Congress MP Kodikunnil Suresh’s election in 2009 from a constituency reserved for the Scheduled Castes was challenged on the grounds that he was baptised as Christian, and therefore had no right to claim to be a Dalit. Mr. Suresh’s contention was that though he was indeed baptised by his parents while he was an infant, as an adult, he chose not to be a Christian, and therefore was eligible to claim to be a Dalit as he belonged to the Pulaya community. The Supreme Court upheld his position and ruled that a Christian — or a Muslim for that matter — could go back to the Hindu fold and reclaim his original caste.
In Mr. Suresh’s case, he could establish the caste that his forbears belonged to, but after several generations or after dislocation from one’s original village, that would not be easy. For instance, the Muslims in Agra who were sought to be converted under the Ghar Vapsi programme of Hindu organisations would find it difficult to find their place in the Hindu caste hierarchy.
In an interview to this paper recently, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) functionary said that people converting to Hinduism could choose their caste, but that was not legally tenable or socially sustainable. “Caste and religion are intertwined and therefore Hinduism is supposed to be a non-proselytising religion. If one were to be converted to Hinduism, the question arises which caste is assigned to the new convert,” points out T.K. Oommen, sociologist. This question has become more complicated because the State policy provides for reservation on the basis of caste.
Historically, caste has been a major component in India’s debates on conversion and religious freedom. It was the lower castes that Islamic and Christian missionaries focussed on, and many changed faith deprived of basic human rights and attracted by the promise of an egalitarian social order. But even after several generations, they still live the same life that their Hindu brethren are condemned to.
“Doctrinally, Christianity and Islam may preach egalitarianism, but the fact is that in practice, they observe caste system,” Professor Oommen says. So while Islam and Christianity did indeed proselytise Hindus, these religions adopted the caste system in all its rigidity — in Kerala, there are separate parishes for Dalit Christians, though it is now a weakening practice.
Hindu social reform movements have been partly in response to the proselytising Christian missionaries during colonial rule, identifying the possibility of large-scale conversions to Christianity. Arya Samaj, founded by Swami Dayananda in 1875, made “equality of all human beings” part of its beliefs, set up schools and hospitals on the lines of Christian missionary activities and started a massive campaign to bring back to Hinduism those who had converted to Christianity and Islam.
If allowing lower castes a better place within the Hindu society was one response to proselytisation, militant forms of Dalit politics in India considered abandoning Hindu religion as essential for the emancipation of the untouchables. But B.R. Ambedkar was careful in avoiding Islam and Christianity, though he had considered them. He settled for Buddhism, considering its Indian origin — a point that the Sangh Parivar is never tired of making.
Not only the Sangh Parivar or the BJP but other non-Congress and Congress governments too have, in the past, made an undeclared and subtle distinction between Indic and non-Indic religions, mainly Islam and Christianity. The Constitution is a secular document, but there are legal provisions that discourage conversions to non-Indic religions. Originally, only Hindus were eligible for reservation under the Scheduled Caste quota, but in 1956, Sikhs were included and in 1990, Buddhists. Not only that this provision discourages conversion to Islam and Christianity but also makes many like Mr. Suresh, the MP, to convert to Hinduism.