The church should have studied and discussed the judgment in detail before rushing to welcome it
Indian protesters from a Hindu nationalist organization take part in a protest against a caste-based reservation system in education and employment in Amritsar on April 10, 2018. (Photo: AFP)
India’s Supreme Court’s upholding of economic criteria for granting education and employment quotas to privileged upper castes could be the final nail in the coffin of the country’s affirmative action program for historically underprivileged such as Dalits or former untouchables and tribal indigenous peoples.
The Syro-Malabar Eastern Rite Church deserves its share of the blame for missing the woods for the trees by hailing the decision and expressing its willingness to ignore historical injustices unleashed on marginalized sections of Indians in the name of the system of castes.
For centuries, people from the lowest strata of Indian society have been excluded from public life. The idea of education and employment reservations for “outcasts” was to allow them to have a level playing field with the so-called upper castes.
The framers of India’s constitution, fully aware of the endemic poverty in the country, decided that the criteria for reservations should be the social poverty a community faces, not economic poverty.
However, a presidential decree in 1950 limited the affirmative action program only to people of the Hindu religion on the grounds that the caste was practiced only by them. It excluded people of all other religions from the benefits.
The order was changed twice later to include lower caste people who had become Buddhists and Sikhs. But Christians and Muslims of lower-caste origin continue to be excluded on the logic that, unlike Hinduism, Christians and Muslims formed an egalitarian society.
“It would effectively amount to reserving a 10% quota exclusively for people from upper castes, to the exclusion of all others from lower castes”
The ethnic lower caste Christians, who make up 60% of Indian Christians, suffer from all the limitations of lower caste Hindus because a change of religion has done nothing for their social poverty, as several studies show. But their demand for booking benefits has been ignored by successive governments.
Last month, the Supreme Court appointed another commission to study the implications of including Christians on the reservation list.
It takes some explanation to see how these two judgments are linked in the case of the socially poor Indian Christians.
The Supreme Court’s Nov. 7 judgment said 10% of seats for education and jobs in government-run institutions will be reserved for economically weak sections (EWS) of communities not covered by the current system for people lower caste, tribal people and other backward castes (OBC).
This would effectively amount to reserving a 10% quota exclusively for people from the upper castes, to the exclusion of all others from the lower castes.
The vast majority of lower caste Christians are Protestants and Latin Rite Catholics, while St. Thomas Christians of Kerala, including the Syro-Malabar Church, consider themselves to be of upper caste origin.
The Nov. 7 ruling makes EWS people among St. Thomas Christians eligible for reservations with other upper castes of the Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions.
Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, chairman of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Public Affairs Commission, welcomed this saying that the Supreme Court’s order saying it will “open the door to justice for those who were deprived of their [reservation quotas or affirmative action] benefits for ages.
Incidentally, Bishop Thazhath was elected president of the national bishops’ conference last week.
“The 10% reservation for upper castes based on economic criteria destroys the reservation policy”
It may appear that the order will open the benefits of the reservation to all SAPs not covered in the previous reservation categories, and therefore Christians of Dalit background will also benefit. But the reality is different.
Dalit Christians fall under castes specifically named in a list in the constitution – called Scheduled Castes or (SC) – and SCs are covered in the caste reservation and will therefore be excluded from the 10% reservation allocated to higher castes. If they need the benefits of the 10% reserve, they must declare that they are not from a lower caste.
However, economically weak Christians among St. Thomas Christians can benefit from the Last Judgment because they are not listed in the SC, Scheduled Tribe (ST), or OBC categories.
By allowing the judgment, the Christian community abdicates its ability to demand reservation benefits for Dalit Christians.
There are other issues. The reservation of 10% for upper castes on the basis of economic criteria destroys the policy of reservation, which was intended to end the historical injustices perpetuated by Hinduism and its centuries-old social order of exploitation based on the caste system. It now indirectly reiterates the caste system.
The current dispensation that rules the country is working towards establishing Hindutva – a nation based on orthodox Hindu principles that advocate a caste system with the upper caste at the top of the social hierarchy.
The reservation policy focusing on the elevation of SCs, STs and OBCs was introduced for three specific reasons. First, to end the historical injustice that Hindus have perpetrated against them; second, to support the inclusion of these communities in all democratic processes and institutions; and third, to ensure adequate representation of these historically excluded peoples.
Reservations were never intended as a tool for economic progress.
The decision also appears to be skewed from a justice standpoint. So far, the reservation policy has reserved 50% of all existing jobs and teaching seats for SCs, STs and OBCs. In previous judgments over the past few decades, courts have said that reserving more than 50% of seats would undermine the efficiency of the system, as at least 50% would have to remain based on merit.
Therefore, SCs, STs and OBCs, who constitute about 75% of India’s 1.3 billion people, were given a 50% quota. From now on, the upper caste, which represents 25%, will benefit from 10% of the quota. The weakest sections among the upper castes are estimated at about 3.5% of their population, which means that 3.5 can enjoy 10% of the pie.
Upper castes already dominate the remaining 40% of education and employment quotas. The extra 10% will only add to their dominance. It is estimated that of the 49.5% of seats actually available in the general competitive category, 33.5% are occupied by the upper castes.
Two of the judges wrote a different note on the 3:2 split verdict citing some of those reasons. The Indian Church should have studied the dissenting note and held wider discussions before welcoming the judgement.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.