Irrespective of their religious affiliations, the poorest among Christians and Muslims with Scheduled Caste origin (converted Christians and Muslims) continue to be confined to descent-based menial jobs — manual scavenging, washing, cremating/burying bodies, drumming, cobbling on road sides, working as agricultural slaves and so on.
They are denied the Scheduled Caste status because of what is written in the Constitution, and the problem should be addressed with consideration for human rights and based on reality.
Paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, states, “Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph 2, 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.”
This acts as a stumbling block in extending the Scheduled Caste privileges to them, even though their castes are listed in the Schedule of the Order. While it is widely argued that religion-based reservation should not be allowed, the above paragraph makes religion the main criteria for according the Scheduled Caste status.
Now, let us consider some myths and lay out the reality.
(1) Christianity and Islam do not recognise the caste system
For all practical purposes, untouchability exists among Indian Christians. Just as the upper caste Hindus, the dominant, elite Christians and Muslims (upper caste) also treat members of their religion with Scheduled Caste Origin as untouchables because of the menial jobs they do, the stigma of untouchability that gets attached to them through birth, and the casteist mindset of some sections.
No upper, dominant caste Christian, Muslim or Hindu will treat Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims as touchable and equal.
As per the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989, anyone/anything promoting untouchability should be prosecuted. Here again, the Hindu religion should not be treated as the only source instigating/recognising untouchability. It is wrongly interpreted that only Hinduism gives licence to practise untouchability and that the other religions do not as they link it to Hindu ideologies and dogmas about castes.
The caste system was introduced by some superior community’s hegemony and the order of Manu, that excluded Dalits from the four main Varnas and considered them as outcastes. Caste discrimination should not be linked to the Hindu religion.
Untouchability is visible not only in the sanctum sanctorum of all religious places, but also in rural areas at shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment, in the use of wells, tanks, common bathing places and roads, because it is an age-old traditional practice; it is even obvious in towns and metropolitan cities, because a majority of people are inherently casteist.
(2) Giving Scheduled Caste status to Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Caste Origin will affect the quota for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Scheduled Caste people
If the rich, educated, city-dwelling Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Scheduled Caste people, their dependants and descendants can avail of Scheduled Caste privileges without creamy layer restriction, because of the stigma of untouchability that their forefathers had faced for belonging to depressed communities, then the poor Christians and Muslims with Scheduled Caste Origin dwelling in villages and slums can also enjoy the privileges.
At the time of its promulgation, the Constitution (SC) Order, 1950, had approximately 601 caste names in the Schedule. Now, there are over 1,180 — over 500 castes from the backward communities have been added in the Scheduled Castes list since 1950 through amendments to the Order without increasing the quota for Scheduled Castes.
Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims don’t benefit from the Schedule simply because of their religion.
According to the order of the Ministry of Home Affairs dated May 2, 1975, on issuing Scheduled Caste and Tribe certificates (circular letter No: 35/ 1/ 72- RU (SCTV)), “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 deemed to have reverted to his original Scheduled Caste if he is accepted by the members of that particular caste as one among them.”
In effect, it means if a well-educated, socially, economically and culturally forward Dalit Christian reconverts to Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism, he will forthwith become socially, educationally, economically and culturally backward. Also, if he again converts to Christianity, he will become socially, educationally, culturally and economically forward. This is contrary to Articles 14, 15, 16 and 25 of the Constitution.
Following this circular, about 5 million Dalit Christians (from 1950 till the present day) have been forced to reconvert officially to Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism for availing Scheduled Caste benefits. The home ministry order and the interpretation of the anti-conversion laws of various state governments engender forced conversion for material benefits. This is nothing but religious allurement. The state is indirectly indulging in forcible conversion in a diplomatic way (by making people stick to Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism). This goes against the religious freedom offered by the Indian Constitution.
When Dalit Christians seek privileges, it is said the 15% quota would be insufficient. It is, however, argued that the reservation would be sufficient if all Dalit Christians convert to Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism; some even say the quota can be increased in such an event.
