Excluded From The Excluded
Why can’t we accept that being Dalit is just as difficult when one is not a Hindu?
The public interest litigation demanding constitutional ben¬e¬fits for Muslim and Christian Dalits has been pending before the Supreme Court for the past decade and a half. But while the UPA government failed to act on the recommendations made by both the Sachar committee and the Ranganath Mishra committee, the Modi regime has made it clear that it is opposed to the proposal: the unspoken rationale is that it would ‘weaken’ Hinduism and pave the way for more conversions to Islam and Christianity.
Union social justice minister Thawar Chand Gehlot declared at a meeting in Kerala, “We won’t accord scheduled caste status to those who have converted. Reservation was provided to Hindu Dalits to uplift them socially and economically from the effects of untouchability. But untouchability does not exist in Christian and Muslim communities. So those who converted to these religions should not be granted SC status.”
The secretary of BJP’s Scheduled Caste cell, Sanjay Paswan, sings the same tune. He told Outlook, “They left the Hindu fold to get out of caste discrimination but now they want to take a part of our share by claiming that they are facing discrimination. They denounced Hindu religion globally for casteism—and now the party stand is that if they want benefit of reservation, let them get converted back to Hinduism and accept ghar wapasi.”
But the crude logic does not stand up to scrutiny. If caste were determined by the work that people did, then reservation could not have been given on religious grounds. And if Muslims and Christians do the same work as Hindu cobblers and scavengers, the Constitution that promises liberty and equality cannot deny them the guarantees given to Hindu Dalits.
The difficulty is that the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, pertaining to Article 341, did provide religion-based reservation. Initially, the order only recognised SCs among the Hindus. This was amended twice ther¬eafter in 1956 and 1990 to include Sikhs and Buddhists respectively. The PIL arg¬ues that Sikhs and Buddhists do not consider themselves to be Hindus either. And these ¬religions too do not preach casteism. But in practice there are Mazhabi Sikhs and Navbodh Buddhists similar to Dalit Muslims and Christians.
Abdul Jabbar from Sultanpur (UP) ¬explains, “My family and my community are cleaning human excreta because we were born as Halalkhor. Yet, when it comes to benefits we are deemed to be just Muslims. My children are not getting scholarships, loans or reservation. Eve¬ryone calls us Bhangi, in schools our children are discriminated as Bhangis, But when we have to pay the fees we are Muslims. We are unable to pay heavy fees and our children fail to cope with the insults and drop out of school. They too then become Bhangi. When we are doing the work of Bhangis, why can’t the government recognise us as such?”
Former Chief Justice of India V.N. Khare says, “As the matter is still in court, we have to wait for the final order, but the PIL has certainly raised strong legal points. The apex court would certainly be looking at the issue from the perspective of equality and justice.” But the case has been pending since the turn of the century and there’s nothing to suggest that the court will conclude the hearing in a hurry. A despondent advocate, Mustaque Ahmed, feels this is an open-and-shut case of injustice and wishes the Supreme Court had not been so slow.
“Caste discrimination is everywhere; it is in the genes of our Indian society. Whichever religion we go to, we are deemed to be Dalits.”Franklin Caesar Thomas, Convenor of the National Council of Dalit Christians
The petition claimed that there are app¬roximately two-and-a-half million Dalit Christians and one-and-a-half million Dalit Muslims. The petitioners explain that among Muslims, the proportion of Dalits is much smaller compared to the Christians. These are insignificant numbers compared to an estimated 20 crore Dalits who are claimed to be part of the Hindus. But the fear of the RSS and the BJP is clear: that granting reservation and other benefits to Muslims and Christians would open the floodgates.
Franklin Caesar Thomas, the petitioner who was later joined by several Muslims, wonders why the BJP government can extend reservation to Jats in Haryana but deny it to Dalit Muslims and Christians. “The right to follow any religion is given in the Constitution, so when a person from schedule caste origin chooses Islam or Christianity for his or her spiritual satisfaction, can he or she be denied benefits meant for SCs under the Constitution?”
He scoffs at apprehensions that the quota would get reduced if extended to Dalit Muslims and Christians. In 1950 there were 600 communities listed as scheduled castes, he claims. But now the number is over 1,200. “So when 600 more communities have already been included, why not two more?”
Dalit Muslims and Christians are also denied protection under the SC-ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. Although they are also victims of caste-based violence, they cannot file any complaint under the Act against perpetrators.
The Sachar committee states that being at the bottom of the hierarchy, the Arzals are the worst off and need to be handled separately. It would be most appropriate if they were absorbed in the SC list or at least in a separate category. The committee had also concluded that “caste is in fact a social phenomenon shared by almost all Indian communities irrespective of their religious persuasions.” But JD(U) MP and leader of the Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz, Ali Anwar, is pessimistic. When the UPA could not have the courage to extend the guarantee, how could he expect the Narendra Modi government to do it, he asks. He does want to pose a question to the BJP-RSS though: “Is the religion so weak that it is propped up by reservation to Dalits?”
In India, he explains, Muslims have three layers of caste: the Ashraf (upper caste), the Ajlaf (OBC) and the Arzal (SC; the word itself meaning the lowest). The demand is simple enough, he says. Give SC status to those who are doing the same menial jobs as Dalit Hindus are forced to do.
“My great grand-parents embraced Christianity when they were prevented from entering a temple. But in my village Anna Samudram (Andhra Pradesh) eve¬rybody calls me with my caste name. My parents were teachers in the village but nobody would rent them a house. In Andhra Pradesh, if you are a Christian, the majority would conclude that you are from the Mala or Madiga community—both Dalit castes,” narrates S.D.M.Prasad, coo¬rdinator of the Scheduled Caste cell of the Indian National Congress.
Naveed Mohammed, president of All India Muslim Majlis Mus¬hawarat, has the last word. “Why is the government afraid of conversions? By their logic, all Dalit Muslims and Christians would have become Hindus by now. We are all Indians and depressed people of the soil.”