“There are about a dozen castes within the Pasmanda Muslims such as Halalkhor (scavenger, Bhangi), Muslim washerman, Muslim cobbler, Bhatiyara, Gadhedi etc for whom the Sachar Committee and the Ranganath Mishra Commission have recommended Scheduled Caste status. Has your government, in response to a query of the Supreme Court last year, replied that it will not accept this recommendation. Will you end this religion-based discrimination by increasing the quota of Scheduled Caste?”
We may know the Modi government’s answer to this question soon, as the Supreme Court on 30 August gave Solicitor General Tushar Mehta three weeks to submit the Union government’s stance on the issue of SC status for Dalits who have converted to Islam or Christianity from Hinduism, Sikhism, or Buddhism. According to reports, the government is also planning to set up a commission to study their social, economic, and educational status.
A Demand Long Ignored
Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians have long been demanding SC status for themselves. However, the Union government and Indian courts have paid little attention to their demand. Civil society has also largely ignored this issue. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, confined SC reservation only to Hindus, stating that “no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.”
However, this order made an exception for four Sikh castes – Ramdasi, Kabirpanthi, Mazhabi, and Sikligar – including them in the SC list.
The 1950 order was amended in 1956 to include Sikhism and in 1990 to include Buddhism as religions from which castes eligible for SC status could be drawn.
The order doesn’t explicitly state the reasons for including these three religions and excluding others for the purposes of the SC list.
Privileging Book View Over Field View
When one looks at the Constituent Assembly debates, court judgments, and parliamentary discussions, two possible justifications for the exclusion of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians can be identified:
Caste is a unique feature of Hinduism, while Islam and Christianity are more egalitarian religions and their theology doesn’t sanction caste.
When a person converts to other religions from Hinduism, the debilitating effects of caste either cease to exist or become less severe.
The focus on theology and belief system can be termed the book view while the actually existing inter-caste/community/biradari relations can be termed the field view. The courts and Parliament seem to have privileged the book view over the field view to deny SC status to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians, buying the argument that since Abrahamic religions don't endorse caste, it cannot be acknowledged by statutes either.
The interesting point to note here is that Buddhism and Sikhism do not differ much from Islam and Christianity when it comes to their attitude towards the caste system as far as their theology is concerned. All these religions, in theory, either abhor caste or are indifferent towards it.
At the same time, most scholars now agree that the caste system and its discriminatory effects are not limited to only Hinduism in India. The empirical evidence is substantial.
Reports produced at the behest of the Union government itself, such as by the Ranganath Misra Commission (submitted in 2007) and by Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna (2008), have provided further proof. For example, according to Deshpande and Bapna, “With respect to proportions of population in poverty or affluence, DMs [Dalit Muslims] are unquestionably the worst off among all Dalits, in both the rural and specially the urban sector.”
According to a survey in 2016 in Uttar Pradesh among Dalit Muslims, almost a third stated that "they are barred from burying their dead in an “upper-caste” burial ground. Many Dalit Muslims are not invited to non-Dalit weddings. Some are seated separately at non-Dalit Muslim feasts and have to eat later than people from dominant castes. Some children are seated separately in classrooms and during lunch breaks. And a significant proportion of Dalit Muslims feel that “upper-caste” Muslims and Hindus distance themselves from them."
Tamanna Inamdar's book in Marathi, Muslim Balutedar, published in 2018, has rich ethnographic details about lower caste Muslim communities in Maharashtra.
KC Alexander, who is cited by Deshpande and Bapna in their report, writes about Kerala (1977), "In the presence of rich Syrian Christians, the Harijan Christians had to remove their head-dress. While speaking with their Syrian Christian masters, they had to keep their mouth closed with a hand. Pulaya Christians are not given food inside the house of a Syrian Christian or in a good dish, but only outside the house in some broken dish. After taking food, they have to wash it."
Another reason the governments have not granted SC status to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians is the underlying fear of conversion. Former MP PJ Kurien had introduced a private member's bill in 1980 to delete paragraph 3 from the 1950 order, which adds the condition of religion for the SC status. Tanweer Fazal writes in a research paper for Contributions to Indian Sociology, "Though the Bill meant to address the disadvantages that SC converts faced, most members speaking on the subject identified conversion itself as the root cause. Members expressed apprehensions of inducements and coercion behind conversion and demanded a curb on proselytisation through social legislation. In essence, conferring SC status was seen as a compensation for remaining Hindu and its denial a chastisement for leaving the faith."
Time To Fulfill the Demand
When sufficient evidence already exists, what is the need for a new panel? If the government wants a comprehensive understanding of the socio-economic indicators of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians, it should give the green signal to include caste data in the country’s decennial census. This would also help the government in the sub-categorisation of OBCs more accurately.
Whatever the Bharatiya Janata Party’s intentions, it is high time that Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians are slotted in the list where they rightfully belong. As opposed to OBC and ST lists, which are religion-agnostic, India's SC list is the only one that links reservation benefits with one’s religious identity. So far, Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians have largely been accommodated in the OBC list. But they actually belong in the SC list, which will also give them the added protection of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.