Viewed from this perspective, The Constitution (SC) Order, 1950 is thus neither ultra-vires of the Constitution nor violative of any fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.
Even if persons of scheduled caste origin converted to Islam/ Christianity face discrimination within their own community, a pertinent question that needs to be answered is whether that discrimination is comparable in its oppressive severity to the discrimination faced by their counterparts in the Hindu religion. Separate enclosures in prayer halls of churches or burial grounds or the reluctance on the part of certain sections within their community to socialise with converts, though reprehensible, do not appear to match the oppression and consequential disability that untouchables in Hindu religion experienced in the past. Moreover, no documented research and precise authenticated information are available to establish such a narrative.
Conferring SC status tantamount to the introduction of caste in Christianity and Islam
Incidentally, available social indicators about Christians (separate figures for persons of Scheduled Caste origin converted to Christianity are not available) reveal that in terms of literacy and education levels, work participation rate, etc. Christians are way ahead of other major religious groups like Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, or Buddhists (excluding Jains). The social and educational indicators point to the fact that in terms of important indices, Christians are somewhat better off compared to their counterparts in other religions, while Muslims are by and large comparable.
Both Islam and Christianity claim that these religions are egalitarian and afford equal status to all their followers. These religions also claim that they neither recognize nor approve birth-based caste identity of their followers. If followers of Islam and Christianity are now demanding SC reservation benefits based on social discrimination, there needs to be a deeper study on the origin and nature of this discrimination in both of these communities. The framework for SC reservation system was well known and there was broad societal consensus. In order to alleviate the suffering of the marginalized Hindu communities due to colonial subjugation and social upheavals, certain privileges were conferred to those communities. Extending them to Muslim and Christian communities at this stage is unwarranted and premature without a thorough understanding of the origin and nature of discrimination in those communities as that might warrant a different kind of governmental interventions.
Identification of SCs among converts
Both Islam and Christianity which originated in the middle East entered Indian soil through traders, invaders, preachers, and missionaries over a period of 800-900 years. These religions firmly established themselves in India as more and more indigenous people got converted to these religions either by force or allurement. During Islamic and British colonial misrule, there were thousands of forced conversions, abductions, rapes and marriages. A lot of intermingling has happened by virtue of intra marriages: marriages between indigenous people and foreigners. In the past 70-80 years, a different kind of intermingling took place as marriages between people of different castes are quite common amongst Indians who subscribe to Christianity and Islam. Identifying the original caste of the present generation of Muslims and Christians is nearly impossible task as they are the progenies coming from centuries of mixed marriages. There would be enormous difficulty in identifying the original caste of those who got converted because there are no authentic records. Then, how to identify such Muslims/ Christians who were originally of SC origin?
Any procedure adopted to identify the SC converts to Christianity and Islam at this stage, even if a cut-off date is fixed, poses innumerable problems. The probability of abuse and ineligible persons siphoning off the benefits at the cost of the deserving is very high. Even for the listed castes, there is enough evidence that false certificates are being obtained, and many a time, undeserving are found enjoying reservations.
Retrograde moves undermining the ongoing social change
Those in favour of conferring SC status to converts should ponder whether enlargement of the list would bring to naught all initiatives taken so far to change the age-old social structure and whether it would be a retrograde step. Untouchability was abolished by Article 17 of the Constitution, and its practice in any form was forbidden. Enforcement of any disability arising from untouchability was punishable under the Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955.
There is enough evidence to establish that ‘untouchability’ is declining due to society’s crusade against untouchability. The increase in the level of education and spread of awareness among the people, assertiveness by scheduled castes of their status and rights, etc., had a definite impact on people’s thinking and behavioural patterns regarding untouchability. As a result, the rigidities of the system and the severities of the practice have been diluted. The Caste distinctions have eroded, and the behaviour towards Scheduled Castes has changed tremendously. Caste distinctions have largely transformed into class distinctions, especially in urban and semi-urban areas. Inter-caste marriages have become the order of the day. Unfortunately, a few honour killings are being highlighted for sensation. A good number of persons belonging to the marginalised sections are working as priests in Hindu temples.
Granting Scheduled Caste status to converts by the Government is equivalent to the formal introduction of the caste system in Islam/Christianity. This raises a very important question of whether the Indian Parliament and the Judiciary are competent enough to change the basic tenets of those religions and whether such interference in the internal affairs of those faiths attracts relevant blasphemy laws.
As has been pointed out rightly by the Member Secretary of the Ranganatha Misra Commission, “notwithstanding that the religious tenets of Christianity and Islam do not permit it, and notwithstanding the fact that the very competence of the State – executive, Parliament, or even judiciary – to introduce ‘caste’ into religions that profess egalitarian regime” is questionable.
Real measures required to address the issues
Separate enclosures in Churches for “Dalits” or separate Cemeteries – are issues to be addressed primarily by the Christian religious leaders through reform within their system and through welfare and legal measures. In the case of Muslims, the non- adherence to the small family norm and abysmally low female work participation are responsible for the Muslim community’s relatively lower per capita income. The solution lies in rescuing the community from the clutches of the fundamentalist clergy. As The Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955 is a religion-neutral Act and applies to all religions and religious denominations throughout India, Christian and Muslim converts can fight against discrimination under this Act. The positive discrimination that was granted to certain Jaatis professing Hinduism categorized as Scheduled Castes was aimed at achieving the constitutional guarantee of equality. This must not be extended to other groups on any ground. The churches and mosques must be made accountable as they collect huge amounts of money from their followers. In view of the complaints by their followers, the State must intervene to end social discrimination and prevent the misappropriation of enormous financial resources at their disposal.
The following are some of the issues that are to be debated across the society before any hasty conclusions are drawn-
- Christianity and Islam proclaim that they are egalitarian and do not have castes. So, what explains the terms “Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims”?
- Both Christianity and Islam lured a large section of the SC population that there would be no caste discrimination. If a “Dalit Christian or a Dalit Muslim” continues to feel discrimination, what purpose did the conversion serve?
- Will the high and mighty of these religions admit that these religions are no different when it comes to social discrimination?
- Why are Islam and Christianity not held accountable for their discriminatory practices?
- The Abrahamic religions are playing both sides of the argument. They blame Hinduism for casteism, but until now, they are not accepting that casteism is there within their religions also. Do they accept that conversion does nothing to solve this social evil? Are they willing to give up their minority rights if SC status is extended to them?
- Discrimination against SCs in Islam and Christianity is for those communities to solve in their context. What is the role of the State in their internal affairs?
- How does extending SC status to converts solve the discrimination they face in their religions?
- Will not extending SC status to the converts usurp the privileges and special rights given to a section of the Hindu Society?
The REAL issue is about dismantling Hindu society, not social justice. Those who believe in Wokeism are spreading false narratives and creating confusion. It is not difficult for the Supreme Court of India to see the evil designs of those Breaking-India forces and protect the interests of millions and millions of innocent Scheduled Caste Hindus.
Dr. Bommaraju Sarangapani
Former Professor of Economics Machilipatnam,Andhra Pradesh