The case for extending constitutional protections to Muslim and Christian Dalits


An inter-ministerial dialogue has recently taken place to reassess the possibility of setting up a national panel to consider the merits of the request to extend Scheduled Caste (SC) status to Dalits Muslims and Christians. After independence, the Constitution Ordinance of 1950 listed SCs and STs using the list mentioned in the Government of India (Scheduled Castes) Ordinance of 1936. The Ordinance specified that no person professing a religion other than Hinduism could not be considered a member of a scheduled caste. caste community. The idea was that religions other than Hinduism had no caste system.

This argument can no longer be defended for two reasons.

First, the ordinance was amended in 1956 to include Sikh Dalits and again in 1990 to include Buddhist Dalits, notwithstanding that these religions were supposed to observe no caste discrimination.

Second, Muslim and Christian Dalits are as affected by caste discrimination as Hindu Dalits. They are mainly Dalits and their Muslim and Christian identity is secondary, as evidenced by several cases of atrocities against Dalits. The majority of the victims of the Kandhamal, Karamchedu and Tsundur massacres and recent violent incidents reported in Tumakuru, Belagavi, Mandya and Bagalkot in Karnataka were Dalit Christians. These victims were attacked not because they were Christians but because they were “untouchables” who had converted to Christianity. Despite their conversion to Christianity, their socio-economic status did not improve. In fact, it got worse because, in the process, they lost access to affirmative action.

This also emerges from the few available surveys.

In 2008, a study commissioned by the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) and co-authored by Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna — “Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities — A Status Report on Current Social Scientific Knowledge” — showed that Dalit Muslims, who make up 8% of their community, and Dalit Christians, who make up 23.5% of their community, were overrepresented among India’s poor. In rural India, 39.6% of Dalit Muslims live below the poverty line and 46.8% of Dalit Muslims in urban areas of the country live below the poverty line. The corresponding figures for Dalit Christians are 30.1 and 32.3%. In contrast, 29.2% of Muslims in rural India and 41.4% of Muslims in urban areas of the country are BPL. Rural and urban Dalit Christians below the poverty line were 16.2 and 12.5 percent, respectively.

Muslim and Christian Dalits were sometimes forced to bury their dead in separate cemeteries. Churches have segregated against Dalit Christians in the past.

The Sachar Commission report observed in 2006 that the social and economic situation of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians did not improve after conversion. In 2007, Judge Ranganath Mishra’s Commission Report recommended that the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Ordinance 1950 be revised to de-link SC status from religion, and that a neutral status in matters of religion be granted to all Dalits and Scheduled Tribes. He also suggested an 8.4% sub-quota for minorities under the 27% OBC quota, as well as a reserve for Dalit minorities under the 15% Scheduled Caste quota.

The Mishra Commission Report and the National Commission for Minorities Report were tabled in Parliament in December 2009. Both were in favor of extending constitutional protection and safeguards to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims who are the disposition of their counterparts who profess Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Governments, however, did not act on these recommendations.

They objected to these reports – despite the empirical evidence they collected – citing the lack of disaggregated data on Muslim and Christian Dalits and challenging the validity of conversion records across generations. This contradicts the fact that 20 states have extended benefits to Muslim and Christian Dalits under the OBC category, as recommended by the Mandal Commission. The continued exclusion of Muslim and Christian Dalits from the benefits of the reservation, solely on the basis of religion, violates the equality provisions of Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. Reservation, according to the Constitution, is based on criteria such as social status, status in the community, marginalization, discrimination, violence and social exclusion.

How to explain the stubbornness of the government? This is something that dates back to 1950. Among the few things that prevent Hindu Dalits from converting is that they retain reservation benefits. If reservation became universal, they would be less reluctant to accept materialistic offers made by missionaries to convert. This could lead to a drop in the number of the country’s Hindu population, which worries many Hindu organizations.

While the 1950 constitutional order could be changed with regard to Indian religions like Sikhism and Buddhism, the same relaxation of the rule cannot apply to “foreign religions” – this clearly indicates that communalism influences now this important question. Outraged,
giving Christian and Muslim Dalits access to the reservation would make competition tougher for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits.

Therefore, these groups do not lobby on behalf of their brethren from the Dalit Christian and Dalit Muslim communities.

In January 2020, the Supreme Court accepted a petition filed by the National Council of Dalit Christians in this regard. But justice has not yet ruled on the contentious issue of the reservation for Dalit Christians and Muslims.

Jaffrelot is senior researcher at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at the King’s India Institute, London. Varghese is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Studies, CHRIST (Reputed University), Delhi


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