The Supreme Court on Thursday held that a Dalit Christian or Muslim converting to Hinduism will be entitled to reservation benefits as long as it can be proved that his forefathers belonged to a caste categorised as a scheduled caste. This builds on an earlier judgement (Guntur Medical College versus Y. Mohan Rao) which held that a person need not be born a Hindu to get scheduled caste status. If his Dalit parents had converted out of Hinduism, he still legally regains the caste of his parents if and when he converts to Hinduism. The Mohan Rao verdict, however, set the limit at one generation: the parents had to have been Hindus once for the child to be eligible for scheduled caste benefits. Thursday’s ruling removes that limit: now scheduled caste benefits can be gained no matter how many generations back the Dalit ancestors left Hinduism, as long as the caste can be verified.

In these times of ghar wapsi this new judgement puts a formal judicial seal on the concept of “reconversion”. In fact, the word “reconversion” is explicitly used in the order. Not only that, it also seems to incentivise “reconversion” with the hook of scheduled caste reservations.

To be sure, the Supreme Court has not really broken new ground with the judgement: the government's scheduled caste affirmative action programme has been built explicitly on religious lines. In 1950, the Nehru government passed an order restricting the definition of “scheduled caste” only to members of the Hindu faith. The reasoning there was that caste is a feature of Hinduism alone. Oddly enough, the state soon extended the scheduled caste umbrella to Sikhs in 1956 and to Buddhists in 1990. Of course, neither religion has any formal concept of caste and puts paid to any logical consistency in this matter.

Caste discrimination

While discussing the eligibility for reservations, the judgement gets into a bind: it simultaneously upholds the opinion that caste discrimination goes away with conversion and does not go away with conversion.

“Once such a person ceases to be a Hindu and becomes a Christian, the social and economic disabilities arising because of Hindu religion cease and hence it is no longer necessary to give him protection and for this reason he is deemed not to belong to a scheduled caste,” says the ruling, in an attempt to explains why Christian Dalits are ineligible for reservations.

But later on, when trying to explain why a convert to Hinduism is eligible for reservation benefits, the ruling states that Schedules Castes ”embrace other religions in their quest for liberation, but return to their old religion on finding that their disabilities have clung to them with great tenacity”.

Brute majoritarianism

The judgement, therefore, succinctly illustrates the glaring inconsistencies in the Indian state’s majoritarian approach to scheduled caste reservations. At a time when a number of laws make it illegal for inducements in the matter of conversion, it almost seems like the Indian government is handing out incentives for a conversion programme of its own.

Moreover, the state’s assumption that conversion to Christianity or Islam wipes out centuries of caste persecution is empirically incorrect. As the judgement itself notes, caste discrimination is widespread amongst Indian Muslims and Christians, which recalls a Hindi pun: “jaati woh cheez hai jo kabhi nahin jaati” (caste never goes away). This is why a number of pressure groups are agitating for scheduled caste reservations to be extended to Christians and Muslims, even if the actual chances of that happening seem rather low as of now.

The communal approach to reservations by the Indian state also helps illustrate the deep problems with the gharwapsi programme now being carried out by the Sangh Parivar. A number of right-wing commentators have argued that there is nothing wrong with gharwapsi and every person has the right to propogate his religion.

In principle, that is correct. Mohan Bhagwat has as much as a right to preach Hinduism as Mother Teresa had to preach Christianity or Zakir Naik to preach Islam. The issue here is that there is no level-playing field: the state dangles carrots for conversions to Hinduism and brandishes a stick for conversions out of Hinduism. Given this environment, gharwapsi is not an exercise celebrating freedom of religion; it simply becomes a project in brute majoritarianism ‒ a majoritarianism that seems to have received a formal seal with the latest Supreme Court judgement.