The extension of certain benefits (known as ‘Scheduled Caste benefits’) to Dalit Christians is a contentious topic in India which has gained renewed attention. ‘Dalit’ refers to a group of people in the Indian caste system who have been historically viewed as the lowest stratum of castes. While the Indian Constitution provides affirmative action routes to redress discrimination against these groups, the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 specifies that no person who practices a religion other than Hinduism shall be considered a member of a Scheduled Caste. This puts in jeopardy reservation benefits (a form of affirmative action) for Dalits who have converted to Christianity. The Order of 1950 highlights a clash between, on the one hand, constitutional provisions guaranteeing equality and non-discrimination on the basis of religion and, on the other, the entrenched caste system that underpins not just the Hindu but also the wider Indic society.
To begin with, it is crucial to comprehend that ‘Scheduled Caste’ is not a caste, but a legal appellation conferred upon members of communities within the caste hierarchy. The Constitution refers to Scheduled Caste (‘SC’) status as a social category in several provisions, including Articles 330, 332, 334, 335, and 341, and none of these provisions stipulates a religious affiliation of the scheduled caste groups. Moreover, in the landmark case of Indira Sawhney vs Union of India, it was noted that caste is a birth-based phenomenon, that transcends religious boundaries and is not limited to Hindu societies alone.
Despite this, it is believed that SC is a major element of Hindu Social Order because a system of caste is inherent solely in Hindu Society. The inclusion of Sikhs and Buddhists under the SC category in 1956 and 1990, respectively, could be due to political pressure, as these religions are seen as offshoots of Hinduism under Article 25(2)(b). However, even though Sikhs and Buddhists do not recognize caste hierarchies in their religious doctrines, they still receive the same benefits as Scheduled Castes under the 1950 Order. Unfortunately, this does not apply to Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, which challenges Article 14 and Article 15 of the Constitution, providing for equality in general and non-discrimination on the basis of religion.
In Soosai vs. Union of India, the Indian Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the 1950 Order, citing insufficient evidence to support inclusion of Dalit Converts to Abrahamic Religions, and placing the burden of demonstrating continued caste-based discrimination on the petitioners. However, in light of the recent doctrinal developments such as Navtej Singh Johar vs Union of India, Soosai warrants reconsideration on the doctrine of evidentiary burdens, suggesting that it is the State which must disprove any hint of arbitrariness.
In Ziyauddin Burhanuddin Bukhari v. Brijmohan Ram Das Mehra, it was ruled that the State must remain impartial in providing benefits to citizens of all religions and castes, and ensure that its laws do not discriminate against any particular religious group. However, with the continuation of the 1950 Order, Dalit Converts are denied protection under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989. The Order is susceptible to challenges under international human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stress the importance of equality before the law, regardless of religion. India, being a signatory to these treaties, is bound to ensure that its laws and policies adhere to them. The exclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims from Scheduled Caste reservations contravenes these obligations and subjects India to criticism from the international community.
While the new Balakrishnan Commission is analyzing the exclusion of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians from the Scheduled Castes, it should also acknowledge the difference between social stigma and religious stigma. Although conversion to a different religion may occur for various reasons, the continued presence of social stigma remains a significant concern. Reservation was implemented for the Scheduled Castes to address historical systemic social disadvantages experienced by these communities, which do not cease to exist on conversion. It is important to examine whether the current system of compartmentalization is in line with the Constitution, given the ongoing social stigma that persists after religious conversion. The matter is currently before the Supreme Court in Centre for Public Interest Litigation vs. Union of India and it is imperative that the court considers the impact of exclusion on these communities, as well as the constitutional implications of such distinctions, to ensure a more just and equitable society.
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