Should Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians be granted SC status?

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Recently, the The Union government formed a three-member commission of inquiry led by India’s former Chief Justice, Justice KG Balakrishnan, to examine whether Scheduled Caste (SC) status can be granted to Dalits who have converted over the years to religions other than Sikhism and Buddhism. In a conversation moderated by Abhinay Lakshman, Soukhadeo Thorat and Subhajit Naskar discuss the issue. Edited excerpts:

Professor Thorat, what is the argument for including Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the SC category?

Soukhadeo Thorat: The reservation policy is different from the policies we have for the poor. Some groups are discriminated against on the basis of their race, colour, sex, ethnic origin, caste or religion and are therefore denied equal opportunities. Thus, special policies are developed for them to protect them from discrimination.

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Although Hindu SCs received a reservation, in 1956 Dalits who had converted to Sikhism received a reservation, and in 1990 Dalits who had converted to Buddhism also received a reservation. Thus, it is not only the Hindu “untouchables”, but also the “untouchables” converts to Sikhism and Buddhism who benefit from protection against discrimination. But Sikhism and Buddhism are considered part of Hinduism in the Constitution for specific purposes.

There is a demand that Dalits who have converted to Christianity and Islam should also be reserved. I believe that all groups who are discriminated against on the basis of their identity should be protected by law against such discrimination. Dalit Christians have been asking for a reservation for almost 20 years now. Churches in India set up a committee, studied the discrimination these people face and found that they live in a separate locality from the village and face discrimination in churches and in accessing Christian educational institutions and getting employment in these establishments. Limited evidence was also provided for Dalit Muslims.

Professor Naskar, what is the argument for denying them SC status?

Subhajit Naskar: Dr BR Ambedkar said that untouchability holds Hindu Dalits back and therefore they need protection. Now Islam and Christianity are very different from Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. They are Abrahamic traditions and have watertight religious segments. Nowhere does the Koran or the Bible mention untouchability or a hierarchy of castes unlike the texts of Hinduism which evoke the system of Varna. The Constitution provides reservations based on the experiences of those within the Hindu framework. Now, you might ask, what about Dalit Buddhists and Dalit Sikhs? The principles of Buddhism are different from the Abrahamic principles. Once we start interpreting religions through government-appointed commissions, it will lead to common discussion. And regarding the backwardness of Dalit Christians and Muslims, there is already a reservation in the state OBC (other backward classes) and central OBC lists. In fact, from 27% reservation for OBC, why do they want to move to 15% reservation SC? But having said that, I will say that there needs to be a separate reserve for religious minorities where Dalit Christians and Muslims can be accommodated.

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But what of the growing literature that defines caste not as a characteristic of a single religion, but as that of the civilizations of the Indian subcontinent?

Subhajit Naskar: You could argue that caste-based hierarchies have entered other religions. But regarding the constitutional attribution of the SC reserve, this argument cannot be a basis. It is religious minorities who have converted to these religions in the hope of entering into an emancipatory egalitarian framework and who have not done so. Within Muslim or Christian communities, discrimination is not what one might call untouchability; they are ethnic differences and segregations. Fr. Sanal Mohan, in Modernity of slavery, talks about the struggles against caste inequality in colonial Kerala and their appointment with Christianity. The experiences of converts within Christianity were different from those of Dalits within the Hindu or Buddhist fold.

Professor Thorat, given that in addition to caste discrimination, converts might also face other forms of discrimination due to internal hierarchies within the new religion, what types of discrimination the Commission Justice KG Balakrishnan should it consider when making recommendations?

Soukhadeo Thorat: Let me first clarify the point raised by my colleague. I think there is no theological difference between Buddhism and Sikhism, on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam, on the other, as long as the four religions believe in equality . Yes, the “untouchables” who converted to Buddhism and the “untouchables” who converted to Sikhism faced caste discrimination and were therefore reserved. Thus, it was accepted that although both religions believed in equality, the “untouchables” were discriminated against even after their conversion. There was evidence that ‘high caste’ and ‘low caste’ people converted to Buddhism and Sikhism and that ‘high caste’ converts continued to discriminate. If this is the case with Buddhism and Sikhism, there is no reason to say that this does not happen in Christianity and Islam. If there is discrimination, segregation, a kind of untouchability, these people need protection against discrimination. If the Constitution guarantees equality before the law, equal opportunity, the principle of non-discrimination, and if discrimination persists after conversion, it is an obligation in the context of the Constitution to provide protection under the form you wish to provide – reserve and law.

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Now, if the Supreme Court has asked the government to set up a committee, the focus of the committee should be on whether the “untouchables” who have converted to Christianity and Islam face caste discrimination. If there is no proof, there is no booking case. But if they are discriminated against by high caste Muslims and Christians, you must provide them with protection. I would therefore suggest that this Commission undertake a study and examine the forms of discrimination faced by “untouchables” who have converted to Islam and Christianity. And then see if they are discriminated against in the land market, labor market, education, etc. and it affects their poverty, their income, their employment. Then there will be a proper database whether the government takes a call for integration or not.

Professor Thorat, you spoke about the discrimination faced by converts in their new religious setting. But what about the discrimination these converts continue to face from Hindus who are aware of their caste identity? Should the Commission also take this into account?

Soukhadeo Thorat: You’re right. In Tamil Nadu, the “untouchables” who have converted to Christianity live in separate localities with those of the “untouchables” Hindus. Thus, they face discrimination not only from caste Christians but also from caste Hindus. We have less information about converts to Islam because it is an old conversion. But “untouchable” converts also face caste discrimination by “high caste” converts to Islam and high-ranking Muslims, such as the Khans. Thus, they face double discrimination, caste and religion, within Islam.

Professor Naskar, what aspects should the Commission consider when considering the possible impact of inclusion on existing SC communities?

Subhajit Naskar: It probably needs the Supreme Court or the government to have a bigger commission that can deliberate on whether these two religions have a hierarchy framework, which is along the line of caste or caste hierarchies. Additionally, the “Dalitness” of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians must be socio-anthropologically proven, as SCs are not a religious category, but historically depressed classes are added to the list of SCs. If nothing like this exists in these two religions, it gives rise to another question, whether there can be a demand within this framework of reserve. The Commission should also look into the possible backdoor entry of Muslims to challenge SC reserved seats by pushing Dallit Muslims (who are already on the OBC list) to the SC list. Existing SCs on the roster will be deprived of fair competition in the seats reserved for SCs.

Much of the debate has focused on whether Dalit Christians and Muslims should be included in the SC category. But much of the demand is also included in the SC list so that they can be protected under the SC and ST (atrocity prevention) law.

Soukhadeo Thorat: Whether they need legal protection or whether they are included in the Atrocity Prevention Act will depend on the nature of the discrimination, which the Commission must determine. I am in favor of separate anti-discrimination laws and separate reservations, not just part of CS.

Subhajit Naskar: Following the atrocities committed against Muslims and Christians, they should be protected by a minority protection law modeled on the SC and ST (prevention of atrocities) law.

Sukhadeo Thorat is the former Chairman of the University Grants Commission and Emeritus Professor at JNU; Subhajit Naskar is Assistant Professor at Jadavpur University

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