Decolonising the caste question: Reservations for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians

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As an integral part of India’s continued modernity, caste is not merely a phenomenon restricted to rural areas or in extreme cases manifested in caste-related violence. It is a part of everyday affairs in modern institutions, public spaces and community life, where it represents a contingent element in social relations.

To grapple with the unique problem of caste endemic to the subcontinent, India made explicit constitutional and legal provisions for compensatory discrimination for the advancement of the historically depressed and socially backward sections of the society. India has long strived to strike a balance between its commitment to an overarching conception of equality for all, and the imperatives of compensatory discrimination in favour of specified castes and communities who have been historically relegated to the margins of the society, and against whom the forward castes have monopolized power and resources. Compensatory discrimination, popularly known as reservation, endeavours to actualize Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s prophetic aspiration of substantive equality. For those who thought that these two objectives are incompatible, India proved that such a course is not only feasible, but also desirable as it strengthens the democratic process itself.

More than seven decades of Indian experience of compensatory discrimination did, however, give rise to multitudinous theoretical, constitutional and legal issues vis-à-vis the contemporary reservation policy. One such question awaiting answers from the apex court, legislators and public imagination at large is that of the status of Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity. The apex court has been hearing a bunch of petitions arguing the delinking of caste reservation from religion. The progress came following a hearing in Supreme Court on August 30 where Solicitor General Tushar Mehta promised to submit the Union Government’s stance within three weeks on the possibilities of extending reservations to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.

Characterizing Dalit Muslim and Dalit Christian communities

Before addressing the intricacies of a prospective inclusion of Dalit Muslim and Dalit Christian communities in the existing reservation policy, it is imperative to discern ‘Dalit Muslims’ and ‘Dalit Christians’ as authentic social groups, and the challenges inherent in presupposing that only clearly dileanated social groups exist. Despite enduring discourses about social hierarchy and socio-political activism, and a generalized have-nots versus elite rhetoric that underlies assertions of community coherence and demands for amelioration, no established, homogeneous groups can be identified as Dalit Muslims or Dalit Christians for either scholarly investigation or policy planning. Rather, diversity, status ambiguity and ongoing social change processes provide the most cogent characterization of Dalit Muslim and Dalit Christian communities in India today. Ethnic mobilizations, social stratification and issues of social justice are dominant themes in today’s sociological, anthropological and political discourses on modern India. Nowhere do these themes intermingle as exhaustively as in the expanding discourse on Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.

Unearthing a long pending injustice

As stated before, the plight of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians is falling upon sensitive ears after long because of the ongoing petitions before the Supreme Court. In response, the government of India has appointed a three-member commission headed by former Chief Justice of India and former chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) K G Balakrishnan to consider the inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians as Scheduled Castes (SCs). Earlier, the Attorney General had submitted before the Supreme Court that the government lacks data on the two minority groups. The crucial question before the constitutional bench of the apex court is the validity or lack thereof of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, sub-clause three under Article 341, which expressly forbids the inclusion of persons who follow a religion other than Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The said clause must be assessed against the fundamental rights of equality before the law and non-discrimination based on religion, race, or caste. Under the existing condition, Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians stand discriminated against, while Dalit converts to Sikhism and Buddhism in addition to Dalit Hindus hold eligibility for the constitutional policy of reservation.

Both the Government of India and the Supreme Court have been rendered a historic opportunity to unearth a long pending injustice. The problem endures as the colonial understanding of the relationship between caste and religion persists. The British colonial administration firmly believed that caste was an exclusively Hindu phenomenon since the scriptures of any other religion did not extend legitimacy to this birth-based hierarchy perpetuated through the apparatus of endogamy. Hence, only Hindus were allowed to be included in the Scheduled Castes as part of the Government of India Act of 1935. Consequently, in India’s post independence polity, the Presidential Order of 1950 gave a new lease of life to caste-religion congruence by relying on the same criteria. The two amendments to include Sikhs and Buddhists in 1956 and 1990 respectively, did not strike at the underlying premise. The Scheduled Castes order is a shining example of the colonial understanding of the institution of caste which is immovable even after 75 years of independence from foreign rule. Thus, there is a historic opportunity before the Supreme Court and the Government of India to decolonise the understanding of caste by quashing Clause 3 of the Presidential Order.

For decades, it has been the endeavour of the political executive to hide behind the excuse of a lack of data. It is very apparently, a vicious cycle of the absence of data paralysing policy formulation. However, once the inherent discrimination in the Constitution is removed, all other steps will follow independently. The inclusion of castes would happen on a case-to-case basis, using data collected by the Registrar General of India.

Unsurprisingly, the claim that there is no data on these caste groups is also not tenable. Several studies have underlined the persistence of caste or caste-like hierarchy among Muslims and Christians after conversion to these religions and the existence of a group of people at the bottom facing untouchability.

