The Centre is contemplating setting up a new national panel to study whether benefits provided to Scheduled Castes (SC) can be extended to the Dalits among Christian and Muslims, said news reports. In short, should Dalits who had converted to Christianity and Islam get SC benefits at all?
Historically, while Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits enjoy SC status, those from Christian or Muslim communities do not, according to a presidential order issued under Article 341 of the Constitution in 1950 and amendments thereafter. Moreover, if any section of the SCs converted to Christianity or Islam, they would immediately lose their SC status and benefits such as reservations.
This proposal for a new panel stems from a number of ongoing cases in the Supreme Court on this issue. The latest petition has been filed by the National Council of Dalit Christians in January 2020, asking that the SC status be made ‘religion neutral’ and discontinue this practice of basing SC benefits on religion. A notice has been issued by the apex court to the Centre on this matter.
The composition of the panel and their subject of study
This new three-member panel is likely to be headed by a Union minister and will have a former judge of the apex court or High Court and a retired central government secretary on the board.
What the panel would study is whether they could include SC people who have belonged to that community for generations but converted to religions other than Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. They would examine the impact of these new additions into the current SC population. The panel would also delve into the changes in terms of customs, social, economic and other status discrimination a SC person underwent after conversion and how it would affect the person if they were granted a SC status.
Historical reasons and earlier commissions
One of the reasons why the SC status was given to Hindus was largely because the Centre worked on the premise that the practice of untouchability largely prevailed in this religion. They later brought Sikhs and Buddhists under this umbrella. But Muslim and Christian Dalits were not included.
The 2007 Ranganath Mishra Commission had recommended that the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 should be deleted and a person’s SC status should not be linked with his or her religion. It had suggested that religion-neutral status should be granted to all Dalits, like it is done in the case of Scheduled Tribes.
The Centre however rejected the study stating the lack of a field study or data on the subject. And also because the Commission had not examined the impact on the existing SCs if more people were to be added. Also, a 2008 study commissioned by the National Commission for Minorities, also arrived at the conclusion that there was a solid case for granting SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. The government however did not consider the data reliable, and the study was rejected.
There is no census data available on the number of SCs who converted to Islam and Christianity. Since it may be challenging to find out all the conversions across generations, the need for a full-fledged commission to conduct a deep evidence-based probe and data backed study had become necessary and a proposal in this regard has already been placed before the government, said news reports.