The Supreme Court on Friday decided to examine the issue of extending reservation to Dalit Christians and Muslims under the category of Scheduled Castes, six years after the issue was brought up before it.
The Court sought the views of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) and the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) saying important Constitutional issues arise from a bunch of petitions on the issue.
A Bench of Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and Justices K.S. Radhakrishan and Swatanter Kumar also appointed senior advocate T.R. Andhyrujina as amicus curiae to assist the Court in the matter in which the petitions have been filed both in favour and against extending the benefit of reservation to Dalits who have converted to other faiths.
The Bench said some questions need to be examined on the issue in the context of the President’s Order of 1950 which identified the castes to be brought under the reservation policy and posted the matter for hearing on February 24.
It said the first question that is required to be examined is whether the “Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950”, which says that no person other than those who profess the religion of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism will considered as Scheduled Castes is void and in violation of Article 14, 15, 19 and 25 of the Constitution.
The second question is whether a Scheduled Caste person belonging to religious faith other than Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism are entitled to the benefit of reservation.
The third question that has to be answered is whether exclusion of other religions from “Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950” is valid or not.
The “Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950” lists 1,108 castes across 25 states in its first schedule which are benefited by reservation policy.
During the last hearing, the Bench had termed the issue as “sensitive” and “important” and had said it might refer the matter for examination by a larger bench, if required.
It had said it would also examine the meaning of ‘caste’ in terms of Articles 16(4) and 15(4) of the Constitution which deal with reservation in state jobs and empowerment of socially and educationally backward classes and ensure that none of the interested groups is left out from being heard.
The bench had said it would bring the issue in public domain by putting it on the Supreme Court’s website.
The Court was informed that during the previous hearings, the Centre had said it would study the report of a commission which examined the issue of granting Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians for extending benefits of reservation to them.
The Centre had said it would go through the report of the NCSC before presenting the Centre’s view on the issue.
The NCSC has come out with its report after going through the recommendations of the NCRLM headed by former Chief Justice of India Rangnath Misra.
The petitioners submitted that the matter has been pending since 2004 and has sought an early hearing on the issue.
The court had in January 2008 said there was no urgency in the matter as the Presidential order of 1950 has been challenged.
The Centre had in June 2007 maintained that the NCRLM in its report had found substance in the points raised for granting Scheduled Castes status to Dalits who have converted to Christianity.
The bench said the issue is sensitive as it would also have to see what would happen if religious conversion was due to extraneous reasons, that is, only to secure the benefits of reservation.
“That is why, we want to understand the meaning of caste. It is a very important issue and proper understanding of the meaning of caste is needed,” the bench had said.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO, Centre for Public Interest Litigation, which had first filed the petition on the issue, submitted if Dalits within Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism can be extended the benefit of reservation, there should be no reason why Dalits converted to other religions too should not be accorded the benefits.
He had said that despite adopting other religions like Christianity, Dalits continued to be saddled with same socio-economic disabilities.
Solicitor-General Gopal Subramanium, who maintained that the government was examining the issue, had said Dalits converting to Islam have also sought reservation and were still carrying the same stigma.
There are petitions opposing the plea for granting reservation to Dalit Christians on the ground that there has been no concept of caste in Christianity.
The PIL had said as reservation was available to Dalits in Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, there was no reason why Dalit Christians should be deprived of the benefit.
The CPIL had contended that paragraph three of the President’s “Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950” was coming in the way of granting SC status to Dalit Christians.
The NGO had submitted that it was the right time the court strikes down the order requiring all Dalits to belong to a particular religion if they were to avail the reservation benefits as it goes beyond the mandate of Article 341(1) and violates the fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution.
All India United Christians Movement for Equal Rights had said the Congress government had in 1996 brought a Bill in the Lok Sabha to amend para three of the “Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950” for extending reservation benefits to Dalit Christians.
The CPIL had claimed that social standing of Dalits, even after converting to Christianity, has not changed and they have to face discrimination even in churches.
The NCRLM, which had prepared its report after visiting various states, had examined whether the SC converts suffer from social disabilities like untouchability even after embracing Christianity.
The demand for granting SC status to Dalit Christians has been opposed in several quarters, including the SC/ST Commission which contended that they cannot enjoy two rights — that is of minority and SCs.
The CPIL had contended that the earlier court rulings were given on the basis of scanty material and claimed the petitioners had “overwhelming” material to support their claim for reservation for Dalit Christians.
Citing a 2005 ruling of the Supreme Court, where it was said that even if a tribal converted to Christianity, he or she could still avail the reservation benefits as his/her status as ST remained unchanged, the CPIL had said the same law should be applicable to Dalits after their conversion.