The recent petition filed by Activist Kudanthai Arasan from Tamil Nadu in the Supreme Court and an article on Halalkhor Muslims by Research Scholar Shireen Azam from Oxford has once again sparked off the heated debate on claims to SC status by Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims (Henceforth, DCs and DMs). Rather than analysing the history of commission reports, petitions, and stances taken by different political parties, already available online, I hope to address four common questions. This is not a comprehensive list but only the fundamental ones that I have come across in the debates. Apart from the Union and State Governments, Hindu Right organisations, the different strands of Dalit/Ambedkarite political community are also engaged with these recurring perspectives.
1. One often repeated argument is that since Christianity and Islam don’t sanction caste and untouchability, there cannot be any claims of caste-based disabilities leading to socio-economic backwardness and therefore, no SC status can be granted.
Response: Religions such as Sikhism and Buddhism (including the Navayana strand propounded by Dr Ambedkar) too do not sanction caste and untouchability in their central tenets, yet the Dalits in these religious communities avail the SC status. One can argue they are under the larger Hindu umbrella as per Article 25 which prescribes caste distinctions, but if such is the case then why did Sikhs and Buddhists get SC status in 1956 and 1990 separately?
Social scientists in the 1950s and 60s often debated on field view and book view of Indian society and even later, scholars like Gloria Raheja and Chris Fuller who undermined the role of Brahmins in caste order have argued that the expressions of caste in social life are different from what Hindu texts prescribe.
In fact, it is a well-established fact that caste order in South India is often studied as a three-fold division of Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, and Dalits unlike the North having a Kshatriya Varna followed by the Brahmins. It is a different matter that today many intermediary non-brahmin castes in South India claim a Kshatriya lineage.
This is not just particular to India, but across the globe, religion takes various expressions and divisions according to the cultural surroundings because it involves human being interpreting and materialising it. And in the case of the advent of Christianity and Islam in India, the most dominant factor of their interactive cultural surrounding has been that of caste over centuries.
Even if not an exact copy of a particular social expression of Hindu caste order, the caste communities in terms of hierarchy, occupations, and endogamy rules have developed along similar lines. In fact, Muslim rulers brought their own descent-based stratification and complemented the caste order here. Resultantly, today we find converts from communities such as Madigas, Doms, Chuhras at the bottom among Christians and similarly Halalkhors and Lalbegis among Muslims facing similar forms of discrimination like their counterparts among the Hindus. To analyse Hinduism through all its various dynamic social practices but restrict Islam and Christianity merely to doctrine is akin to fixing the latter as static objects.
Who Can Seek a SC Status?
2. The Muslims and Christians who claim to be Dalits should seek redressal in their religious educational institutions rather than SC status.
Response: DCs and DMs who are part of their religious communities are also citizens of India which entitles them to certain rights from the state, and to ask them to choose one between the two is basically asking them to come back to the Hindu or Buddhist fold to enjoy certain citizenship rights or be deprived of it by continuing to stay as Christians and Muslims.
This also implies that religion and caste are supposed to be two mutually exclusive compartments when it comes to Muslims and Christians. They live in the same society along with members of different castes not just from their religious communities but also others.
It is almost impossible that they could escape caste and live only as religious entities, particularly in a society where caste considerations are so detailed and pervade all spheres of life. Most importantly, minority educational institutions do not have any specific quota for these communities due to their own denial of caste and the burden to figure that cannot be placed on these communities.
Furthermore, SC status is not just about reservation in education, there are other crucial areas such as employment opportunities, welfare schemes, SC/ST sub plans, political representation and protection from atrocities that are beyond the scope of any religious body.
Here, the role of the state becomes extremely important because their material conditions and a significant part of their vulnerability lie in their caste status. Therefore if caste has led to some of these conditions similar to that of their fellow Dalit members from other religions, then that require corresponding provisions and protective measures that are based on SC recognition in the constitution.
Covered Under Reservation Bracket, Then Why Inclusion into SC?
3: They are already getting reservations under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category in various states, so why demand SC status?
