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By The movement to get Dalit Christians into the Scheduled Castes net has gained momentum. V. Kumara Swamy looks at both sides of the debate
  • Published 11.09.13

If Hindu Dalits can get the manifold advantages of affirmative action, so should Christian Dalits. That demand has been around for years, despite the fact that Christianity is not caste-based and there are no “Dalits” in the community.

The movement to get “Dalit” Christians (Dalits who converted to Christianity) under the Scheduled Caste umbrella got a fresh impetus recently when Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging the Centre to include Dalit Christians in the list of Scheduled Castes and bring them on a par with Dalit Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists.

“The social tensions over the status of unbalanced growth between Hindu Scheduled Castes and Christian converts have aggravated over time and a sense of alienation among the minority communities has further deepened. I wish to emphasise that the matter cannot brook any further delay,” she said in the letter.

But that is easier said than done. It requires a constitutional amendment and deletion of the third paragraph of the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order 1950, otherwise known as Presidential Order, which states that “no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste”.

The Supreme Court is also hearing a case challenging this provision of the Presidential Order. In 2008 the apex court had given the central government eight weeks to take a stand on the issue of reservation. But the government is yet to file its reply.

Jayalalithaa has demanded the filing of a counter affidavit by the Centre in support of the petitioners. Dalit Muslims are also a party to the case.

Those in favour of reservation for “Dalit” Christians say that they face the same kind of discrimination as Dalit Hindus do. “Dalit Hindu and Christian children go through the same kind of discrimination in society. But while a Hindu Dalit has greater chances of improving his life, a Dalit Christian will continue to suffer,” says Franklin Caesar Thomas, Supreme Court advocate and one of the petitioners in the case.

According to Census figures, Christians constitute 2.3 per cent of the population in India, and some estimates say that 70 per cent of them are Dalit converts.

But there is considerable opposition to the move to bring Christian Dalits under the Scheduled Castes. “The concept of caste-based discrimination is not there in Christianity. Then how can there be reservation for Christians?” asks Pon Radhakrishnan, BJP state president, Tamil Nadu.

Leaders of the Christian community admit that casteism has no place in their religion. “But you cannot ignore social realities,” argues Father Z. Devasagayaraj, secretary, Office for SC/BC, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), Delhi. “Look at the US. Though the African-Americans have been following Christianity for ages, they were still discriminated against.”

Even the Commission for Minority Religion and Linguistic Minority, also known as the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission, had said in its 2007 report that the Presidential Order of 1950 was “unconstitutional”.

It further stated that though Christianity and Islam did not recognise caste system or untouchability, the ground reality in India was different. “Persons of Scheduled Caste origin who converted to Christianity/Islam continue to be subjected to disabilities, including untouchability associated with caste and occupation,” the commission noted.

Others argue that if Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists could have been brought into the Scheduled Caste fold, there’s no reason why Christians and Muslims shouldn’t be. Mushtaq Ahmed, a Supreme Court advocate who is fighting on behalf of Dalit Muslims, points out that when the Presidential Order was promulgated in 1950, Dalit Sikhs and Buddhists were not recognised as Scheduled Castes. Sikhs were included in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990.

Some experts say that the amendments to include Sikhs and Buddhists were supported by Explanation II of Article 25 of the Constitution of India, which reads, “In sub-clause (b), the reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religions, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly”.

Another argument against reservation is that Dalit Christians have already been recognised as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in several states and are getting the benefits.

But the Dalit Christians are leaving no stone unturned to bolster their case. Some say that not recognising them as Scheduled Castes is a colonial hangover. It was way back in 1935 that India’s lowest castes were known as “untouchables” or “depressed classes” and recognised as Scheduled Castes. The following year, the government made it clear that “No Indian Christian shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” This continues even in independent India.

Activists point out that even the apex court has admitted that professing a different religion does not mean that discrimination is absent. For instance, in the case of S. Anbalagan vs Devarajan in 1984, the Supreme Court said, “The practise of caste, however irrational it may appear to our reason and however repugnant it may appear to our moral and social sense, is so deep-rooted in the India people that its mark does not seem to disappear on conversion to a different religion... The mark of caste does not seem to really disappear even after some generations after conversion.”

The Mishra Commission’s recommendations were also on similar lines. “We recommend that all those social and vocational groups among the minorities who but for their religious identity would have been covered by the present net of Scheduled Castes should be unquestionably treated as socially backward, irrespective of whether the religion of those other communities recognises the caste system or not,” it said.

However, there are some within the Christian community itself who are opposed to reservation. “Our forefathers embraced Christianity not for any benefit or reservation, but because it recognised human beings as equals. How can we claim that we are not and want reservation? It’s an insult to Christians,” says R.L. Francis, president, Poor Christian Liberation Movement.

Francis alleges that Christian bodies like the CBCI discriminate against Dalits by not giving them full rights within their own organisations. “Priests from upper castes discriminate against the lower castes. Dalits have separate churches in many places. If the church was strong enough, these things wouldn’t have happened. The church leadership is trying to hide its failures by asking the government to include Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste list,” Francis says.

However, with prominent Dalit leaders such as Mayawati and Ram Vilas Paswan coming out in support of reservation for the minority Dalits, Father Devasagayaraj says that “it’s just a matter of time” before everybody is convinced.

After all, even after 66 years of Independence, the politics of entitlement continues to be an important part of every political party’s agenda.