You Can Change Your Religion, Not Your Caste

Dalit Muslims and Christians need reservation as much as the other Dalits

2013-10-05 , Issue 40 Volume 10, Tehelka

Aggrieved Pro-reservation activists protesting in New Delhi

Pro-reservation activists protesting in New Delhi. Photo: Pushkar Vyas

A Scheduled Caste (SC) Christian friend — a convert from the Parayan Dalit community of Tamil Nadu — is distraught that his country views him as a second-class citizen. He suffers socio-economic discrimination as a Dalit, and yet, as a Christian, he is denied the benefit of reservation and other concessions granted to SCs of the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions. His anguish encapsulates the injustice meted out by the State to the SCs among Christians and Muslims.

Aristotle had observed centuries ago that justice implied the equal treatment of similar persons. Embodying this concern, Article 15 of the Constitution empowers the State to make special arrangements for the advancement of socially and economically backward citizens, specifically the SCs and the Scheduled Tribes (STs). However, the State’s stance on Dalit converts from Hinduism blatantly violates this sacred canon. The endorsement of SC status for Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists but denial of this status to Dalit Christians and Muslims is tantamount to sanctioning discrimination on the basis of religion.

The Constitutional (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, circumscribed the scope of the wide-ranging colonial term “depressed classes”, now defined as “Scheduled Castes”, by excluding non-Hindus, thereby reflecting a clear bias in favour of the majority religion. This was at sharp variance with what our first President Dr Rajendra Prasad and our first PM Jawaharlal Nehru perceived to be the constitutional provisions.

The grant of SC status to Dalit Sikhs in 1956 and Dalit Buddhists in 1990 is actually the culmination of a pattern of thought enshrined in the Constitution, which clearly distinguishes between Indic religions and those originating elsewhere. The explanatory note under Article 25 unambiguously states that “the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain and Buddhist religions”. Although the Constitution has sanctified the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion, the 1950 Constitutional Order, as amended from time to time, has penalised Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity for their religious beliefs. A circular issued by the home ministry in May 1975 states that “where a Scheduled Caste person gets converted to a religion other than Hinduism or Sikhism and then reconverts himself back to Hinduism or Sikhism, he will be declared to have reconverted to his original Scheduled Caste.” The intent is to protect the dominant religion’s hegemony by penalising SCs who convert to Christianity or Islam but restoring their privileges if they return to the fold. In effect, the State has legitimised discrimination against Dalit converts.

The philosophy underlying the 1950 Constitutional Order and its amendments bears an uncanny resemblance to right-wing fundamentalist thinking. Veer Savarkar, a leading Hindutva ideologue, had explicitly distinguished between the indigenous, Indic religions and those that originated elsewhere. A key concept is that besides Hinduism, Bharatvarsha has also given birth to the religions of the Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, who are all in this sense Hindus. Conversely, Muslims and Christians are foreigners in this country, which rightly belongs to Hindus. Tragically, a similar quasi-racial bias is evident in the denial of SC status to Dalit Muslims and Christians.

It’s a myth that SCs who convert to these religions no longer face any social stigma or prejudice. Caste consciousness is a part of our everyday lives; however hard we may delude ourselves, we are all scarred by it. An irrational belief in Dalit inferiority is embedded in our culture. Dalits, irrespective of their religious beliefs, have similar narratives of oppression as victims of historical prejudice, hatred and violence. Caste still influences the way social and economic privileges are enjoyed and determines the nature of human interaction. Being at the bottom of the hierarchy, the Dalits reap the whirlwind of an iniquitous system.

Mahatma Gandhi had said, “Whether the harijan is nominally a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, he is still a harijan… He may change his garb and call himself a Catholic harijan or a Muslim harijan or a neo-Sikh, his untouchability will haunt him during his lifetime.” Dr BR Ambedkar asked the rhetorical question: “What good is Christianity for a Hindu if it does not do away with his caste?” India’s most distinguished sociologist and social anthropologist, MN Srinivas, noted that “conversion to Christianity only changed the faith but not the customs, the general culture, or the standing of the converts in society”.

Significantly, the Supreme Court has underlined the obdurate hold of caste in our society. In the S Ambalagan vs Devarajan (1984) case, the court observed: “He never lost his caste when he embraced another religion… this appears particularly so in the case of Scheduled Castes who embraced other religions in their quest for liberation but return to their old religion on finding that their disabilities have clung to them with great tenacity.” You can change your religion, but caste is part of your DNA, immutable and eternal.

The intellectual elite and the media have steered clear of this issue because acknowledging injustice would morally bind them to do something about it. They also clearly wish to avoid confronting the communalists for a marginal group of Dalits. The numerous dharnas and protest marches by these disaffected, powerless citizens barely get a mention in the media.

Significantly, in 1996, the Narasimha Rao government had approved an amendment to the 1950 Order to include Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam as SCs, but the proposed Bill was not introduced in Parliament due to alleged procedural lapses. Following the adjournment of Parliament, an ordinance was proposed but not promulgated as the General Election had been announced. The shoddy handling of the proposal raised suspicions that it was deliberately aborted by the Rao government.

The aggrieved Dalits filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 2004 for redress of this injustice. Almost 10 years on, the case still hangs fire. On 9 September this year, it was adjourned without a hearing. This has happened every time the case has been listed, with the government counsel almost invariably seeking adjournment. There seems to be an unspoken understanding to postpone a verdict indefinitely.

Discussing the pending writ petition, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs in February 2011 “decided that based on data that will be collected in the 2011 Census, government will institute further studies and thereafter consult with state governments and other stakeholders”. Clearly, the government’s intent is to keep this issue in limbo forever.

The Supreme Court has always maintained that reservation and other affirmative actions should be based on the social and educational backwardness of a group, its social degradation and inadequacy of representation, but not on religious considerations. In the case of Soosai vs Union of India (1985), the court observed that in order to establish that the 1950 Constitutional Order discriminates against members of a particular caste, “it must be shown that they suffer from a comparable depth of social and economic disabilities and cultural and educational backwardness and similar levels of degradation within the community necessitating intervention by the State…”

Data compiled by the National Sample Survey Organisation shows that Muslim Dalitsare the worst off among all Dalits, with 48.08 percent illiteracy in rural areas and 31.7 percent in urban areas; 39.6 percent are below the poverty line in rural areas and 46.8 percent in urban areas. In contrast, 7.6 percent among Dalit Sikhs are below the poverty line in rural areas and 24.8 percent in urban areas. A 2008 study by the National Commission for Minorities concluded that Dalit Christians and Muslims“were invariably regarded as inferior by their co-religionists… discrimination includes social and cultural segregation expressed in various forms of refusal to have any social interaction; endogamy expressed through the universal prohibition on Dalit-non-Dalit marriages and through severe social sanctions on both Dalits and non-Dalits who break this taboo… segregation extends to the sphere of worship, with separate churches being almost the norm among Dalit Christians and not uncommon among Dalit Muslims”.

On the basis of cold facts, it would be impossible to deny SC status to Dalit Muslimsand Christians. To argue that the caste system is not recognised in these religions is to blind oneself to the reality. Then, it’s also contradictory to justify granting SC status to Dalit followers of Sikhism and Buddhism, which also doctrinally abjure caste.

In the ultimate analysis, this issue is the acid test of our nation’s commitment to a secular polity.

Abdul Khaliq is General Secretary, Lok Janshakti Party