Political rulers use distinction of Sikhism and Buddhism being Indian faiths, as opposed to the alien faiths of Abrahamic Christianity and Islam to deny reservation to Dalit Christians and Muslims
A Dalit woman carrying human waste on her head. (Representative image)
Published: 21 Feb 2021
The Chief Justice of India looked down from the middle chair in court number 1, and very calmy, almost coldly asked the counsel for the Christian community: Will any Bishop tell the court his church practises casteism? It has been many decades since then but no Bishop has filed an affidavit that he, his church or his community discriminates against fellow Christians because of their “low” caste.
Christians who were once known as untouchables and converted to Christianity from the more “dignified” classification of the Scheduled Castes, have since fought a lonely battle in court, Parliament and in the church. Their lonely battle continues because the practice of caste also continues in their respective community. Such is the case with Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist communities too, listed as the official minorities in India.
The brilliant diplomat turned politician, Syed Shahabuddin, swore that since Islam believed in the equality and brotherhood of man and did not acknowledge the existence of caste, there was no question of seeking Scheduled Caste status for any section of the community. Shahabuddin, who I knew well, would only support a backward class status for the entire community with all the economic and political perks it attracted.
My own research as a grassroots reporter and activist brought me face to face with the stunning reality. On a visit to Pakistan, when such things were still possible without getting lynched on social media, I was witness to a major strike by the local Christian community, all Punjabis.
They were demanding half a day off on Sundays to be able to go to Church. Almost every one of them was a municipal employee, what in north India would be called safai karmachari. And in Pakistan too they were former ‘untouchables’ and called Choora, a derisive term also heard in Jammu and Punjab in India. They had been forced to stay back during the Partition of 1947, because no one else was willing to do the ‘dirty’ work.
Back in India, on a study tour in Punjab along the border areas, I came across manual scavengers who worshipped the same God as I did. Years later, during a visit with the late Swami Agnivesh to launch a march against manual scavenging in Rajasthan, I came across scores of Muslim families who worked as manual scavengers.
The women were the ones who actually did the demeaning work. I met the daughter of one of them. She had gone to law school. Agnivesh joined me in washing her mother’s feet in a gesture of atonement.
The Sikhs and Buddhists however enjoyed better political clout. Mazhabi Sikhs and Ambedkarite Dalit Buddhists, as they called themselves, had been braver and luckier. Both were in turn covered by the Scheduled Caste definition, which helped them get seats in Parliament and to every other legislative and local government bodies. It also got them the protection of the law under the Anti-atrocities Act, as it is called.
Political rulers used the defensive, and very polarising distinction of Sikhism and Buddhism being Indian faiths, as opposed to the alien faiths of Abrahamic Christianity and Islam.
The writ petitions of the Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims– called DC and DM in a celebrated socio-economic study by professor Satish Deshpande of Delhi University – are still pending in the Supreme Court, awaiting a listing before a Constitutional bench. This is all the progress they have made in more than a decade and a half after summarily losing their first attempt in court for justice.
That terrible judgment is called the ‘Soosai Case’, after the cobbler who had sought protection of the law as others from his community but who worshipped a different god.
Professor Deshpande’s momentous study was at the behest of the National Commission for Minorities. Another panel, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, headed by former Chief Justice of India Ranganath Misra and set up in 2004, not surprisingly found that caste had crossed the borders of the original ‘Varna’ system of the law-giver Manu, to permeate every single religion that came to the land.
The Commission did not use the words, but the meaning was clear. Caste and caste-based discrimination had tainted every religious faith in almost equal measure. Like prof Deshpande, Justice Misra also discovered that the discrimination was not just social but also economic and political in denying representation in the government and the private work force.
“We have found no indication whatsoever in the Constitution…of an intention that Scheduled Castes must remain confined to any particular religion or religions,” former Chairman of the National Commission of Minorities prof Tahir Mahmood said when the BJP led a series of objections to the Misra panel findings.
“It is not only unconstitutional, but it would also encourage conversions. We would oppose any move towards reservations for Dalit Christians and Muslims,” said then BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar, now a central minister. These are words that were repeated in Parliament this session by the BJP, now in government.
Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad made it quite clear in the Rajya Sabha that the Narendra Modi government had absolutely no intention to bring Dalit Muslims and Christians at par with Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists of the same caste groups. Javadekar’s reference to religious conversions – the root of the current wave of love jehad laws and their parental anti-conversion legislation in eight Indian states – is what this is all about.
Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru had sought to make amends to a historic and ethnic wrong done over three millennia to this group of citizens. Article 341 therefore gave them a special place, social rights and reservation up to 15 per cent in educational institutions and government employment.
While Article 341 was not diluted, it was emasculated by the Presidential Order of 1950. This said that the constitutional guarantees of affirmative action would be limited only to those who remained Hindu. In effect people would not be entitled to reservations and the protective umbrella of the untouchability-ending laws if they left the Hindu fold.
This, in effect, is the world’s most extensive, most powerful and most viciously bigoted anti-conversion law. It also, in effect, communalises the protective cover of the law of the land. This is not how newspaper articles narrate the persistent tragedy of the ‘DCs and the DMs’. But legalese cannot take away the bitterness of the truth.
(The author is a senior journalist and commentator. Views are personal)