Response: Firstly, in the criterion for OBC classification, caste disabilities arising out of untouchability have not been factored in and consequently the measures and provisions directed towards SC and OBCs differ on many grounds. SC/ST POA is the most important difference and those who are aware of caste atrocities in Karamchedu and Tsundur in Andhra Pradesh in 1985 and 1991, would know that there were many Dalit Christians who were at the receiving end because of their caste identities.
Secondly, be it in terms of habitations or occupations, Dalit Muslims and Christians largely live alongside fellow Hindu Dalits and engage in similar occupations. This is due to their similar caste origin and also the separation by higher caste members from their own religious communities and also those who are caste Hindus.
For example, around Marina Beach in Chennai, among the Catholics most of them are from the fishing communities while among the Pentecostal Christians constitute mostly of Paraiyars who either work as daily wage laborers or sanitation workers. The former are not considered untouchables but lower castes, while the latter are treated as untouchables but both of them are supposed to be under the OBC category. In Bihar and UP, Halalkhor and Lalbegi Muslims are engaged in cleaning occupations just like the Valmikis among Hindus and face the same social stigma.
A study conducted by Srinivas Goli, Fahimuddin, Prashant Trivedi and Surender Kumar in 2014-15 among 7000 households in Uttar Pradesh found out that Dalit Muslims experience caste untouchability which includes them having separate burial grounds, no invitations to wedding feats by non-Dalits and their children facing segregation in schools. To place them alongside Yadavs and Kurmis in the OBC category is not only a sociological fallacy but also a denial of caste disabilities arising out of their untouchable caste status.
Lastly, in order to compete alongside other OBC groups, they are not equally placed and often at the state level OBC vacancy is filled by few numerically and politically influential castes and in central institutions, the OBC seats are usually far from being filled and more than 2000 castes above DCs and DMs compete for these limited opportunities.
On Caste Origin As An Impediment
4: Since SC Buddhists have converted in 1956, it becomes easy to ascertain their caste origin while conversions have been happening among Muslims and Christians for centuries making it difficult to identify their caste origin.
Response: This was one of the arguments given by the Union government in their affidavit in 2022 to counter the claims of SC status by DCs and DMs. This is true but there are also multiple studies and evidence which point out to the continuation of caste communities among Muslims and Christians with certain cultural modifications. For example, Jeffrey Cox in his paper "Christianity and colonial power in India" argues that around the 1920s and 1930s, a large majority of Indian Christians enumerated in Punjab were from the Chuhra caste. John C B Webster observes that the social profile and Public image of Dalit Christians has not changed substantially and he says that according to 2001 census, the literacy rate among them was quite low with a high proportion of them working as agricultural laborers.
Even in Odisha, it is very well documented that the major groups which constitute the Christian population are overwhelmingly Adivasis and the rest come from Pano and Dombo communities. Scholars such as David Mosse, Sathianathan Clarke, Rowena Robinson, Nathaniel Roberts and P Sanal Mohan have provided extensive historical and sociological evidence regarding caste specific mass conversions, mission societies and how Dalit Christians continued to be differentiated over the last two centuries across South Indian states.
In places such as Bihar and Odisha they continue to use the same caste surnames as that of their fellow Hindu Dalits and can be marked out quite easily through their cultural attributes. In the case of Dalit Muslims, scholars such as Joel Lee, Masood Alam Falahi, Khalid Anis Ansari, Ayub Raeen and Ali Anwar have explored caste histories.
Till the next report comes up in two years, one can only be reminded that in the Paraiyar street of Vadipetti near Madurai, in North Chennai, in Neela Sandra, Bangalore, old Koraput, Odisha and some are Dalits, some Dalit Christians, even within the same family at times. The Lalbegis and Halalkhors are of Dalit origin with no claims of aristocratic lineage and superior descent. They do the same jobs, live in similar houses, and are marked out as the same low status people.
(Sumit Samos hails from South Odisha and he recently completed MSc in Modern South Asian Studies from the University of Oxford. He is a young researcher and anti-caste activist and his research interests are Dalit Christians, cosmopolitan elites, student politics and society and culture in Odisha.)