Previous efforts towards inclusion of Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity among SCs

After 1990, a number of Private Member’s Bills were introduced on the floor of the Parliament for the stated purpose. In 1996, a government Bill called the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Orders (Amendment) Bill was drafted, but in view of a divergence of opinions, the Bill was not introduced in Parliament.

Additionally, the UPA government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up two important panels: the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, popularly known as the Ranganath Misra Commission, in October 2004; and a seven-member high-level committee headed by former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Rajinder Sachar to study the social, economic, and educational condition of Muslims in March 2005.

The Ranganath Misra Commission, which submitted its report in May 2007, recommended that SC status should be “completely de-linked…from religion and…Scheduled Castes [should be made] fully religion-neutral like…Scheduled Tribes”.

On the other hand, the Sachar Commission Report observed that the social and economic situation of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians did not improve after conversion. The report was tabled in both Houses of Parliament in 2009, but its recommendation was not accepted in view of inadequate field data and corroboration with the actual situation on the ground.

Also, a detailed 2008 review-study commissioned by the National Commission of Minorities (NCM) and housed in the Sociology Department of Delhi University, authored by the Sociologist Satish Deshpande analysed the question of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians on multiple levels. One, what is the contemporary status of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in terms of their material well-being and social status? Two, how does their situation compare with that of: a) non-Dalits of their own communities, and b) Dalits of other communities? And three, do the caste disabilities suffered by these groups justify state intervention?

The study reviewed two main kinds of available evidence, ethnographic-descriptive and macro-statistical, in addition to semi-academic NGO reports and publications. The only original part of the study was an extensive analysis of the unit-level data from the (then) latest large-sample survey of the National Sample Survey Organisation (61st Round of 2004-05).

On the basis of these studies, the courts have time and again accepted that “caste survives conversion” but complain about the lack of reliable data. There is a circularity about the lack of data that needs to be emphasised. Official national-level data – usually more reliable than other kinds – does not exist on Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians simply because they are not recognised as Scheduled Castes.

It has been established beyond dispute that Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians face social indignities much like their counterparts in the Hindu or Sikh communities. (The case of Buddhism is different because the overwhelming majority – around 95 per cent — of India’s Buddhists are Dalits.) As expected, there is visible and significant variation in specific practices of discrimination and segregation across regions and communities, but this is common to Hinduism and Sikhism as well.

Inconsistency in the religion-based bar on converted marginalized people

The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) website states, “The rights of a person belonging to a Scheduled Tribe are independent of his/her religious faith.” Moreover, following the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, several Christian and Muslim communities have found place in the central and state lists of OBCs. Thus, this religion-based bar on converted marginalized people exists only to the detriment of converted Dalits and not the STs and OBCs.

BJP, Savarkar, and a change of mind

While the BJP has always attacked Congress-led Governments with the Muslim-appeasement jibes, the political observers argue it is now BJP’s turn to prove otherwise for themselves. The far-right organisation has historically opposed such steps towards extending reservation to the Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity.

During the debates on Ranganath Mishra commission, BJP leader Nitin Gadkari slammed the then Government for appeasement and called for throwing the reports to the dustbin. Interestingly, BJP has always been against such reservations to any religious group that they consider ‘alien’.

Their ideological forefather V D Savarkar’s idea of conflating ‘holy land’ and ‘father land’ as the determining ground to be ‘Indian’ doesn’t allow Muslims and Christians to be ‘fully Indians’ despite their centuries of belonging.

Conclusively, while the step to organise this panel is being interpreted as a welcome move by many, some vociferous voices believe that it is another effort of the BJP to weaken the unity among Muslims through the caste card. They argue, it is necessary to contextualize this step as in the last few years the world has witnessed the unity of Indian Muslims several times against legislations that pitted them against the current ruling dispensation.

However, even if the motivations behind it may be murky, the move itself is welcome because the issue is crystal clear. At this juncture in India’s post independence polity, it’s a gross injustice upon the integrity of the Constitution of India to exclude marginalized groups discernible as Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians from the constitutional policy of reservations that aspires to enable equitable conditions for progress and opportunities for every section of the society. The Supreme Court and the Government of India must assess the debate from the perspective of decolonising the question of caste through interpreting the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, sub-clause three under Article 341 of the Constitution of India in the same light.

Additionally, the concepts of ‘Dalit Muslims’ and ‘Dalit Christians’ as cohesive groups remain the product of discursive processes and rhetorical pronouncements rather than well-defined consensus. In the end, what remains are enduring discourses

about social stratification and socio-political activism that construct and reinforce convoluted narratives of oppression focused on an as-yet abstrusely defined Dalit Muslim and Dalit Christian communities in India. It should be the endeavour of scholarly investigation and public policy to address these unique experiences in greater depth and preclude possibilities of homogenizing these varied experiences.

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