Caste or Convert

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Supreme court of India image by Ramesh Lalwani
he Supreme Court has, for unknown reasons, opened a dark chapter in our modern history by upholding the validity of the Andhra Pradesh government decision to give four percent reservation to backward caste members of the Muslim community. The haste to give such as interim order warrants explanation, as the bench comprising Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan and Justices J.M.Panchal and B.S.Chauhan has referred the matter to a Constitution bench since it involves important constitutional issues.

As it is unclear how this will ultimately impact the 50 percent reservation ceiling fixed by the apex court in Indira Sawhney and Others Vs Union of India, a curative petition seems in order.

With UPA-II hell bent upon pursuing its disastrous divisive agenda for the nation, there is now real danger that the recommendations of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Ranganath Mishra Commission) to club Scheduled Caste converts to Christianity and Islam with Hindu Scheduled Castes for purposes of reservation benefits will be implemented (or sought to be).

Despite serious reservations amongst the truly affected converts themselves, the religious and political Christian and Islamic leadership is pressing for this, though neither faith recognises the caste system or untouchability. They proffer the specious argument that Scheduled Caste converts to their faiths continue to suffer discrimination at the behest of the new faith community and its leaders! Thus, converts suffer separate churches and/or mosques, separate prayer halls or prayer timings in the same church/mosque, and separate burial spaces. Upper caste/class sections of these communities do not socialize with (lower caste) converts.

It is truly shameful if, as these leaders admit, converts experience no visible uplift in social or economic status in the new faiths, which wrenched them from their civilisational moorings in Hindu society on the promise of a better life; and even now lure fresh converts by promising myriad bounties. As conversions are a multi-million dollar industry for both the church and the mosque, the Government of India should undertake a detailed socio-economic audit of foreign and domestic funds received by these religions since independence, and the reasons why their respective laity feels neglected and degraded despite this wealth of funds.

Boldly dissenting from the NCRLM majority view, Mrs. Asha Das, member secretary, has legitimately pointed out that to begin with, there is no documented research available to establish that the disabilities and handicaps suffered by Scheduled Caste members in the original Hindu social order persist with the same oppressive intensity in Christianity and/or Islam. As Islam and Christianity came to India along with traders, invaders and preachers and established themselves over centuries, it is difficult to hazard a guess about the number of their native progeny, especially Scheduled Caste converts, in the present population as there are no authentic records. Identifying SC converts will produce innumerable problems and chances of abuse when even listed Castes have problems of false certificates.

Studies by British missionary Rev. Samuel Mateer in Kerala and erstwhile Princely State of Travancore, Cochin and Madras Presidency, and published as “Land of Charity” 1870 and “Native Life in Travancore” 1883, show that the “slave caste” (present SCs) who converted to Christianity in these States enhanced their social, educational and economic status vis-à-vis their Hindu brethren.

Even today, available social indicators regarding Christians (separate figures for SC converts not available) reveal that in terms of literacy and education, work participation rate, etc. Christians are way ahead of other major religious groups (barring Jains). The 2001 census shows the literacy rate for Christians at 80.3 percent against Hindu 65.1; Muslim 59.1 percent; Sikh 69.4 percent; Buddhist 72.7 percent; and 64.8 percent for all religions. For Scheduled Castes in general, the literacy rate is 54.60 percent.

The grant of Scheduled Caste status to converts amounts to the formal introduction of the caste system in Islam/Christianity. This changes the basic tenets of these faiths, and exceeds the jurisdiction of both Parliament and the Judiciary. It is pertinent that Christians and Muslims were never treated as Scheduled Caste in British India or independent India.

The British adopted the rationale (continued in Order 1950) of identifying depressed classes/scheduled castes on basis of untouchability-related disabilities peculiar to Hindu society’s caste system. The SC Order of 1936 was based on ‘caste’; it clearly states: “No Indian Christian shall be deemed to be member of a Scheduled Caste” (conversions being aimed at destroying Hindu society). The 1956 and 1990 amendments included Sikh and Buddhist SCs as both faiths were home­grown sects within Hindu religion, and Explanation II below Article 25 provided that Hindu in sub-clause(b) of clause(2) would include persons professing the Sikh, Jain or Buddhist religion.

The constitution also abolished untouchability by Article 17 and forbade its practice in any form. To expand the list of untouchables after 60 years of affirmative action would undo all national effort to end this scourge, a retrograde step contrary to the constitutional commitment of non-discrimination. The allegation that converts suffer because they continue to be part and parcel of Indian society is specious as the discrimination against them is intra the new faith community. Equally fallacious is the claim that denial of SC status deprives converts protection under the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1955 is religion-neutral and applicable to all “religions and religious denominations throughout India.”

During a workshop organised by the Commission, Muslim scholars argued that as per the three globally accepted determinants of socio-economic backwardness - child mortality, degree of urbanisation and average life expectancy at birth - the Muslim community was far ahead of the majority community; hence religion-based reservations to Muslims were constitutionally and ethically unjustified.

India is in grave danger; BJP should rise to the occasion and demand that if SC converts are not given equal status and rights as believers by their new faiths, the Supreme Court should declare the conversion process incomplete or illegitimate and pave the way for the return of these misguided folk to the mother Hindu faith. They will receive all the social advancements that Hindu society has given to SC groups that stuck it out through thick and thin. It may be worthwhile to consider bringing down the government before this Partition-centric proposal is imposed upon the nation.
*The author Ms. Sandhya Jain, is a columnist with The Pioneer, a leading newspaper of Delhi and Editor, www.vijayvaani.com.
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