In the wake of the Modi government forming a commission to reevaluate reservations for Dalits, Ambedkarite intellectuals are debating whether Muslim and Christian Dalits should be included in the Scheduled Caste list. Much of the opposition stems from the contention that Dalit Muslims and Christians do not face the same level of caste oppresssion as Dalit Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs.
However, many others have strongly contested this claim, arguing that reservations should be religiously neutral and that the caste oppression faced by Dalits does not go away on changing religion.
At present, only Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits are eligible for reservations in jobs, education and legislatures under India’s Scheduled Caste quota. This is according to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950, a Presidential order which lists all Scheduled Castes. Initially, Paragraph 3 of the order stated that only Hindus could avail of reservations. In 1956, the text was amended to include Sikhs and in the 1990s to include Buddhists.
However, pressure groups have long argued that the list should include Muslim and Christian Dalits.
In 2004, a case was filed in the Supreme Court by several petitioners, including the non-governmental organisation Centre for Public Interest Litigation, arguing that limiting the Scheduled Caste category to certain faiths amounted to discrimination on the basis of religion. In August, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to file a response to the case by October 10.
On October 6, the Centre appointed a three-member commission to examine whether the Scheduled Caste category should be expanded to include Muslims and Christians. The commission, comprising former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan, former Indian Administrative Service officer Ravindra Kumar Jain and University Grants Commission member Sushma Yadav, will submit its report within two years.
Since the formation of the commission, several Ambedkarite activists have opposed the inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Caste list.
One argument being put forward is that many Dalit Muslims and Christians already get reservations under the Other Backward Classes category. “Most Dalit Christians and Muslims are part of central or state OBC list,” said Ashok Bharti, Chairman of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations. “They are already enjoying the benefits of reservation. So they cannot say they are not reserved.”
They also question the need for these groups to get Scheduled Caste reservations, which are provided to communities that faced untouchability, given that the activists argue that Islam and Christianity are caste-agnostic religions.
“They [Islam and Christianity] offered freedom from untouchability and humiliation to Dalits,” said Bharti, who has come out strongly opposing the inclusion. “It has been their [religious leaders] public stance that they do not believe in caste.”
Shubhajit Naskar, an assistant professor at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, has also opposed including Dalit Muslims and Christians under the Scheduled Caste category, by citing the egalitarian nature of these faiths. “Nowhere does the Quran or the Bible mention untouchability or a caste hierarchy unlike texts in Hinduism, which mentions the Varna system,” he wrote in The Hindu.
Further, intellectuals argue that from the inception of the Scheduled Caste category, Muslims and Christians were not envisaged to be a part of it. “Even during Constituent Assembly debates, Muslims and Christians did not ask for becoming a Scheduled Caste,” Bharti said.
Arvind Kumar, a PhD scholar of political science at the University of London, agreed with Bharti. “[In] the Constituent Assembly debates, it has been said that who will be Scheduled Caste, who won’t be Scheduled Caste,” he told Scroll.in. “If anything has been rejected by the Constituent Assembly, then it can’t be brought back even through a Constitutional amendment. It would amount to rewriting and destroying the Constitution.”
Bharti ascribed this demand to political pressures. “I suppose that largely the Muslims and Christians want to use the Scheduled Caste entitlement to go to the Parliament [or state assemblies],” he said. At present, Scheduled Castes have 84 seats reserved in the Lok Sabha, along with having seats reserved in state assemblies and local body elections.
Bharti said that in states such as Uttar Pradesh, areas that are dominated by Muslims are reserved for Scheduled Castes. “There are allegations that Scheduled Caste reservations were used as a tool to gerrymander,” Kumar added.
He said that the call for including Muslims in the Dalit category started from 2004 and so this inclusion is not a “genuine concern”. “Since the rise of the BJP, politics has been communalised and the representation of Muslims is declining,” Kumar said.
A valid demand
However, other activists and intellectuals have disagreed with this characterisation of reservations. They argue that reservations are religion neutral and that oppression faced by Muslims and Christians continue to exist after they convert.
“If you look at all reservations [OBC, EWS] they are religion-neutral,” said Khalid Anis Ansari, associate professor of sociology at Azim Premji University. “Only the Scheduled Caste category is not religiously neutral.”
Ansari argues that religion cannot be the primary identifier in policy making, and therefore, affirmative action has to be based on social backwardness and not religion. “The demand for [including] Dalit Muslims came in 1994 and [the demand for] Dalit Christians started even eariler,” he explained. “The idea is not about legislative or other things [benefits]”, but about challenging the constitutionality of the religious ban.
Further, people who oppose this inclusion “do not see that Dalit Muslims and Christians are going through a lot of oppression despite being converted”, said Shalin Maria Lawrence, an Ambedkarite activist and writer from Tamil Nadu.
Lawrence disagreed with the argument that conversion to Islam or Christianity makes caste disability disappear. “A Dalit is a Dalit everywhere: in Christianity or Islam or Buddhism,” she said. For instance, Lawrence pointed out, many of the manual scavengers in Chennai are Christians.
Snehashish Das, a PhD scholar and the general secretary of Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association at Jawaharlal National University, Delhi, said that untouchability is not a watertight phenomenon but a social phenomenon. Therefore, “we have to assess it not just on core religious text but also on society’s response” to those who have converted, Das said.
However, the law does not recognise this social reality. “Currently, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, does not apply to us,” Lawrence pointed out.
Further, this status will help Dalits across religious lines avail other benefits, such as Stand-Up India Scheme, a loan facility given specifically to Scheduled Castes, Lawrence said.
Conversion and competition
Several scholars argue that the opposition to including Dalits Muslims and Christians as Scheduled Castes is also based on two factors that have little to do with social justice: anxieties around conversion and competition for existing quotas.
“In terms of social justice, no one has any case against Dalit Muslims and Christians,” Ansari said. “But people do not approach these categories only through social justice. There are also interest-based interventions.”
Ansari pointed out that the opposition to this inclusion has till now come from two groups. One is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindutva outfit, and the other is Ambedkarite intellectuals such as Bharti, Naskar and Kumar. “They [the opponents] have anxieties about conversion” and about religions such as Islam and Christianity that is “shared by the ruling parties”.
However, Arvind Kumar disagreed with this characterisation. “Since I wrote the article [criticising the inclusion] people are labeling me that now you’ve gone to RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] camp,” he said. The RSS is the parent organisation to several Hindutva groups including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the VHP.
Opposition could also result from the fact that including Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Caste quota would reduce opportunities for those who can currently avail of them. “The opposition is based on certain anxieties and misconceptions, like the 50% cap,” said Das. The Supreme Court has previously held that reservations should not exceed 50%, except in exceptional circumstances.