On the issue of granting Scheduled Caste status to Dalit converts, there are genuine concerns about how the government plans to filter and identify ‘Dalits’ from among Muslims. These concerns arise because the government does not permit Muslims to declare or register themselves as Dalits in the decadal censuses,annual National Sample Surveys, or even ministerial and organisational records. The State officials who are authorised to endorse and issue caste certificates do not issue them once applicants declare their Muslim or Christian identity.
So, will the process of identifying Dalits among Muslims and Christians require constitutional amendment? Experts like Dr Faizan Mustafa, former vice chancellor of The National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR), say that a modification of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950—which grants SC status only to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains—will be enough. However, this issue needs further probing to ensure a robust legal framework of inclusion.
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Decoding government tactics
The Union government’s announcement is meant to be tactically rhetorical. Additionally, the SCs (now classified as SC only if they are Hindus, Buddhists, or Sikhs) and Scheduled Tribes covered under the original (1950) act will protest in the loudest possible terms due to fear of losing many quota seats and spots to ineligible candidates. The present ruling dispensation’s announcement to identify SC/ST roots among Muslims is a ploy to divide and woo deprived Muslims so that they vote in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the forthcoming national and state elections.
The reservations that have been legalised so far are seen by courts as a representation of equality within the constitutional imperative for social justice. Reservations were not intended to be standard welfare programs but to advance ‘equality of opportunity’, promote inclusiveness and enhance the voice of excluded communities.
Although the policy framework in India is to reduce or eliminate ‘the unique caste system in India’, the apex court pronounced recognition of discriminatory ‘caste-based’ practices. It justified the provisioning of quotas in higher education and government employment to promote equity and provide a ‘level playing field’. It further stated that beneficiaries must be determined using ‘objective criteria’ that data and empirical research must support.
In this context, it is helpful to invoke recommendations of the Ranganath Misra Commission (RMC), which was constituted in 2004 to examine issues related to religious and linguistic minorities in India. First, it says to provide 10 per cent quotas for Muslims and 5 per cent for other minorities in government jobs and seats in all higher educational institutions (graduation and above). Second, reserve 8.4 per cent of the existing Other Backward Classes (OBC) quota of 27 per cent for religious minorities, mainly Muslims. Third, RMC also recommended that Dalits who convert to Islam or Christianity can avail of reservation benefits under the Scheduled Caste reservation quota. Giving a reference to RMC recommendations, experts argue against the need for a separate (new) commission that was announced recently.
The headline news on 19 September was surprising and amusing. The Union government announced a ‘National Commission’ to study the possibility of providing reservations for ‘SCs (Dalits)’ who converted to Islam and Christianity. Tactically surprising because the ruling BJP is known to support anti-minority (especially Muslim) postures, and amusing because the presence of ‘Dalit-type’ Muslims (and to a limited extent Christians) has never been officially recognised since India’s independence in 1947.
The Census of India and the National Sample Surveys do not allow reporting of ‘Dalit type castes’ once a respondent household identifies as ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’. Nor has there been evidence of recording Dalit status in any government department, such as education. Not even by the Election Commission, which implements ‘reserved constituency’ policies.
On 20 September, the Supreme Court contextualised and ruled that it was high time to decide on matters with extensive social ramifications. Whether or not to include Dalit Christians and Muslims under the Scheduled Caste system was the main point of contention. The constitutional Act and order of 1950 recognises SCs only if the reporting individuals/households are Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh.
On 7 October, the government established a three-member Commission for Inquiry—helmed by the former Chief Justice of India, K.G. Balakrishnan—to investigate the feasibility of granting SC status to converted Dalits and give its recommendations in two years. Although it appears that the announcement was made in response to several pending petitions against such reservations in the Supreme Court, the authors are certain that political considerations are at work.
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Developing data, methods
The social policy of quota reservations must be based on robust data on the deprived and marginalised communities identified at the state level. The dynamics of such quotas are highly diverse and specific to a state and then aggregated at the national level. It is essential to implement, modify and reform India’s quota reservation system, and it must be anchored on the analysis of social identities such as caste and community. Although such identities are currently dependent upon certification from specified bureaucrats, India must invest in creating social stratification and economic profiling of population groups as they are currently identified. In this regard, we provide two methodological frameworks in estimating and identifying such groups.
First, self-identified reporting of social identities through data: the following table presents data extracts from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) for reference years 1999-00, 2004-05 and 2019-20. Note that the Hindus, with 80 per cent, and Muslims, with about 15 per cent population, have 95 per cent population weight in these numbers. This data suggests that while there has been a marginal increase in Hindu OBC reporting over the last two decades, the increase among Muslims is phenomenal.
The share of Muslims reporting themselves as OBCs has consistently increased over the years from just about 32 per cent in 1999 to 60 per cent in 2019-20. This type of dynamic reporting is found only among Muslims. This is entirely due to the current official and systemic limitations that bar them from reporting ‘SCs’ from the community.
Thus, the politics of the current Indian quota system has affected Muslims the most and must be set right in the interest of inclusive democratic development.
It is also our view that the Mandal commission (MC) framework of identifying social backwardness with appropriate re-definitions can be meaningfully used to arrive at the validity of a 10 per cent quota for Economically Weaker Sections or EWS. A composite index measuring levels of deprivation or backwardness of social groups, as is currently identified in data, can be efficiently computed. Surveys such as NSSO, the National Family Health Survey, and the District Level Household Survey (DLHS) are reliable data sources for undertaking such estimates. This empirical and methodological analytical exercise can be replicated to understand the depth and size of inter-community deprivations across all states of India.
Methodological innovation is essential to re-evaluate and investigate how backwardness is defined and measured using the 11 criteria the Mandal Commission specified for reference years in the 1970s. A cursory evaluation of these metrics for the most current data period (about 2015–16) revealed that the necessity for the MC’s cut-offs needed to be reconsidered in light of India’s impressive and rapid development since the 1970s. The MC parameters maintain robustness and valid standards to define backwardness accurately, and also, are essential for comparing goals of development over the last five decades.
Abusaleh Sharif is Chief Scholar at US-India Policy Institute, Washington D. C. Mohd Naushad Khan is sub-editor at Radiance Viewsweekly. They tweet @AbusalehShariff and @khannaushad74. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)