Why a CPI(M) MLA in Kerala is facing disqualification, and what next

The court agreed that Raja was a Christian belonging to the Church of South India (CSI) church

A Raja, Devikulam MLA, Idukki
CPI(M) MLA from Devikulam in Kerala, A Raja, will move the Supreme court against an order annulling his election win from a reserved seat. File photo.

A young CPI(M) MLA from Devikulam constituency in Kerala’s Idukki district is set to move the Supreme court against a High Court order annulling his election victory and disqualifying him from contesting from a reserved seat.

Raja is not the first legislator from Kerala to move the apex court after being tripped by the high court.

Interestingly, a majority of them got favourable orders from the Supreme Court and continued to be members of the respective houses.

In Kerala’s very first Assembly, Devikulam in Idukki district witnessed the disqualification and re-election of an MLA, Rosamma Punnose, the legendary communist leader.

Rosamma Punnoose was sworn in as the first member of the Kerala Assembly and chosen the protem speaker in 1957 when Devikulam was a two-member constituency.

Rosamma wins again

But BK Nair, the rival candidate, filed a lawsuit in the high court, claiming that his nomination had been rejected unlawfully.

The next year, Devikulam hosted Kerala’s first byelection after the court declared the election invalid. Rosamma Punnoose triumphed again, this time with a thumping majority.

Congress leader and former union minister Kodikkunnil Suresh, the sitting MP of Mavelikkara, is another one who successfully defended his election in the top court.

Suresh’s case is almost similar to the 36-year-old Raja, and is sure to boost the confidence of the young Marxist leader.

In 2010, the high court had ruled that Suresh’s election to the reserved parliamentary seat of Mavelikara in 2009 was invalid as he did not belong to the Scheduled Caste community. He was declared ineligible to run for the reserved seat.

Suresh’s case

According to the court, Suresh had made contradictory claims regarding his caste. Since the MP converted to Christianity, he was not eligible for the benefits of being a member of the Scheduled Caste.

However, the Supreme court set aside this ruling and said a man who has converted to Christianity can claim the status of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe on his reconversion to Hinduism if he is accepted by his original community as a member of the SC/ST caste.

“The case of the appellant is that in four earlier elections, the voters of a constituency reserved for SC have elected him from the constituency and this conduct show that the members of the SC have accepted him back to the fold of his original caste, namely the Cheramar community,” read the judgement.

In Raja’s case, the high court has relied on two aspects — his grandparents were migrants from Tamil Nādu who had been living in Idukki district as estate labourers and that his family had converted in to Christianity.

The fact that his family did not have title deeds for any land in Kerala too seems to have contributed to the verdict. The court found that he was not eligible to contest from a constituency reserved for SC in Kerala though he belongs to a caste which has SC status in Tamil Nadu.

Raja saga

The court accepted the contention of petitioner D. Kumar who lost to Raja that the latter was a Christian belonging to the Church of South India (CSI) church.

The petitioner argued that Raja is the son of Antony and Esther, who are Christians baptised by the CSI Church in 1992 in Kundala estate even though he was born in 1984.

Esther died on October 13, 2016 and was buried at the CSI Church in Kundala estate. Raja married Shiny Priya, also a member of CSI Church in accordance with Christian religious rites. The caste certificate filed with the nomination issued by Tahsildar, Devikulam, depicted the respondent as Hindu Parayan was not correct.

Admitting all these as facts, the court ruled him ineligible to contest from a seat reserved for Hindu scheduled caste.

“Those who support social justice and representative democracy shouldn’t be thrilled by the Kerala High Court ruling. This ought to lead to more extensive debates and reservations-related actions,” said senior journalist K Sunilkumar. He added that Raja allegedly producing a fake caste certificate was “a technical issue”.

1950 order

According to a 1950 order, only scheduled castes within the Hindu religion are eligible for reservation. Even though this was amended to accommodate neo- Buddhists and Sikhs, the law has not included Christians or Muslims. This amounts to religious discrimination, said Sunikumar.

“In fact, Indian Dalits are scattered across religions and all of them should have the right to reservation. To qualify for reservation (benefits), many from (some) religions re-convert. Conversion and re-conversion are not uncommon among Dalits. There are Hindus and Christians in the same family,” he added.

A commission led by K G Balakrishnan, a former Chief Justice of India, has been appointed by the Union government to investigate the feasibility of granting SC status to individuals who were previously part of scheduled castes but converted to religions other than Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

The Union government had told the Supreme Court that it opposed the findings and suggestions of the Ranganath Mishra commission to include them among scheduled castes as the report lacked adequate fieldwork. Many critics of the government saw this as a move to pre-empt a possible adverse order from the top court. (There was even a petition filed in the SC, challenging the government’s decision to set up the commission.) The court found no merit in it.

The second aspect of the high court order against A. Raja is the validity of caste status from another state.

“It is alleged that the respondent is not a member Hindu Parayan in Kerala. The grandparents of the respondent on the paternal side are Pushpam and Lakshmanan, who were residents of Thirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, and migrated to Kerala in 1951 (present Idukki district). Hindu Parayan is a SC in Tamil Nadu. Hence, they cannot claim to be a member of SC Hindu Parayan in … Kerala,” read the court order.

Tamil origins

“The descendants of Pushpam and Lakshmanan also cannot claim to be a member of Hindu Parayan in Part VIII of Schedule to the Order, 1950,” it said.

The fact of the matter is that in Munnar and Devikulam area of Kerala, a majority of the people are migrants from Tamil Nādu. Tamil is their language and they are predominantly Dalits. As they had come to Kerala as estate labourers and the plantation owners arranged for their lodging, most did not bother about having revenue documents.

Landlessness is the basic issue here, Prabhaharan K. Munnar, a research scholar from Raja’s area, told The Federal. ‘In fact, the people here are neither referred to as Hindus or Christians but ‘Estatukaar’ (those who belong to tea estate). There are people who follow Christianity and Hinduism, in the same family, and they are least bothered about it in daily life.

“These estate guys even have their own customs, mostly leftovers of the colonial period, like hosting high tea for weddings and all. (In Raja’s case, the fact that he wore a suit on his wedding day proved crucial in the court as it was taken as his Christian identity.) But in Munnar and Devikulam, it is normal for all religions,” said Prabhaharan.

In Kerala’s history, the high court has annulled election results 15 times. Ten of these were overturned by the Supreme Court. Three orders were upheld; in the other two, the court proceedings outlived the members’ term in the house. Raja’s battle in the Supreme Court will be eagerly followed.