The central government has notified a Commission under former Chief Justice of India and former chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) K G Balakrishnan “to examine the matter of according Scheduled Caste status to new persons, who claim to historically have belonged to the Scheduled Castes, but have converted to religions other than those mentioned in the Presidential Orders issued from time to time under Article 341 of the Constitution”.
The three-member Commission, also comprising retired IAS office Dr Ravindra Kumar Jain and University Grants Commission member Prof Sushma Yadav, will also “examine the implications on the existing Scheduled Castes, of adding such new persons as part of the existing list of Scheduled Castes”.
The Commission will submit its report within two years.
As of now, the benefits of reservation are available only to Dalit Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. Several petitions are pending before the Supreme Court seeking reservation benefits for Dalits who converted to Christianity or Islam.
What is Article 341, and why don’t Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam get quota benefits?
The rationale behind giving reservation to Scheduled Castes was that these sections had suffered from the social evil of untouchability, which was practised among Hindus. Under Article 341 of the Constitution, the President may “specify the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within castes, races or tribes which shall…be deemed to be Scheduled Castes”.
The first order under this provision was issued in 1950, and covered only Hindus.
Following demands from the Sikh community, an order was issued in 1956, including Sikhs of Dalit origin among the beneficiaries of the SC quota.
In 1990, the government acceded to a similar demand from Buddhists of Dalit origin, and the order was revised to state: “No person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, the Sikh or the Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste.”
Does this religion-based bar apply to converted STs and OBCs as well?
It does not. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) website states, “The rights of a person belonging to a Scheduled Tribe are independent of his/her religious faith.”
Following the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, several Christian and Muslim communities have found place in the Central and state lists of OBCs.
What efforts have been made to include Muslims and Christians of Dalit origin among SCs?
After 1990, a number of Private Member’s Bills were brought in Parliament for this purpose. In 1996, a government Bill called The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Orders (Amendment) Bill was drafted, but in view of a divergence of opinions, the Bill was not introduced in Parliament.
The UPA government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up two important panels: the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, popularly known as the Ranganath Misra Commission, in October 2004; and a seven-member high-level committee headed by former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Rajinder Sachar to study the social, economic, and educational condition of Muslims in March 2005.
The Sachar Commission Report observed that the social and economic situation of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians did not improve after conversion. The Ranganath Misra Commission, which submitted its report in May 2007, recommended that SC status should be “completely de-linked…from religion and…Scheduled Castes [should be made] fully religion-neutral like…Scheduled Tribes”.
The report was tabled in both Houses of Parliament on December 18, 2009, but its recommendation was not accepted in view of inadequate field data and corroboration with the actual situation on the ground.
A report by a team of sociologists led by Satish Despande, titled Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities — A Status Report on Current Social Scientific Knowledge, said in January 2008 that there was a strong case for extending SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. However, the study, which was commissioned by the National Commission for Minorities, was also not considered reliable due to insufficient data.
What view did the BJP take on this issue before it came to power?
In February 2010, the BJP national executive passed a resolution criticising the Misra Commission. It said that the “Commission cannot dictate or thrust its opinion on the Christian Pope or Muslim maulvis…reservation would amount to a formal introduction of a caste system in Islam and Christianity, thus changing the basic tenets of these religions, which is outside the jurisdiction of both Parliament and the judiciary and also contrary to the provisions of the Koran and the Bible.”
Back in 1961, the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS), the highest decision making body of the RSS, had said: “If any scheme of separate reservation…of different sects is sought to be envisaged for political purposes, it will prove highly detrimental to national unity…” In 1990, in response to Christian demands for reservation on the lines of neo-Buddhists, the ABPS said “the Constitution makers envisaged these concessions only to remove caste-based discrimination and inequality prevalent in Hindu society…”.
What happens here onward?
Based on the recommendations of the Ranganath Misra Commission, there are some petitions pending before the Supreme Court, seeking reservation benefits for Christians and Muslims of Dalit orgin. In the last hearing on August 30, a three-judge Bench headed by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul gave the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta three weeks’ time to present the stand of the Union government on the issue.
The next hearing is scheduled for October 11, and the government is likely to formally apprise the court of the notification of the Justice Balakrishnan panel.