Recently, the Union government formed a three-member Commission of Inquiry headed by former Chief Justice of India, Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, to examine whether Scheduled Caste (SC) status can be accorded to Dalits who have over the years converted to religions other than Sikhism and Buddhism. In a conversation moderated by Abhinay Lakshman, Sukhadeo Thorat and Subhajit Naskar discuss the question. Edited excerpts:
Q / Professor Thorat, what is the argument for the inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the SC category?
A / Sukhadeo Thorat: The reservation policy is different from the policies we have for the poor. Some groups are discriminated against based on their race, colour, gender, ethnicity, caste, or religion and are therefore denied equal opportunities. So, special policies are developed for them to protect them against discrimination.
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A / Although the Hindu SCs are accorded reservation, in 1956 Dalits who had converted to Sikhism were given reservation, and in 1990 Dalits who had converted to Buddhism were also given reservation. So, it is not only the Hindu ‘untouchables’, but also the ‘untouchable’ converts to Sikhism and Buddhism who are provided protection against discrimination. But Sikhism and Buddhism are considered a part of Hinduism in the Constitution for specific purposes.
A / There is a demand that Dalits who converted to Christianity and Islam should also be given reservation. I think all groups which are discriminated on the basis of their identity should be provided protection by law against such discrimination. Dalit Christians have been asking for reservation for almost 20 years now. The churches in India set up a committee, studied the discrimination these people face, and found that they live in a separate locality in the village and face discrimination in churches and in accessing Christian educational institutions and getting employment in these institutions. Limited evidence has been provided for Dalit Muslims too.
Q / Professor Naskar, what is the argument for denying them SC status?
A / Subhajit Naskar: Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said untouchability is holding back Hindu Dalits and so they need protection. Now, Islam and Christianity are very different from Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. They are Abrahamic traditions and have water-tight religious segments. Nowhere does the Quran or the Bible mention untouchability or a caste hierarchy unlike texts in Hinduism, which mention the Varna system. The Constitution provides for reservation on the basis of the experiences of those within the Hindu framework. Now, you could ask, what about Dalit Buddhists and Dalit Sikhs? The tenets of Buddhism are different from Abrahamic tenets. Once we start interpreting religions through government-appointed commissions, it will lead to a communal discussion. And as regards the backwardness of Dalit Christians and Muslims, there is already reservation in the State OBC (Other Backward Classes) and Central OBC lists. In fact, from 27% reservation for OBCs, why do they want to shift to 15% SC reservation? But having said this, I will say there must be separate religious minority reservation where Dalit Christians and Muslims can be accommodated.
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Q / But what about growing literature that defines caste not as a feature of any single religion but as that of civilisations across the Indian subcontinent?
A / Subhajit Naskar: You could argue that caste-based hierarchies entered other religions. But when it comes to constitutional allotment of SC reservation, that argument cannot be a basis. These are religious minorities who converted to these religions in the hope of getting into an egalitarian emancipatory framework and did not. Within the Muslim or Christian communities, the discrimination is not what we can call untouchability; these are ethnic differences and segregations. P. Sanal Mohan, in Modernity of Slavery, talks about struggles against caste inequality in colonial Kerala and their tryst with Christianity. The experiences the converts had within Christianity were different from the experiences of the Dalits within the Hindu or the Buddhist fold.
Q / Professor Thorat, considering that besides caste discrimination, converts might also face other forms of discrimination because of internal hierarchies within the new religion, what kinds of discrimination should the Justice K.G. Balakrishnan Commission consider while making recommendations?
A / Sukhadeo Thorat: Let me first clarify the point raised by my colleague. I think there is no theological difference between Buddhism and Sikhism, on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam, on the other, to the extent that all the four religions believe in equality. Yes, the ‘untouchables’ who converted to Buddhism and the ‘untouchables’ who converted to Sikhism have faced caste discrimination and have therefore been given reservation. So, it was accepted that although both the religions believe in equality, the ‘untouchables’ faced discrimination even after conversion. There was evidence that both ‘high caste’ and ‘low caste’ people converted to Buddhism and Sikhism and the ‘high caste’ converts continued to practise discrimination. If that is the case with Buddhism and Sikhism, there is no reason to say this does not happen in Christianity and Islam. If there is discrimination, segregation, some sort of untouchability, these people need protection against discrimination. If the Constitution guarantees equality before law, equal opportunity, principle of non-discrimination, and if discrimination continues after conversion, it is an obligation in the context of the Constitution to provide protection in whichever form you want to provide — reservation and law.
A / Now, if the Supreme Court has asked the government to set up a committee, the committee’s objective should be to find out whether ‘untouchables’ who converted to Christianity and Islam face caste discrimination. If there is no evidence, there is no case for reservation. But if they face discrimination from high caste Muslims and Christians, you have to provide them protection. So, I would suggest that this Commission undertake a study and see the forms of discrimination faced by converted ‘untouchables’ to Islam and Christianity. And then see whether they face discrimination in the land market, labour market, education, etc. and this affects their poverty, income, employment. Then there will be a proper database for the government to take a call or not for integration.
Q / Professor Thorat, you spoke of the discrimination faced by converts within their new religious framework. But what about the discrimination that such converts continue to face from Hindus who are aware of their caste identity? Should the Commission also consider this?
A / Sukhadeo Thorat: You’re right. In Tamil Nadu, ‘untouchables’ who converted to Christianity live in segregated localities along with those of ‘untouchable’ Hindus. So, they face discrimination not only from caste Christians, but also from caste Hindus. We have less information about converts to Islam because that is old conversion. But the ‘untouchable’ converts also face caste discrimination by ‘high caste’ converts to Islam and high status Muslims, such as Khans. So, they face double discrimination, of caste and religion, within Islam.
Q / Professor Naskar, what aspects should the Commission consider when looking at the possible impact of inclusion on existing SC communities?
A / Subhajit Naskar: Probably one needs the Supreme Court or the government to have a bigger Commission that can deliberate upon whether these two religions have a framework of hierarchy, which is along the line of caste or caste-based hierarchies. Additionally, the ‘Dalitness’ of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians needs to be socio-anthropologically proved because SCs are not a religious category, but historically depressed classes are being added to the SC list. If nothing of that sort exists in these two religions, then it gives birth to a different kind of question, of whether then there can be demand within this reservation framework. The Commission also should look at the possible back-door entry of Muslims to contest SC-reserved seats by pushing Dalit Muslims (who are already in the OBC list) to the SC list. The existing SCs in the list will be deprived of a fair contest in SC-reserved seats.
Q / A large part of the debate has focused on whether Dalit Christians and Muslims should be included under the SC category. But a large part of the demand is also inclusion in the SC list so they can be protected under the SC and the ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
A / Sukhadeo Thorat: Whether they will require legal protection or they will be included in the Prevention of Atrocities Act will depend on the nature of discrimination that the Commission should determine. I am in favour of separate laws against discrimination and separate reservation, and not a part of the SC only.
A / Subhajit Naskar: In the wake of atrocities on Muslims and Christians they should be protected under a minority protection law along the lines of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
A / Sukhadeo Thorat is the former chairman of the University Grants Commission and Professor Emeritus at JNU; Subhajit Naskar is Assistant Professor at Jadavpur University