(3) Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Castes Origin want to benefit from both Scheduled Caste and religious minority rights
Buddhist and Sikhs of Scheduled Caste Origin can exercise rights as both religious minorities and Scheduled Castes. Many enjoy multiple other benefits simultaneously along with caste privileges — ex-servicemen, physically handicapped, linguistic minorities, women (gender-based reservation). In the same way, Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims can also avail of Scheduled Caste privileges along with religious minority rights.
(4) Sikhism and Buddhism do not recognise caste system, but Sikhs and Buddhists of Scheduled Caste Origin were given the Scheduled Caste status since the two religions are offshoots of Hinduism as per Article 25 (1) of the Indian Constitution
If Sikhism and Buddhism are the offshoots of Hinduism, then Sikhs and Buddhists of Scheduled Caste Origin could have been granted SC privileges in 1950 itself. There would have been no need to make separate amendments in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, Paragraph 3, in 1956 (for Sikh Dalits) and 1990 (for Buddhist Dalits).
As per Article 25 (1) that protects personal laws in matters such as marriages, etc, Sikhism and Buddhism are treated as offshoots of Hinduism; but as per the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 (Act approved by Parliament), Sikhism and Buddhism are separate religions.
Like Sikhs and Buddhists of Scheduled Caste Origin, Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Caste Origin should also be given the Scheduled Caste status through an amendment to the 1950 Order or by deleting, through amendment in Parliament or through judicial intervention, Paragraph 3 of the Order that denies Christian and Muslim Dalits the SC status.
(5) The extension of Scheduled Caste status to Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Caste Origin will lead to sudden mass conversion from Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism to Christianity and Islam
Absolutely not. When Sikhs and Buddhists of Scheduled Caste Origin were given the Scheduled Caste status in 1956 and 1990, respectively, Hindu Scheduled Caste people did not convert to Sikhism and Buddhism in large numbers. Similarly, providing the SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims will not result in mass conversion of Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Scheduled Caste people to Christianity and Islam.
The religious values of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists should not be disrespected and defiled with such wrong perception. Also, the self-respect, dignity, cultural and spiritual values of the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Scheduled Caste people should not be underestimated and degraded.
(6) Article 17. Abolition of Untouchability, and the demand for Schedule Caste status for Dalit Christians and Muslims
“Untouchability” has been abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability rising out of ‘untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable as per law.
Since the President of India abolished untouchability based on historical caste discrimination on January 26, 1950, (Articles 15 (1), 15 (2) (a), 15 (2) (b) bar all forms of untouchability), Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists of enumerated castes have availed of the Scheduled Caste status without creamy layer restrictions even if they are socially, educationally and economically advanced (because their caste names are listed in the Schedule).
Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Castes Origin should also been given the benefits as they, too, inherited the untouchability stigma because of the castes their forefathers belonged to. Moreover, the castes that these people belong to are listed in
Schedule. They should, therefore, be accorded the Scheduled Caste status status by declaring Paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, unconstitutional.
Discrimination based on caste affects over 250 million people in various countries, including the Dalits of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan; certain Buraku people of Japan, the Osu group among Nigeria’s Igbo people, Romas of Europe and some cluster of groups in Senegal and Mauritania. So, social exclusion is different from religious sanctioning. Casteism is found not only in India; it is prevalent globally. It should not be linked to Hindu, or any other, religion. Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Caste Origin inherit ‘impurity’ by birth because of the caste they belong to.
Racism is prevalent in America and Europe, even though African American people and the White people mostly follow Christianity. So, casteism and racism are different forms of social exclusion. They should not be linked with any religion, including Hinduism, which is a way of life.
Untouchability and apartheid prevail because of this social exclusion. They are descent- and job-based discrimination and should not be mixed with any religion.
(The author is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court and a representative of National Council of Dalit Christians)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)