The Supreme Court has sought the government’s opinion on a case file that was gathering dust for nearly two decades and pertaining to a matter that is as old as the Constitution. The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to take a stand on the sensitive issue of allowing Christian converts among the Dalits to enjoy reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. The Supreme Court is all set to hear the petition seeking to determine the status of Dalit Christians. Nothing can be more farcical than this epitome of all oxymorons — ‘Dalit Christian’.
The need to take up this issue at this stage, according to the Supreme Court bench, is that many old matters had been kept pending ‘because of their social ramifications’. There is little doubt that any issue that relates to the entitlements of the Dalit community will have serious socio-political consequences. But the logic behind getting the government’s view on the issue is baffling. No government would want to commit itself one way or the other on the issue of reservation, the same being true of extending reservations to Christian converts, the so-called Dalit Christians.
Instead of putting the ball into the political court, the SC should deal with the wider issue of political reservations, making it mandatory for political parties to increase provisions that will help affirmative actions.
There is also an urgent need to reconsider the prevailing idea of “once a backward is always a backward” just because one happens to be born in a particular caste. This was extensively discussed in R. Balaji v. State of Mysore [ix] case.
The reservation question
The political reservation was to be made available for ten years, after which it was to be reviewed and discontinued. Reservation is political representation based on caste and not religion. In the background of the tragic Partition, Ambedkar wanted the Constitution to guarantee equality of opportunity to the religious minorities but not reservation on the lines of what he envisaged for the Dalits among the Hindu society.
Paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950 categorically says, “…no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste”. The obvious logic behind this was the fact that discrimination based on birth and caste was a peculiar social ill that afflicted Hinduism and its off shoots. Christianity and Islam proclaim that they are egalitarian and does not have castes. So, what explains “Dalit Christian”?
Going by the clarity and finality with which the Constitution has clarified this point, the Supreme Court does not need to seek any political opinion. The petition seeking extending SC/ST status to Christian converts is blatantly ultra-virus to the Constitution. The Supreme Court should dismiss the case and not waste its precious time over such ostensibly divisive matters with a clear political agenda.
The classification of Hindus into castes and classes has its origin somewhere in the historical evolution of the society probably post-Magadh Empire. There is no scriptural sanctity to castes, nor does the classification of people as Dalits and untouchables mandated by the scriptures.
In fact, one of the pioneers of the movement to provide social dignity and justice to the so-called Dalits, Ambedkar had himself mentioned about this in many of his writings and speeches. “The outcaste is a by-product of the caste system. There will be out castes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the outcaste except the destruction of the caste system. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu faith of this odious and vicious dogma.”
The despicable practice of untouchability and treating someone as belonging to a lower class appears to have crept into the Hindu society as a complex system of relegating people to an unalterable social status. According to some researchers, Hinduism — its Vedic and classic variants — did not support the caste system; it rigorously opposed it in practice and principle.
According to a section of historians, when Islamic invaders resorted to forcible conversion, many communities/groups of people among the Hindus resisted conversion. These groups were either mercilessly killed or banished to remain outside the area of their normal dwelling. They were made to do scavenging and live away from the “converted elites” of the society. Gradually, these groups got organised and began life afresh in ghettos. “It was only after the Islamic atrocities during the medieval times that the untouchables and Dalits emerged”. Historians like H.V. Srinivas, S.V. Kamath and K.M. Panikkar too have written extensively on this issue.
Where Christianity is at fault
Whatever be the origins of the caste system, it was the collective fault of the Hindu society that it allowed a large section of its adherents to remain confined to a life more downgraded than that of the animals. Questioning this abhorrent practice, Ambedkar had asked ‘how is it that even the animals in our households can partake the water from the ponds which are denied to us, owners of those animals’?
But, by law, much of all these obscurantist practices were consigned to the dustbin of history once the Constitution came into existence. Ambedkar, who piloted the Bills on reservation for the oppressed classes of the society, had clearly indicated the need for such a Constitutional provision but for a limited period. His firm belief was that equality of economic and political opportunities will bring the historically marginalised communities to the forefront of progress.
Both Christianity and Islam lured a large section of the Dalit population with a promise that these two religions are egalitarian and do not recognise caste discrimination. But ironically, the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) reported that nearly 70 per cent of the Christian population in India are from the Scheduled castes background. If a ‘Dalit Christian’ or a ‘Dalit Muslim’ continues to feel discriminated, what purpose did the conversion serve?
Only 11 out of the nearly 170 Bishops are Dalits, resulting in lack of representation and participation in Church affairs. The influential upper caste Christian converts are accused of cornering school and college admissions in institutions run by the Church. Recently, when the Vatican promoted Bishop Marampudi Joji of Vijaywada, a Dalit, as the Archbishop of Hyderabad, his predecessor Archbishop Arulappa, an upper caste convert, publicly condemned the Vatican’s decision. Will the high and mighty of these religions admit that their religion is no different when it comes to discrimination? Some Churches are said to be considering separate “Dalit rites” to segregate them from “Upper Caste Christians”.
There seems to be an attempt by a section of the Church to usurp the political, economic and employment privileges guaranteed, as an affirmative action, to a section of the Hindu society. The Supreme Court should thwart this dangerous and divisive move.
Seshadri Chari is the former editor of ‘Organiser’. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)