The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre to respond to a plea seeking to extend reservation benefits to Dalits who have converted to other faiths, The Indian Express reported.

A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul, AS Oka and Vikram Nath directed the government to file its response within three weeks.

The plea filed in 2004 by non-governmental organisation Centre for Public Interest Litigation claims that the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950, which was amended to say that only Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs will be considered to be Scheduled Castes, is unconstitutional, as it discriminates on grounds of religion, Live Law reported.

At the hearing on Tuesday, Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing on behalf of the NGO, cited the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission report released in 2007, which said that Dalits in other religions are subjected to the same discrimination as in Hinduism.

“Even though Christianity and Islam do not recognise caste system or untouchability, the ground reality in India is different,” the report had noted. “Persons of Scheduled Caste origin converted to Christianity/Islam continue to be subjected to disabilities, including untouchability associated with caste and occupation, as they continue to be part and parcel of the Indian society.”

Bhushan told the court that there is an apprehension that if Dalit Christians are made eligible for reservation, they would corner most of the reserved seats as they have access to quality education in Christian institutes. Bhushan added that to address this concern, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes has suggested reservations be provided as per the population of respective communities – a kind of sub-reservation.

To this, Justice Kaul said whether “reservation within a reservation” would be constitutionally permissible for the Scheduled Caste category, was a matter of contention.

“In the OBC [Other Backward Classes] category it has been done but whether it can be done in the SC category will be another question of law,” he said, according to Live Law.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing on behalf of the Centre, apprised the court that the United Progressive Alliance government in 2007 had not accepted Justice Mishra’s report on grounds that it did not take several factors into account.

Mehta further said that the broad question in the case was whether a Dalit would have the same status after conversion.

“Would a Dalit, after being converted into Christianity, voluntarily or involuntarily…still continue to get the benefits of a Dalit?” Mehta asked, according to The Indian Express. “Because generally, the conversion is to ensure that some ill-effects of being a Dalit is taken away.”

The court will hear the case next on October 11.