Some weeks ago, newspapers reported the case of a Dalit woman, Rima Singh, whose husband, Mukesh Kumar, had converted to Islam and taken the name of Muhammad Sadiq. The woman had recently been elected as a sarpanch on a reserved seat in a village in Uttar Pradesh and wanted to follow her husband and become a Muslim. However, if she did so, she would have to resign from her post, because, as the law stands today, Dalit Muslims, as well as Christians, are not considered Scheduled Castes (SCs) by the state. A bench of the Supreme Court issued a notice in response to the writ petition filed by the couple asking the Government of India to explain why Dalit Muslims are denied reservation benefits.
The continued denial by the state of SC status to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians despite consistent demands on the part of these communities is a patently anti-democratic and anti-secular stance and a gross violation of the fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution. Receiving official SC status is not simply to do with reserved government jobs and representation in state legislatures and Parliament, although these, too, are important. Dalit Muslim and Christian leaders point out that SC status brings various other benefits, which they are denied simply because of their religion. These include special development programmes, scholarships and hostels for students, reserved seats in educational institutions, special laws against atrocities on Dalits and so on, all of which do not apply to Dalit Muslims and Christians.
In 1950, a Presidential Order was passed declaring that the status of Scheduled Caste for official purposes was applicable only to those Dalits who professed to b ‘Hindus'. Under pressure from Ambedkarite and Sikh organizations, this was later amended to include Dalits who profess Buddhism and Sikhism. The law restricting SC status to Dalits who profess the Hindu religion, and now Sikhism and Buddhism, has been critiqued by numerous Dalit ideologues, who argue that this is essentially a means to inflate Hindu numbers and create the notion of a Hindu majority, and, based on the logic of Hindu majoritarianism, to justify and strengthen the hegemony of the ‘upper' castes, who claim to be representatives of the all ‘Hindus'. They point out that, technically, all the major Hindu or Brahminical scriptures consider the Dalits as outcastes, outside the four-fold varna system, ranking below even the Shudras, and hence as non-Hindus. This argument is supported by the numerous references in the Brahminical scriptures to ‘Chandals', ‘Doms' and other such ‘low' castes, using extremely derogatory language to describe them. Hence, Dalit critics argue, technically, Dalits cannot be considered Hindus, and the rule that restricts SC status to those Dalits who claim to profess the Hindu religion is bad not only in law but also in theology.
As many Dalit activists see it, the religion bar to SC status is a means to prevent Dalits from converting to other religions in search of emancipation from caste Hindu hegemony and for gaining self-respect based on a new religious and cultural identity. It is thus, they argue, a means to promote caste Hindu domination. Historically, they point out, in India conversion to non-Hindu faiths, including Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity and Islam, has been a means for Dalits and other oppressed castes to challenge caste Hindu oppression. That this has indeed been the case is obvious from the fact that the majority of India 's Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Muslims are descendants of converts from these castes. Seeking to stop conversion as a means of social protest by placing a religion bar, they argue, is not just anti-secular. It is also a means to stem Dalit revolt and, by Hinduising the Dalits under caste Hindu tutelage, it works to further solidify their dependence on the Savarna castes. Conversion to a non-Hindu and egalitarian religion, as Dr. Ambedkar himself realized and insisted, was a principal means for the Dalits to challenge caste Hindu oppression and to fashion a new identity based on self-respect, which the Hindu religion denies them.
Defenders of the religion bar seek to justify the restriction of SC status to Dalits who profess the Hindu religion by claiming that this is because the Hindu religion alone sanctions untouchability, unlike egalitarian faiths like Christianity and Islam. Hence, they say, only ‘Hindu' Dalits should be treated specially by the state. This argument is specious, to say the least. For one, it goes against the repeated claims by caste Hindu apologists, including both Gandhians and Hindutva ideologues, that the Hindu religion has no room for untouchability. Yet, ironically, when it comes to extending SC status to Dalit Muslims and Christians these very same apologists use the argument that since Hinduism sanctions untouchability, only ‘Hindu' Dalits should benefit from such status.
Defenders of the religion clause also claim that only ‘Hindu' Dalits face social discrimination because the Hindu religion sanctions it, and that, therefore, they alone should benefit from SC status. This argument, too, is faulty. It is completely blind to the fact that Dalit Christians and Muslims also face various similar forms of discrimination, from both their co-religionists as well as from caste Hindus. In the case of Dalit Muslims, this discrimination may be even more acute than what non-Muslim Dalits face, given the fact of widespread anti-Muslim sentiments and violence directed against Muslims, in which most of the victims are probably of ‘low' caste origin. Caste prejudices directed against Dalits run so deep in Indian society that the mere fact of conversion alone does not remove it. In fact, today, given the enormous clout of the anti-conversion and Hindutva lobbies, a Dalit who converts to Islam or Christianity will probably be worse off than before than prior to his or her conversion, being subject to harassment, boycott and sometimes even physical attacks. All the more reason, then, for such Dalits to also receive SC status.
Given the fact that a section of ‘Hindu' Dalits have received special status for decades and benefits from the state flowing from that status, it is obvious that their conditions are better than most Muslim and Christian Dalits. This means that Muslim and Christian Dalits are equally, or even, in a sense, more deserving of SC status in order to help them come up at least to the level of ‘Hindu' Dalits. The argument that the religion bar is obviously unfair and untenable is further strengthened by the fact that there is no such bar mandated in case of the Scheduled Tribes. Surely, then, the patently anti-secular and anti-democratic religious bar against which Dalit Muslim and Christian leaders are protesting needs to be removed forthwith.