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On reservations for Dalit Christians and Muslims, a question of government’s intent

Satish Deshpande writes: A fresh study on caste among Christians and Muslims is needed, but the existing evidence already shows that the Dalits among them suffer from the same kind of social discrimination as Hindu or Sikh Dalits

Despite a rare consensus that there is no administrative, rational or moral reason to treat Dalits of different religions differently, no government has addressed this issue.

Reports that the Union government intends to appoint a national commission to study the status of Dalits (ex “untouchable” castes) belonging to the Muslim and Christian communities is, to the say the least, intriguing. It is hard to imagine why this government might want to (or even want to appear as if it wants to) include these “alien” religions in the reservation policy when they were explicitly excluded from the Hindu rashtra by the founding father of Hindutva, V D Savarkar.

Even if the motivations behind it may be murky, the move itself is welcome because the issue is crystal clear. This was established through a 2008 review-study commissioned by the National Commission of Minorities (NCM) and housed in the Sociology Department of Delhi University. (Full disclosure: I was the principal author of this study, still available on the NCM website at Conceived at the initiative of NCM member Zoya Hasan (with the support of the then chairperson, Hamid Ansari), it was formalised under the chairmanship of M S Qureshi. The remit of the study was to conduct a comprehensive review of already existing social-scientific evidence that might offer answers to three questions:

One, what is the contemporary status of Dalit Muslims (DMs) and Dalit Christians (DCs) in terms of their material well-being and social status? Two, how does their situation compare with that of: a) non-Dalits of their own communities, and b) Dalits of other communities? And three, do the caste disabilities suffered by these groups justify state intervention?

The study reviewed two main kinds of available evidence, ethnographic-descriptive and macro-statistical, in addition to semi-academic NGO reports and publications. The only original (that is, freshly conducted) part of the study was an extensive analysis of the unit-level data from the (then) latest large-sample survey of the National Sample Survey Organisation (61st Round of 2004-05).

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The survey of ethnographic materials began with the finding that the existence of caste divisions – including the presence of ex-“untouchable” castes recognised as such – among both Muslims and Christians – was beyond dispute. DMs and DCs were identified and segregated much like their counterparts in the Hindu or Sikh communities. (The case of Buddhism is different because the overwhelming majority – around 95 per cent — of India’s Buddhists are Dalits.) As expected, there was significant variation in specific practices of discrimination and segregation across regions and communities, but this is common to Hinduism and Sikhism as well.

Evidence was tabulated on five forms of caste-based social discrimination – the practice untouchability; enforced ban on inter-marriage; occupational segregation; social and cultural segregation and finally, economic discrimination. In each of these sites of discrimination, strong evidence was found to prove that DMs and DCs suffered broadly the same treatment as their fellow Dalits in other religions. The most common instances were separate mosques or churches (or hierarchically segregated seating); separate burial grounds; strict prohibition on inter-marriage with very severe punishments (sometimes extending to murder) for breaking this taboo; and general avoidance of social interaction and cooperation.

The original analysis of the NSSO unit-level data employed five criteria for measuring relative economic status: Proportions of population in poverty or affluence; intra-community differences between Dalits and non-Dalits; average levels of consumption; occupational structure; and finally, educational levels. The main findings were that DMs are clearly the worst off among all Dalits, while DCs are somewhat better off than other Dalits except Sikh Dalits (who are by far the best off, especially in the rural sector). As expected, DMs and DCs were significantly under-represented among the affluent and over-represented among the poor. The quantitative section was only indicative since it was handicapped by the small number of households in the NSSO sample that met the double criteria of religion and caste, and by the variations in self-reported official categories.


There is a circularity about the lack of data that needs to be emphasised. Official national-level data – usually more reliable than other kinds – does not exist on DMs and DCs because they are not recognised as Scheduled Castes. Responding to petitions seeking recognition, the courts accept that “caste survives conversion” but complain about the lack of reliable data. No recognition, no data; no data, no recognition.

But the larger reality here is that the refusal to recognise DMs and DCs is not because of data, or administrative-financial issues. Informal guesstimates (based on the 2001 Census and the 2004-05 NSSO survey) place the proportion of DMs at 1 per cent or less of the Muslim population, and DCs as anything between 40-50 per cent of the Christian population of India. As per the 2011 Census, Muslims are 14.2 per cent and Christians 2.3 per cent of our population. Taken together, DMs and DCs are likely to form less than 2 per cent of the total Dalit population of India, more than 90 per cent of which is Hindu. Adding DMs and DCs will not rock the boat of reservation, since the increment will be roughly one-fifth of the 10 per cent reservation readily granted to the upper castes as the Economically Weaker Sections.

To use a newly-famous word, the real issue here is the kartavya (duty) of the Indian state. A fresh study is definitely needed, but the existing evidence already shows that DMs and DCs suffer from the same kind of social discrimination as Hindu or Sikh Dalits. Like Muslim and Christian scripture, Sikh and especially Buddhist scripture do not recognise caste. Therefore, granting Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists reservation while denying it to DMs and DCs is plain hypocrisy. In India, every Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh also has a caste identity, whether chosen or imposed. And in every single community without exception, the Dalit vs non-Dalit divide is the most intensely and brutally patrolled border between social groups.


Despite a rare consensus that there is no administrative, rational or moral reason to treat Dalits of different religions differently, no government has addressed this issue. The reason for this is, of course, politics. It is wise to remember that “study commissions” are a classic device of evasion and suffer widely varying fates. We must wait and see if the government will walk its talk.

The writer teaches at Delhi University. He was the principal author of the 2008 review-study commissioned by the National Commission of Minorities (NCM) on reservations for Dalit Christians and Muslims. Views are personal

First published on: 19-09-2022 at 19:17 IST
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