ByÂ Yoginder Sikand
Sociologist And Critic
IN 1935,Â the British arranged for a number of â€˜lowâ€™ castes, whose names were specified in a schedule (hence called Scheduled Castes), to be given reservation in government jobs and elected bodies. These castes were not defined by religion, and included a number of castes whose ancestors had converted over the centuries to various religions, such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Sikhism, in search of liberation from the tyranny of Brahminism.
Recognising the legitimacy of the demands of the â€˜lowâ€™ castes for reservation, the Constitution of India continued with the special provisions for SCs under Article 341, but in 1950, a Presidential order specified that no person professing any religion other than Hinduism would be deemed to be an SC member.
This was stiffly resisted by non-Hindu Dalits, and so over the years, the Indian State was compelled to extend SC status to Sikh and Buddhist Dalits. Yet, it continues to deny the same to Christian and Muslim Dalits. This violation of the Constitutional rights is a patent act of discrimination on the basis of religion engaged in by the State. It compels Dalits to identify themselves as â€˜Hindusâ€™, thereby artificially inflating Hindu numbers. Although the Brahminical texts clearly do not recognise Dalits as members of Hindu society, treating them as â€˜pollutingâ€™ outcasts, by insisting that the Dalits identify themselves as â€˜Hindusâ€™ if they wish to enjoy SC status, the State has engaged in a massive act of religious conversion, more aptly described as â€˜religious briberyâ€™, converting, through the force of law, millions of people to a religion predicated on the brutal denial of their humanity. According to law, if a Christian or Muslim Dalit converts to â€˜Hinduismâ€™, he is automatically entitled to SC status. In this way, too, the State acts as a Hindu missionary agent.
â€˜Upperâ€™ caste Hindu leaders seek to justify the discriminatory religious clause attached to the SC category by claiming that it is a â€˜compensationâ€™ for the degradation that Hinduism prescribes for the Dalits, using this as an argument to deny SC status to Christian and Muslim Dalits. This claim is deeply flawed. It contradicts their repeated claims of the alleged superiority of Hinduism and its supposed teachings of universal compassion and tolerance. It also ignores the fact Sikhism and Buddhism denounce untouchability but yet Buddhist and Sikh Dalits enjoy SC status. There is thus no reason to deny the same status to Dalit followers of other egalitarian religions, such as Christianity and Islam. The absurdity of this restriction appears even more apparent when one considers that it does not apply in the case of Scheduled Tribes.
It is clear that the misplaced perception of Islam and Christianity being â€˜non-Indicâ€™ â€” and, therefore, â€˜foreignâ€™ â€” religions is at the root of the refusal to extend SC status to Christian and Muslim Dalits. It is apparent that this restriction also stems from a fear, pervasive among the â€˜upperâ€™ caste Hindu ruling class, that if SC status were extended to Christian and Muslim Dalits, scores of so-called Hindu Dalits might convert to Christianity and Islam in order to escape the shackles of â€˜Hinduismâ€™ which, as Ambedkar rightly considered, is a code designed to consign them to eternal, religiously-sanctioned slavery. This poses a threat to â€˜upperâ€™ caste hegemony.
Deprived of SC status for decades, most Christian and Muslim Dalits are probably worse off, in terms of major socio-economic indicators, than so-called Hindu Dalits. Unlike the latter, they are denied reservations in jobs and elected bodies, are not protected by anti- SC atrocity legislation, and lack separate provision in government schemes. In addition to being Dalits, they suffer discrimination as religious minorities, at the hands of agencies of the State, â€˜upperâ€™ caste Hindus and their â€˜upperâ€™ caste co-religionists. This is added justification for scrapping the discriminatory provisions of the 1950 Presidential order and for extending SC status to them.