After years of it remaining confined to academic discussions, the prospect of Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Muslims and Christians suddenly feels real. The last month has seen much activity on the question.

The Union government’s appointment of a commission under KG Balakrishnan on October 8 has received much press coverage. However, it is not well known that the government did not set up the commission of its own accord but after the Supreme Court asked it to respond to an ongoing case.

On August 30, the Supreme Court had listed the case of M Ejaz Ali vs Union of India, combining a batch of public interest litigations from Muslim and Christian groups demanding Scheduled Caste status. Some of these petitions go as far back as 2004.

Denial and opposition

While the anticipation of Scheduled Caste status brings hope for the most marginalised Muslim and Christian communities as it will allow them to access reservations in educational institutions and government jobs, it is also met with denials and opposition from several spheres.

Predictably, groups the like All India Muslim Personal Law Board, who have claimed to represent Muslims for decades, are mum on the question. Ashok Bharti of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations wrote a letter opposing it. Key Dalit leaders such as parliamentarian Thol Thirumavalavan and Communist Party of India leader D Raja have supported the inclusion.

Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati has not said anything as of now, but her letter from 2007 supporting Dalit Christian groups’ demand to amend Article 341 is pertinent. Article 341 of the Constitution outlines the notifying of groups, castes or tribes as Scheduled Castes.

The case for the inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste list is clear: conversion did not change their caste status and they continued to face untouchability as well as the indignity and the atrocities that Hindu Dalits face.

Academic studies, activist groups, and national-level commissions and reports led by Rajinder Sachar, Ranganathan Mishra, Elaya Perumal and Satish Deshpande and others, have all underlined this, reiterating that Muslims and Christians should not be excluded from Scheduled Caste list based on religious grounds.

‘Casteless’ India

Instead of arguing why Christians and Muslims can be Dalits, a more fundamental question is: who gains from keeping Dalits “Hindu”?

The answer is rooted in two larger narratives of modern India that are in friction with each other and yet operate simultaneously. The first is of upper-caste leaders attempting to obfuscate caste as the fundamental organisational structure of Indian society. The second is the importance of numbers of groups in modern forms of governance, and with it the frantic attempt to incorporate Dalits into the idea of “Hindu”.

When India became independent, most of its leaders were upper-caste Hindu men. Without attacking the roots of caste – and often celebrating it as the culture or diversity – they built the narrative that India could become casteless only if it stopped talking about caste as a problem. (More on that in this article in the Economic and Political Weekly.)

This “castelessness” helped members of the upper castes position themselves as meritorious, deserving leaders, hiding the undue power and privilege they held in society. Thus, in 1950, Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel discontinued the counting of caste disaggregated data in the census, arguing that collecting data on caste groups would be akin to making caste stronger.

The Scheduled Caste category has been the most prominent sore spot in this fabled narrative of casteless India. It is a strong constitutional declaration that gives opportunities to the most marginalised communities in public education, politics, and employment and also grants them protection against atrocities. It refuses to bury the question of caste in matters of equality and justice. This is why, ever since the Scheduled Caste category was formed, it has constantly come under attack from the upper castes, who have been most prominent in their constant opposition to reservations.

Brahmin boys hold up their threads, during prayers in this photograph from 2021. Credit: Reuters.

This is also where the handling of caste among Muslims and Christians is more significant to the upper castes’ handling of caste than might be assumed. The “casteless” state has done its best to deny caste – but when it absolutely cannot, in the case of Dalits and the Scheduled Caste category, it has gained from keeping caste “Hindu”.

The impulse to deny the importance of caste in today’s world and to refute it as a key feature around which Hindu religion is formed is also the same impulse that wants to keep caste Hindu. So as long as Muslims and Christians are deemed casteless, caste can remain Hindu, and with that, the historically untouchable and occupational castes can be deemed Hindu as well.

Muslim and Christian Dalits find themselves facing a dual denial of caste. Their political and theological leaders have insisted there is no caste among them claiming theological equality as this helps them to maintain power.

Matter of numbers

The narrative of specific castelessness among minority religions helps the larger castelessness prevalent among national politics since the advent of the 20th century.

This specific castelessness of the minority religions then makes it possible for the larger performative castelessness to be transformed into a Hindu/non-Hindu binary, deepening the division between Indic and non-Indic religions, and creating a unified Hindu majority. The overarching focus on religion instead of caste helps upper-caste elites across the religious spectrum.

Caste as endogamous groups based on purity, pollution and separation predates the present-day notion of Hinduism as it is understood today. Works such as those of historian Robert Frykenberg show how various stakeholders such as Western orientalist scholars, Brahmin-led revivalist movements, nationalist leaders and census enumerators in the 19th and 20th century played a role in incorporating significant sections of Dalits into the larger Hindu identity.

Anthropologist Joel Lee provides substantial sources between 1870 to 1930 to illustrate that untouchable sanitation workers called Lal Begis formed a socio-religious community different from the modern-day neatly defined categories of Hindus and Muslims. Caste, thus, needs to be understood as a perpetual social phenomenon in the subcontinent with its practices rather than analysing it through the framework of Indic versus Abrahamic or religious versus non-religious.

Even the concern for untouchables in the early and mid-20th century was prompted by the anxieties of Hindu upper-caste men because the British had agreed to count untouchables as a separate class in the British census. This was a time when the British were introducing various representative systems where numbers of groups suddenly became key.

The Muslim upper-castes projected a unified idea of Muslims and argued for untouchables to not be counted as Hindus. Hindu upper-castes, in turn, responded by speaking of reforms, which was a way to stake the inclusion of untouchables in the Hindu fold.

The post-Independence method of only allowing Dalits who identify as Hindu to get Scheduled Caste status has been a continuation of this impulse. It perpetuates the consolidation of a Brahmanical Hindu identity by gradually subsuming diverse sets of traditions and people, and keeps Dalits divided along the lines of religion. Most importantly, it denies equal citizenship rights to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.

Shireen Azam and Sumit Samos are research scholars at the University of Oxford.