Dalit Christians, Dalit Muslims cannot be compared to Buddhist converts, says Centre’s 2019 affidavit

The affidavit goes against the 2011 recommendation of National Commission for Scheduled Castes

The affidavit goes against the 2011 recommendation of National Commission for Scheduled Castes

With the Supreme Court awaiting the Union government’s present position on including Dalit Christians as members of Scheduled Castes (SCs), the Narendra Modi government’s latest standing on this aspect has been to reject any such proposition, according to an affidavit filed by the government in November 2019, which also said Dalits who converted to Buddhism could not be compared to those who converted to Islam or Christianity.

This position goes against the most recent stand taken by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) before the top court in a 2011 affidavit, when it recommended providing reservation to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims, provided they fulfill two criteria: If they continue to practice their traditions and customs as they did prior to conversion; and if they continue to face social disabilities due to untouchability.

And while the NCSC acknowledged the lack of an independent study into the status of such converts, it had recommended that until such a study is completed, Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims be included in the SC category.

This NCSC recommendation had come after the then National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes had in 2000 and 2003 respectively rejected proposals to include Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims as SCs. Since 2011, the NCSC has not made any submissions in the matter before the court. In a separate affidavit, the National Commission for Minorities too had in 2011 supported extending SC benefits to Dalit Christians and Muslims.

Lack of studies

In its 2019 affidavit, the Union government cited the lack of any comprehensive studies into the social status of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. It added that while Dalits who converted to Buddhism did so “voluntarily on account of some innate socio-political imperatives” after Dr. BR Ambedkar’s call in 1956, those who converted to Islam or Christianity “might have converted on account of other factors”.

Further, the government said the original caste/community of Dalit Buddhists can be located while that of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims cannot since these conversions have been taking place for centuries. It added that Dalits who converted to Islam or Christianity “improved their social status” by way of their conversion and “cannot claim to be backward” since untouchability is a feature of Hindu religion and its branches alone.

This affidavit was filed by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment before the Supreme Court on a batch of petitions seeking the removal of the religion criteria from determining whether a community can be included in the SC list. Currently, the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 provides for recognizing only communities that practice Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism as SCs.

RGI’s approval

Sikh communities were included by an amendment in 1956 and Buddhist communities by an amendment in 1990 — neither of which required the approval of the Registrar General of India (RGI) as per the rules at the time. The RGI’s approval for inclusion of communities was made mandatory in the modalities framed in 1999.

In a note prepared in March 2001, the RGI had while presenting its opinion on why Dalit Christians cannot be included in the list of SCs, compared Dalit Christians to Dalit Buddhists — which stands in contrast to the position taken by the Union government in its 2019 affidavit. The RGI’s office had said that in both cases people from multiple Scheduled Caste communities had converted to these respective religions and that they cannot be recognized as a “single ethnic group” for inclusion as provided for in Clause (2) of Article 341 of the Constitution. . It concluded that Dalit Christians and Dalit Buddhists lose their caste identity after their conversion and added that it had presented a similar opinion to the then Ministry of Home Affairs in 1978, despite which the amendment to include Buddhist converts was made in 1990.

The RGI had similarly concluded that Dalit Muslims cannot be included as SCs in Bihar, according to an April 2001 note.

However, the Center has justified the inclusion of the Buddhist converts based on Explanation II of Clause 2(b) of Article 25 which defines Hindus to include Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists to provide for “social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus”.

“Now, reports say the government will set up a commission to study the status of Dalit Christians and Muslims but there are already a bunch of commissions and independent inquiries that have recommended the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the SC list repeatedly,” said advocate Franklin Ceasar Thomas, who is representing the National Council for Dalit Christians, the United Front for Dalit Christian Rights and other petitioners in the top court. The Supreme Court is expected to take up this matter for next hearing on October 11.

In its 2019 affidavit, the Union government has rejected these recommendations, saying they did not conduct any detailed field studies to support their suggestions.


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