A recent addition to India’s secular discourse has been the demand to give Scheduled Caste status to Scheduled Caste converts to Christianity and Islam, and concomitantly scrap the Para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 under Article 341. Para 3 delineates the contours of SC as ‘no body who is not a Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist can be Scheduled Caste’.
Such proclamation is not based on fiction or perception, but on historical experiences and empirical facts.
The first effort of identifying untouchables was made by J S Hatton in the Census report of 1931. The term Scheduled Caste first appeared in the Government of India Act 1935. Moreover, the Government of India Scheduled Caste Order issued on April 30, 1936 specified that “no Indian Christian shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste”. The clarification of the predominantly Christian colonial administration assumes significance due to the presence of sizable number of SC converts to Christianity. The colonial administration considered apt not to equate low status of the converts with the severity of caste oppression on SC. Accusation of majoritarianism against the Indian state by the elite holds no ground since the existing order was a continuation of the 1936 order.
Those who favour SC status to Christians and Muslims argue that social disabilities and handicaps of the converts still continue. The argument, however, is self-defeated as, unlike Hindu religion, both Christianity and Islam are free from rigid caste system. It is also true, however, that both Muslims and Christians have certain degree of hierarchies, but they are not in reference to birth of its follower but the result of feudal traits. Both the religions claim being free from caste stratifications, and gives equal status to all. Therefore, frivolous discrimination requires internal reforms rather than governmental interventions. Moreover, the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955—a religion neutral Act—protects all those whose dignity is abused or under threat. Hardly any case has been registered by SC converts to Christianity or Islam alleging abuse of religious and social rights by their co-religionists.
They also put forward common vocations/occupations of equating converts with SC. Here, it should be noted that the depressed class was compelled to do lowly works, but the practice of untouchability has given birth to other social ills. Commonalities of occupations do not mean all performers are on the same boat. Even a Brahmin can be a toilet cleaner, but that does not make him untouchable or a victim of social segregation. In the Constituent Assembly debate, Z H Lari finding no support for his demand for reservation for Muslims wanted to abolish reservation for SC. He, along with a few more members, pompously said they would love to be a Scheduled Caste. Nagappa, an SC elected from Madras (General) constituency, rebutted their proposition and said it was not by adopting a particular vocation that one could become SC and further added that “for becoming an SC, you had to take birth as an SC”.
The inclusion of Sikhs and Buddhists under the SC realm has also been questioned without understanding historical reasons which necessitated this step.
Both Sikhism and Buddhism have been facing untoucability. While the scope of Article 341 privileges SC, Article 16(4) provides socially and economically backward Muslims OBC reservations. Is it not incomprehensible that Dalit Christians/Muslims want to be delisted from the OBC list and included under the presidential order of 1950? Besides, no one has a convincing answer as to what should be the cut-off date for SC converted to Christianity and Islam. The hidden agenda of conversion is behind such demand, which is morally and legally untenable.
Sinha is Hony.Director of India Policy Foundation