Why the idea of reservations for Muslim and Christian Dalits has divided the Ambedkarites
In the wake of the Modi government’s formation of a commission to reassess reservations for Dalits, Ambedkarite scholars are debating whether to include Muslim and Christian Dalits in the list of scheduled castes. Much of the opposition stems from the claim that Muslim and Christian Dalits do not face the same level of caste oppression as Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits.
However, many others have strongly disputed this claim, arguing that reservations should be religiously neutral and that the caste oppression faced by Dalits does not go away by changing religion.
At present, only Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits are eligible for reservations of jobs, education and legislatures under India’s Scheduled Caste quota. This is in accordance with the Order of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) of 1950, a presidential decree which lists all Scheduled Castes. Initially, paragraph 3 of the ordinance stated that only Hindus could avail themselves of the reservations. In 1956 the text was amended to include Sikhs and in the 1990s to include Buddhists.
However, lobby groups have long argued that the list should include Muslim and Christian Dalits.
In 2004, a case was filed in the Supreme Court by several petitioners, including the nongovernmental organization Center for Public Interest Litigation, arguing that limiting the Scheduled Caste category to certain faiths amounted to discrimination based on religion. In August, the Supreme Court asked the Center to file a response to the case by October 10.
On October 6, the Center appointed a three-member commission to consider whether the Scheduled Caste category should be expanded to include Muslims and Christians. The commission, comprising former Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan, former Indian administrative service officer Ravindra Kumar Jain and member of the university scholarship commission Sushma Yadav, will submit its report within two years.
Since the formation of the commission, several Ambedkarite activists have opposed the inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Christians in the list of Scheduled Castes.
One argument is that many Dalit Muslims and Christians are already getting bookings under the Other Backward Classes category. “Most Dalit Christians and Muslims are part of the central or national OBC list,” said Ashok Bharti, president of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organizations. “They are already enjoying the benefits of booking. So they can’t say they’re not reserved.
They also question the need for these groups to obtain Scheduled Caste reservations, which are provided to communities facing untouchability, given that activists argue that Islam and Christianity are caste-independent religions.
“They [Islam and Christianity] offered freedom from untouchability and humiliation to Dalits,” said Bharti, who strongly opposed the inclusion. “It was their [religious leader’s] publicly that they don’t believe in caste.
Shubhajit Naskar, an assistant professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, also opposed the inclusion of Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste category, citing the egalitarian nature of these religions. “Nowhere does the Quran or the Bible mention untouchability or a caste hierarchy unlike the texts of Hinduism, which mention the Varna system,” he added. wrote in The Hindu,
Furthermore, scholars argue that since the inception of the Scheduled Caste category, Muslims and Christians were not meant to be part of it. “Even in the Constituent Assembly debates, Muslims and Christians did not ask to become a scheduled caste,” Bharti said.
Arvind Kumar, a doctoral student in political science at the University of London, agrees with Bharti. “[In] debates of the Constituent Assembly, it was said who will be programmed caste, who will not be programmed caste”, he declared. Scroll.in. “If something was rejected by the Constituent Assembly, then it cannot be brought back even by a constitutional amendment. It would be tantamount to rewriting and destroying the Constitution.
Bharti attributed the request to political pressure. “I guess most Muslims and Christians want to use the Scheduled Caste right to go to Parliament [or state assemblies],” he said. Currently, Scheduled Castes have 84 reserved seats in the Lok Sabha, as well as reserved seats in state assemblies and local body elections.
Bharti said that in states like Uttar Pradesh, Muslim-dominated areas are reserved for scheduled castes. “There are allegations that Scheduled Caste reservations have been used as a tool to gerrymander,” Kumar added.
He said that the call for the inclusion of Muslims in the Dalit category started from 2004 and therefore such inclusion is not a “genuine concern”. “Since the rise of the BJP, politics has been communitarianized and the representation of Muslims is on the decline,” Kumar said.
A valid request
However, other activists and scholars disagree with this characterization of reservations. They argue that reservations are religiously neutral and that the oppression faced by Muslims and Christians continues after they convert.
“If you look at all the reservations [OBC, EWS] they are religiously neutral,” said Khalid Anis Ansari, associate professor of sociology at Azim Premji University. “Only the Scheduled Caste category is not religiously neutral.”
Ansari argues that religion cannot be the primary identifier in policy-making and therefore affirmative action must be based on social backwardness and not religion. “The request for [including] The Dalit Muslims arrived in 1994 and [the demand for] The Dalit Christians started even earlier,” he explained. “The idea is not about legislative or other things [benefits]», but to challenge the constitutionality of the religious prohibition.
Moreover, people who oppose this inclusion “do not see that Muslims and Christian Dalits suffer a lot of oppression despite their conversion”, said Shalin Maria Lawrence, an Ambedkarite activist and writer from Tamil Nadu.
Lawrence disagreed with the argument that conversion to Islam or Christianity removes caste disability. “A Dalit is a Dalit everywhere: in Christianity, Islam or Buddhism,” she said. For example, Lawrence pointed out, many manual garbage collectors in Chennai are Christians.
Snehashish Das, PhD student and Secretary General of Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association at Jawaharlal National University, Delhi, said untouchability is not an airtight phenomenon but a social phenomenon. Therefore, “we have to evaluate it not only on the basic religious text, but also on the response of society” to those who have converted, Das said.
However, the law does not recognize this social reality. “Currently the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 does not apply to us,” Lawrence pointed out.
In addition, this status will help Dalits of all religions to access other benefits, such as the Stand-Up India Scheme, a loan facility given specifically to Scheduled Castes, Lawrence said.
Conversion and competition
Several scholars argue that opposition to the inclusion of Muslim and Christian Dalits in Scheduled Castes is also based on two factors that have little to do with social justice: concerns about conversion and competition for existing quotas.
“In terms of social justice, no one has a complaint against Muslims and Dalit Christians,” Ansari said. “But people don’t approach these categories just for social justice. There are also interest-based interventions.
Ansari pointed out that opposition to this inclusion has so far come from two groups. One is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindutva outfit, and the other is made up of Ambedkarite intellectuals such as Bharti, Naskar and Kumar. “They [the opponents] have conversion anxieties” and religions such as Islam and Christianity that are “shared by the parties in power”.
However, Arvind Kumar disagreed with this characterization. “Since I wrote the article [criticising the inclusion] people tell me that now you have switched to RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] encampment,” he said. The RSS is the parent organization of several Hindutva groups, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the VHP.
Opposition could also stem from the fact that including Muslims and Christians in the Scheduled Caste quota would reduce opportunities for those who can currently take advantage of them. “The opposition is based on some anxieties and misconceptions, like the 50% cap,” Das said. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that reserves should not exceed 50%, except in exceptional circumstances.