THE CENTRE has appointed a three-member commission, headed by former Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan, to consider the possibility of granting SC status to “new persons who have historically belonged to the Scheduled Castes’’ but have converted to religions other than Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
According to a notification issued Thursday by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, the commission will also include retired IAS officer Dr Ravinder Kumar Jain and UGC member Prof (Dr) Sushma Yadav as members. The commission will have to submit its report to the Ministry in two years, it said.
The Indian Express had first reported on September 19 about the Government’s move to set up a national commission to study the social, economic and educational status of members of SCs who have converted mainly to Islam and Christianity.
The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, stipulates that no person professing a religion different from Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism can be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste. The original order under which only Hindus were classified was later amended to include Sikhs and Buddhists.
The new commission has been set up at a time when the Supreme Court is hearing a PIL filed by the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), which has been fighting for SC status since 2020 — there have been numerous other cases filed in the apex court on the matter since 2004. In August, the Supreme Court had directed the Centre to submit its current position on the issue.
The contention of Dalit Christian and Muslim organisations has been that these communities continue to face discrimination. On Thursday, these organisations criticised the latest move by the Centre as a “delaying tactic’’.
The commission will also examine the implications of any decision in this matter on existing SCs, and the changes they go through on converting to other religions in terms of customs, traditions, social and other discrimination, and deprivation.
The Social Justice Ministry said “certain groups’’ have raised the question of revisiting the “existing definition of Scheduled Castes by according the status to new persons who belong to other religions beyond those permitted through Presidential Orders”.
The Ministry said that whereas there is a demand for inclusion by certain sections, representatives of existing Scheduled Castes have “objected to such granting of Scheduled Caste status to new persons’’.
“…this is a seminal and historically complex sociological and constitutional question, and a definite matter of public importance… given its importance, sensitivity and potential impact, any change in definition in this regard should be on the basis of a detailed and definitive study and extensive consultation with all stakeholders,” the notification said. “…no commission under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952…has so far inquired into the matter,’’ it said.
Opposing the move, NCDC president Vijay George said, “This is a delaying tactic by the Government, which clearly does not want to see a conclusion to this case. What was the need for another commission when there have been numerous commissions and committees in the past that have submitted reports to the Government, including the Ranganath Misra commission that ruled in favour of awarding such status. When Buddhists and Sikhs were accorded SC status, there were no commissions. This move is politically motivated and discriminatory on the basis of caste and religion.”
Echoing the NCDC’s opinion, All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz founder and former Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar, Ali Anwar Ansari, accused the Government of delaying the decision “so that it can get past the 2024 elections’’ without having to make a commitment on the issue.
Incidentally, over the past year, the BJP has made concerted efforts to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims. “But we had made it very clear to them that our support rests on the resolution of two issues. The first is that mob lynching, cow vigilantism and atrocities, where Pasmanda Muslims face the brunt, should be stopped immediately. The second issue was that of awarding SC status. I will be rallying the community over the coming week,’’ Ansari said.
National Dalit Christian Watch governing board member Richard Devadoss said Dalits who have converted to Christianity and Islam still face discrimination and atrocities. “While we continue to be treated as Dalits and face untouchability, we do not get the advantages of reservation and do not have the protection afforded by the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,” he said.
However, National Commission for SCs chairperson Vijay Sampla said it is not possible to make new inclusions in the SC list without a fresh study. “We need to see the parameters for reservation of these communities. We need to verify if they indeed face the discrimination that they claim to face,’’ he said.