Reconversions, Quotas & the Implications of The Supreme Court Judgment
ON February 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of India pronounced that those Christian dalits who reconvert to Hinduism can get the benefits entitled to any Scheduled Caste as long as the caste community accepts that person as a member of their caste. This pronouncement will obviously give a fillip to the aggressive ghar wapasi campaign initiated by the Sangh Parivar in the recent months. Given the current political situation, the Sangh and its affiliates will use the judgment to induce Christians and Muslims to embrace Hinduism in a bid to increase their own social and political base. Experience has shown that the penetration of Hindutva into the ranks of oppressed social groups creates communal polarisation and also lays the foundations of communal rioting on the smallest of pretexts. The use of affirmative action and quota politics for creating this divide is also not new to Sangh Parivar and formed the basis of the Kandhmal riots of 2008 in Odisha. Therefore it is of utmost importance to understand the political implications of this judgment.
RELIGION AND QUOTAS
KP Manu, a dalit Christian whose ancestors belonged to the Scheduled Caste, Pulaya, reconverted and rejoined the Pulaya community. He was issued a Scheduled Caste certificate by the community organisation and this certificate was challenged in the High Court. The High court held that Manu was a Christian and not a Pulaya as he had no evidence to prove that he had Hindu Schedule Caste ancestors. This order was challenged in the Supreme Court whose two bench judgment held that Manu was a recoverted Pulaya Hindu and his Scheduled Caste status has been upheld by the court on two or three principle grounds. First, the apex court quoted several orders stating that a person converted to Christianity in order to escape caste discrimination. But on reconversion and re-entry into the caste Hindu society they became vulnerable to social discrimination once again and therefore needed to avail of both reservation and protection. In this logic, the question of reservation and quotas is clearly linked to the question of religion. It is assumed that there is no caste discrimination under Christianity or Islam, and therefore the Schedule Caste Order, 1987 clearly leaves these two religions out of the Scheduled Caste classification. This order is quoted by the judgment to justify its view and seek legal protection for its order as the 1987 amendment to the Scheduled Caste Order 1958 states “no person who professes a religion separate from Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste”. This definition excludes Christianity and Islam thereby ignoring the legitimate rights of the dalit Christians and dalit Muslims. By doing this it also strengthens upper caste fundamentalist forces within these two religions. Therefore the judgment highlights the need for amending the constitution in order to recognise the legitimate rights of all lower castes irrespective of their religion.
Second, the judgment is based on the premise that a person can acquire Schedule Caste status if the caste organisation admits him/her into the caste after reconversion. In the case of KP Manu this was done by the Pulaya organisation which certified that KP Manu, despite being married to a Christian, did not follow the practices of Christianity and was therefore to be considered a Scheduled Caste. Such logic has to be seen in the context of the way in which Hindutva organisations have started penetrating caste associations and using them to create communal polarisation as was most prominently evident in Muzaffarnagar. In this situation this reaffirmation and legitimisation of caste organisations will only strengthen right wing politics. Instead the institutional processes of certification need to based on independent methods of verification and certification so that those facing untouchability from all religions can avail of protection and benefits.
RECOGNISE DALIT CHRISTIANS
AND DALIT MUSLIMS
One of the main implications of the judgment, which is based on the Scheduled Caste Order (1987), is that it treats untouchability as part of a social structure which is linked to a religious order. In other words it assumes that Scheduled Castes lose their caste status after conversion to Christianity or Islam. But the social realities of these religions show that the caste system does not disappear once conversion takes place. Rather it gets institutionalised within both Christianity and Islam. This is shown in the evidence provided in a report entitled ‘Dalits in the Muslims and Christian Communities: A Status Report based on Current Social Scientific Knowledge’ prepared by sociologists Satish Deshpande and Geeta Bapna for the National Minority Commission (2010). It shows that dalits within Muslims and Christians were worse off than other dalits primarily because they do not get the benefits of being Scheduled Castes. They are also much worse off than other castes within their own religions. They therefore provide a fit case for the reservation of these communities. In response to this, these communities have also been experiencing the assertion of the Scheduled Castes within their own religions. This assertion needs to be supported in order to lead to the democratisation of the religions themselves and also to ensure justice to the most disadvantaged sections in these religions.
Considered in this context, the judgment is likely to impact the lives and struggles of dalit Christian and dalit Muslims. The judgment interprets the caste system as a religio-social rather than an institutionalised social structure and therefore gives credence to the argument that there is no caste in these religions. By doing this it strengthens the conservative elements within these two religions. This is especially true because upper caste Muslim and Christian ideologues are vociferous in arguing that they are better than the Hindus because they are casteless. The constitution and judgment only confirms this position and in this sense it also weakens the fight for the democratisation of the customary structures within religion. Hence all sections of the democratic movement need to support and strengthen the struggles of the dalit Christians and Muslims and fight for changing the definition of Schedule Castes as it stands today.