The Union government has now formed a three-member Commission of Inquiry headed by former Chief Justice of India, Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, to examine the issue of whether Scheduled Caste (SC) status can be accorded to Dalits who have over the years converted to religions other than Sikhism or Buddhism.
The notification for the formation of the commission was issued on Thursday, days before the Supreme Court on October 11 is expected to hear the Centre’s present position on a batch of petitions seeking the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims and the removal of the religion criteria for inclusion as SCs.
Currently, the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 provides for only those belonging to Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist communities to be categorised as SCs. When enacted, the Order only allowed for Hindu communities to be classified as SCs based on the social disabilities and discrimination they faced due to untouchability. It was amended in 1956 to include Sikh communities and again in 1990 to include Buddhist communities as SCs.
The three-member commission will also comprise Professor Sushma Yadav, member, UGC, and retired IAS officer Ravinder Kumar Jain, and has been given a two-year deadline to submit a report on the issue — starting from the day Justice Balakrishnan takes charge of the commission.
To look into changes
The Department of Social Justice and Empowerment has said the commission’s inquiry will also look into the changes an SC person goes through after converting to another religion and its implications on the question of including them as SCs. These will include examining their traditions, customs, social and other forms of discrimination and how and whether they have changed as a result of the conversion.
Noting that several representatives of existing SC communities have staunchly opposed the inclusion of converts to other religions, the government has also tasked the Justice Balakrishnan Commission with examining the impact of such a decision on these existing SC communities.
The commission has also been empowered to examine any other related questions that it deemed appropriate, in consultation with and with the consent of the Central government.
The Social Justice Ministry said, “This is a seminal and historically complex sociological and constitutional question, and a definite matter of public importance… given its importance, sensitivity and potential impact, any change in definition in this regard should be on the basis of a detailed and definitive study and extensive consultation with all stakeholders and no commission under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 (60 of 1952) has so far inquired into the matter.”
The petitions challenging the religion criteria for inclusion in the top court have cited several independent commission reports since the First Backward Classes Commission headed by Kaka Kalelkar in 1955 that have documented the existence of caste and caste discrimination among Indian Christians and Indian Muslims, concluding that Dalit converts continued to face the same social disabilities even after leaving the Hindu fold.
These include the Report of the Committee on Untouchability Economic and Educational Development Of the Scheduled Castes in 1969, the HPP report on SCs, STs, and Minorities in 1983, the report of the Prime Minister’s High-Level Committee formed in 2006, a 2008 study conducted by the National Commission for Minorities, the Ranganath Mishra Commission Report among others.
In addition to this, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Commission for Minorities had also recommended providing SC status to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in affidavits filed before the Supreme Court in 2011.
In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in November 2019, the Union government had refused to accept these reports as evidence of continued social disabilities due to caste identity, noting that there did not exist enough empirical evidence to support this in all of the reports cited.
The Kalelkar Commission Report and the 1983 HPP Report on SCs,STs and Minorities were the basis for amending the Order to include Dalit Sikhs and Dalit Buddhists as SCs in 1956 and 1990 respectively.
The Union government had also said in the 2019 affidavit that Dalit Buddhists cannot be compared to Dalits who converted to Islam or Christianity because in case of the former, conversions were voluntary “on account of some innate socio-political imperatives” and in case of the latter, the conversions might have taken place “on account of other factors”.
Further, the Centre had argued that the religions allowed to be included as SCs were branches or off-shoots of Hinduism and Dalits who converted to Islam or Christianity “ameliorated their social status” by way of their conversion and “cannot claim to be backward” since untouchability is a feature of Hindu religion and its branches alone.