Dalits vs Dalits

In the wake of the Modi government forming a commission to reevaluate reservations for Dalits, Ambedkarite intellectuals are debating whether Muslim and Christian Dalits should be included in the Scheduled Caste list. Much of the opposition stems from the contention that Dalit Muslims and Christians do not face the same level of caste oppression as Dalit Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs.

However, many others have strongly contested this claim, arguing that reservations should be religiously neutral and that the caste oppression faced by Dalits does not go away on changing religion through conversion. Then the question arises why do they resort to conversion. Maybe, to get rid of untouchability tag.

At present, only Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits are eligible for reservations in jobs, education and legislatures under India’s Scheduled Caste quota. This is according to the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950, a Presidential order which lists all Scheduled Castes. Initially, Paragraph 3 of the order stated that only Hindus could avail of reservations. In 1956, the text was amended to include Sikhs and in the 1990s to include Buddhists. It means Hindutva ideologues consider Sikhism and Buddhism as part of Hinduism.

However, pressure groups have long argued that the list should include Muslim and Christian Dalits as well.

In 2004, a case was filed in the Supreme Court by several petitioners, including the non-governmental organisation Centre for Public Interest Litigation, arguing that limiting the Scheduled Caste category to certain faiths amounted to discrimination on the basis of religion. In August, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to file a response to the case by October 10.

On October 6, the Centre appointed a three-member commission to examine whether the Scheduled Caste category should be expanded to include Muslims and Christians. The commission, comprising former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan, former Indian Administrative Service officer Ravindra Kumar Jain and University Grants Commission member Sushma Yadav, will submit its report within two years.

Since the formation of the commission, several Ambedkarite activists have opposed the inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Caste list.

One argument being put forward is that many Dalit Muslims and Christians already get reservations under the Other Backward Classes category. “Most Dalit Christians and Muslims are part of central or state OBC list,” said Ashok Bharti, Chairman of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations. “They are already enjoying the benefits of reservation. So they cannot say they are not reserved.”

Further, intellectuals argue that from the inception of the Scheduled Caste category, Muslims and Christians were not envisaged to be a part of it. “Even during Constituent Assembly debates, Muslims and Christians did not ask for becoming a Scheduled Caste.

However, other activists and intellectuals have disagreed with this characterisation of reservations. They argue that reservations are religion neutral and that oppression faced by Muslims and Christians continue to exist after they convert.

Several scholars argue that the opposition to including Dalits Muslims and Christians as Scheduled Castes are also based on two factors that have little to do with social justice: anxieties around conversion and competition for existing quotas.

In terms of social justice, no one has any case against Dalit Muslims and Christians. But people do not approach these categories only through social justice. There are also interest-based interventions.

Opposition could also result from the fact that including Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Caste quota would reduce opportunities for those who can currently avail of them.


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Vol 55, No. 20, Nov 13 - 19, 2022