Experts have argued as to what will be the fate of the findings of the three-member Commission formed to look into the potential of granting SC status to Muslim and Christian Dalits when the government itself is in denial mode. Will that not be a marathon exercise in vain? writes Mohd. Naushad Khan

The Central government is in denial mode on the issue of granting SC status to Dalits who have converted into Muslims and Christians, despite having established a three-member Commission of Inquiry.

In order to determine whether it is appropriate to grant reservations to Dalits, who converted to Islam and Christianity, the Indian government announced on September 19, 2022, that a national committee would be established. On October 7, 2022 a three-member Commission for Inquiry was created by the Union Government to look into the potential of granting SC status to converted Dalits. The commission, which also comprises retired IAS officer Ravinder Kumar Jain and UGC member Prof. Sushma Yadav, will be led by former Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan. The Commission has been given two years by the government to complete its reports.

Experts have argued as to what will be the fate of the findings of the Commission when the government itself is in denial mode. Will that not be a marathon exercise in vain? However, for the petitioner, the ball is now in the Supreme Court. But in the political corridor, it will certainly raise the political pitch ahead of assembly elections.

In opposition to a petition that asks for Dalits who have converted to Christianity and Islam to be given Scheduled Caste status, the Union Government has submitted its Counter Affidavit to the Supreme Court. The petitioner has asked for a ruling that the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 is unconstitutional and discriminatory since it denies Scheduled Caste status to people who convert to religions other than Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism.

“The Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950 was based on historical data which clearly established that no such backwardness or oppression was ever faced by members of Christian or Islamic society. In fact, one of the reasons for which people from Scheduled Castes have been converting to religions like Islam or Christianity is so that they can come out of the oppressive system of untouchability which is not prevalent at all in Christianity or Islam,” the government said.

The announcement by the government to set up a national commission to study the social, economic and educational status of Dalits who converted to Islam and Christianity has raised the issue of reservation and all the denominators attached to this debate. This has been announced at a time when there were several petitions pending before the Supreme Court, seeking reservations for Dalits who have converted to Christianity or Islam.

On September 20, the Supreme Court had said that the time has come to make a decision on issues having social ramifications and ordered the Centre to do so within three weeks. The issue at hand is whether or not to include Dalit Christians and Muslims in the scheduled caste system. Only Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs are recognised as scheduled castes under the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order. The matter was submitted for consideration on October 11 after the court gave the Centre three weeks’ time to state its position on the topic of reservations for Dalit communities who practise religions other than those listed in the 1950 Order.

In 2007, a panel appointed by the UPA government had recommended the delinking of the SC status from religion, a recommendation that was not accepted at that time. The issue of SC reservation benefits for Dalits who have converted to Christianity or Islam has been raised before. The National Commission for Minorities study from 2007 also made a similar recommendation, but it was also rejected because it was not supported by extensive field research.

Almost all experts have referred to Ranganath Misra Commission and the approach of the governments earlier. On October 29, 2004, the Indian government established the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, also known as the Ranganath Misra Commission, to investigate a number of matters pertaining to linguistic and religious minorities in India. Justice Ranganath Misra, a former chief justice of India, served as its chairman. On May 21, 2007, the commission gave the government its report.

The main recommendations of the Commission are:

  1. Give 10 per cent quotas for Muslims and 5 per cent for other minorities in government jobs and in seats in all the higher educational institutions (graduation and above).
  2. Reserve 8.4 per cent quota out of the existing OBC quota of 27 per cent for religious minorities, mainly Muslims.
  3. Permit Dalits who convert to Islam or Christianity to avail of reservation benefits under the Scheduled Caste reservation quota.

Experts have argued as to what is the need of a separate Commission when there are already recommendations in this regard. They believe it is a futile exercise which is less social but more political in nature, keeping in mind the modalities of the 2024 polls. Experts are of the opinion that the motive behind new national commission for Dalits is more political than welfare.    

Satish Deshpande, a sociology professor from the University of Delhi, has reasonably argued in his article in The Indian Express, under the heading, “On reservations for Dalit Christians and Muslims, a question of government’s intent,” on 21 September, by saying, “Reports that the Union government intends to appoint a national commission to study the status of Dalits (ex “untouchable” castes) belonging to the Muslim and Christian communities is, to the say the least, intriguing. It is hard to imagine why this government might want to (or even want to appear as if it wants to) include these “alien” religions in the reservation policy when they were explicitly excluded from the Hindu rashtra by the founding father of Hindutva, V D Savarkar.”

Noted social and human rights activist, John Dayal said, “This is the most idiotic argument ever given by a central government, born not of statistics, logic or even of the reputation of the faith it wants to make the national religion. Is it the argument of the Modi government and its intellectuals that 75 years after independence and eight years of the government of the strongest administrator the world has ever seen after Sardar Patel, caste discrimination and untouchability is a way of life in the majority community?”

He argued, “If it is so, how many Hindu religious heads and others have been sent to jail for perpetuating this horrid and evil practice of untouchability? If it is the continuing ill effects of pre- independence caste practices now ended, how are Dalit Christians and Muslims not sufferers of this endemic disease? Caste is in the soil and discrimination in the very air we breathe. In truth, the government and the ruling BJP are the font of the Islamophobia and Christo-phobia that is so much in our face across the country.”

Rajeev Dhavan, an Indian Senior Advocate, human rights activist, and Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists, avers: “Muslim and Christian Dalits should be included now. SC status is not the preserve of Hindus.”

Earlier, Professor Salim Engineer, Vice President of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, during a press conference said, “Article 341 of our Constitution should be suitably amended so that Dalits who convert to Christianity and Islam, besides Dalit Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, get the benefit of reservation.”  Referring to the recommendations of the Ranganath Misra Commission, he said the Scheduled Caste status should be completely separated from religion. Quoting from the Sachar Committee Report, Professor Salim Engineer also pointed out that the social and economic condition of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians has not improved after conversion.

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