Ghar wapsi but conditions apply

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Religion is a right, but caste is a privilege. Or so it would seem from a series of Supreme Court rulings in cases concerning reconversion to Hinduism. For the right conferred by the Constitution is to “propagate religion”, not caste. Conversely, one has a right to convert to any religion — or even reconvert to one’s earlier religion. This does not however mean, irrespective of the claims made by Ghar Wapsi campaigners, that one can automatically go back to one’s old caste or that of one’s ancestors.

The Supreme Court judgments are all categorical that the question of caste, which is integral to Hinduism, can be decided neither by the individual concerned nor by those performing any of the rituals of reconversion. The decision is in the hands of members of the caste that the reconverted person wants to join. Though they have no statutory status, caste associations will determine whether the re-converted person can join their fold. This has far-reaching implications for a dalit returning to Hinduism, who is the main target of Ghar Wapsi.

Such a dalit will be entitled to reservations, whether in educational institutions, jobs or elections, only if there is evidence establishing that he has been accepted back into his former caste. Thus, even if he were born in it, caste is not a right he can demand but a privilege conferred on him by others.

One of the more recent judgments reaffirming this distinction between religion and caste in the context of reconversion was on an election dispute. The 2010 verdict was authored by Justice HL Dattu, who is now the Chief Justice of India. Dattu upheld an appeal filed by a reconverted dalit who had won from a reserved constituency in the 2006 Tamil Nadu Assembly election. The appeal filed by M Chandra was against a Madras high court decision setting aside her election on the ground that she had falsely claimed to have re-converted from Christianity to Hinduism and that she was therefore not eligible to contest from a constituency reserved for dalit Hindus.

Dattu found merit in Chandra’s contention that though her father remained a Christian she had been brought up as a Hindu by her Hindu mother following the separation of her parents. She had formally converted to Hinduism through Arya Samaj and married a member of the Hindu Pallan community, which is listed as a scheduled caste. The clincher was that Chandra, an AIADMK MLA, had also obtained a certificate establishing her acceptance in the Hindu dalit community of Pallans.

The latest adjudication in the apex court on the interplay between reconversion and caste related to the election of Congress candidate Kodikunnil Suresh in the 2009 Lok Sabha election from a reserved constituency in Kerala. In a 2011 judgment authored by Justice A K Patnaik, the Supreme Court said: “The fact that the appellant has been elected four times from the Adoor Parliamentary Constituency reserved for the scheduled caste is a very strong circumstance to establish that he has been accepted by the members of his caste after his reconversion to Hinduism.”

All such rulings are in keeping with the law laid down in 1976 by a five-judge Constitution bench in a case involving reservations in an educational institution. Somebody who had been born as a Christian was allowed to take admission in Guntur Medical College in the SC quota as his parents had reconverted to Hinduism and rejoined the fold of the Madiga caste. The judgment written by Justice PN Bhagwati said: “It is for the members of the caste to decide whether or not to admit a person within the caste. Since the caste is a social combination of persons governed by its rules and regulations, it may, if its rules and regulations so provide, admit a new member just as it may expel an existing member.”

The discretion left to caste associations arises from the peculiar nature of Hinduism, acknowledged by the Supreme Court in several cases. Indeed, if Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion, unlike Christianity and Islam, it is because of this caste complexity. And since most of the conversions from Hinduism had been of oppressed castes, the process of reconversion is tied up with the reservations policy.