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The case for extending constitutional protections to Muslim and Christian Dalits

Christophe Jaffrelot, Phillip Varghese write: They are primarily Dalits and their Muslim and Christian identity is secondary, as evident in several cases of atrocities against Dalits

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot , Phillip Varghese |
Updated: April 26, 2022 8:56:52 am
Giving Dalit Christians and Muslims access to reservation would make the competition tougher for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits.

An inter-ministerial dialogue has recently taken place to reassess the possibility of setting up a national panel to look into the merit of the demand to extend Scheduled Caste (SC) status to Muslim and Christian Dalits. After Independence, the Constitutional Order of 1950 listed SCs and STs using the list mentioned in the Government of India (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1936. The order specified that no person professing a religion other than Hinduism could be deemed as a member of a Scheduled Caste community. The idea was that religions other than Hinduism did not have a caste system.

This argument can no longer be defended for two reasons.

First, the order was amended in 1956 to include Sikh Dalits and again in 1990 to include Buddhist Dalits, notwithstanding the fact that these religions were supposed to not observe caste discrimination.

Second, Muslim and Christian Dalits are as affected by caste discrimination as Hindu Dalits. They are primarily Dalits and their Muslim and Christian identity is secondary, as evident in several cases of atrocities against Dalits. The majority of the victims in the Kandhamal, Karamchedu, and Tsundur massacres and in the recent incidents of violence reported from 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 converting to Christianity, their socioeconomic status had not improved. In fact, it had worsened because, in the process, they lost access to positive discrimination.

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This is also evident 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 represent 8 per cent of their community and Dalit Christians, who constitute 23.5 per cent of their community, were over-represented among the poor of India. In rural India, 39.6 per cent of the Dalit Muslims live below the poverty line and 46.8 per cent of the Dalit Muslims in urban parts of the country are below the poverty line. The corresponding figures for Dalit Christians are 30.1 and 32.3 per cent. By contrast, 29.2 per cent of Muslims in rural India and 41.4 per cent of Muslims in urban parts of the country are BPL. Rural and Urban Dalit Christians below the poverty line were 16.2 and 12.5 per cent respectively.

Dalit Muslims and Christians have sometimes been 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, the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission Report recommended that the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, should be revised to delink SC status with religion, and religion-neutral status should be given to all Dalits and Scheduled Tribes. It also suggested a sub-quota of 8.4 per cent for minorities within the OBC quota of 27 per cent, as well as a reservation for Dalit minorities within the Scheduled Caste quota of 15 per cent.

The Mishra Commission report and the National Commission for Minorities report were tabled in Parliament in December 2009. Both were in favour of extending constitutional protection and safeguards to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims that are available to their counterparts who profess Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Governments have, however, not acted on these recommendations.

They have argued against these reports — despite the empirical evidence they have collected — citing the paucity of disaggregated data on Dalit Muslims and Christians and contesting the validity of conversion records across generations. This contradicts the fact that 20 states have extended benefits to Dalit Muslims and Christians under the OBC category, following the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. The continued exclusion of Muslim and Christian Dalits from the benefits of 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, relies on criteria such as social status, standing in the community, marginalisation, discrimination, violence and social exclusion.

How can one explain the government’s obstinacy? It’s something that dates back to 1950. Among the few things that keep Hindu Dalits from converting is that they retain the benefits of reservation. If reservation becomes universal, they would be less hesitant to accept the materialistic offers given by missionaries for converting. This could lead to a fall in the numbers of the country’s Hindu population — something that worries a lot of Hindu organisations.

While the Constitutional Order of 1950 could be amended regarding Indian religions like Sikhism and Buddhism, the same relaxation of the rule cannot apply to “foreign religions”– this is a clear indication that communalism is now influencing this important issue. Besides,
giving Dalit Christians and Muslims access to reservation would make the competition tougher for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits.

Therefore, these groups do not lobby in favour of their brothers from Dalit Christian and Dalit Muslim communities.

In January 2020, the Supreme Court accepted a petition filed by the National Council of Dalit Christians on the matter. But the judiciary has not yet given its ruling on the contentious issue of reservation for Dalit Christians and Muslims.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 26, 2022 under the title ‘A continuing exclusion’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London. Varghese is assistant professor, Department of Political Science & International Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Delhi

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