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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 33, August 12, 2023

Caste is Independent of Religiosity and Inconsistent with Conversion: Examining the Issue of Extending Reservation Post-Conversion | Rajiv Ranjan Prasad

Saturday 12 August 2023



Religious conversion is a personal choice that individuals are entitled to make. In Hindu Society, which is a collection of castes, and each caste being a closed corporation, there is no place for a convert. Caste is inconsistent with conversion. Caste is generally independent of religiosity. However, when it comes to claiming additional quota benefits, it is essential to consider the principles of equity and fairness. Those who have chosen to leave Hinduism and embrace Islam or Christianity, and have enjoyed the benefits offered by their new religious community, should not be entitled to claim additional quota benefits on the Hinduism side of the fence.

Time has come once again to adjudicate on the vexed question whether the caste system can be imputed to Christian and Muslim religions by extending reservation post-conversion. The Supreme Court had said on12 April 2023 that it would consider in July whether the caste system can be imputed to Islam or Christianity, given their nature and character, and consider these issues in the batch of petitions challenging the exclusion of Christians and Muslims from the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950 (Rana, 2023). In this context, it would be perhaps desirable to examine these issues from the sociological and anthropological perspectives.

Intertwined Nature of Law and Religion

In his first book ’Categorizing Caste and religion for Purposes of Affirmative Action in India’, Marc Galanter (1992) reminds us of the intertwined nature of law and religion, even in countries officially committed to secularism. Legal and religious orders help to constitute each other: “No secular State is or can be merely neutral or impartial among religions, for the State defines the boundaries within which neutrality must operate ".

The religion of a person in India carries great significance within the social realm. It serves as a fundamental aspect of individual and collective identity, influencing traditions, values, and social interactions. Once a person’s religious affiliation is established, their status within a group is often determined by their position in that religion’s caste system (Vasundhara, 2023).

Rigid social hierarchy in India

Caste, an integral part of Indian society for the past three thousand years, has played a significant role in shaping and perpetuating a hierarchical system of inequality across various domains of life. This system has become deeply embedded in the religious, cultural, social, economic, and political fabric of Indian society.

One of the key characteristics of the caste system is its exclusivity. The membership of a caste is limited to individuals who are born into it. This means that caste affiliation is not open to everyone, but rather determined by birth. This hereditary nature of caste membership reinforces the rigid social hierarchy and creates barriers for social mobility.

Religious conversion as escape route

This stratification of society based on caste holds a very negative or demeaning impact on those members of society who are standing at the lowest place in this hierarchy (Vasundhara, 2023). The rigid caste system in Hindu society has historically placed individuals in fixed social positions, with limited opportunities for upward mobility. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy often face discrimination, marginalization, and limited access to resources and opportunities.

To avoid this position of being at the lowest rung in the caste hierarchy, some people began to search for an escape route. Frustrated with the inherent disadvantages and discrimination they faced, members of these social groups started exploring alternative paths. In an attempt to transcend their standing in the lowest strata, they made the bold decision to renounce the Hindu religion and embraced a new religion Christianity or Islam.

Religious conversions in India have historically served as a means for individuals at the lower end of the caste hierarchy to improve their social standing and challenge existing hierarchies. For those facing discrimination and marginalization, converting to a different religion has been seen as a way to redefine social boundaries and assert their protest against the oppressive caste system.

The desire to liberate oneself from the oppressive system of untouchability has been a significant factor driving people from Scheduled Castes to convert to religions like Islam or Christianity. The absence of untouchability within these faiths, along with their emphasis on equality, brotherhood, and social mobility, provides a compelling alternative to the discriminatory practices of the caste system.

Religious conversion to Islam and Christianity among members of the Scheduled Castes community can be seen as a form of resistance against the injustices imposed by the Hindu caste system. It is a public display of resentment, a rejection of oppression, and a rebellion against a system that perpetuates inequality. By embracing a new faith, individuals assert their autonomy, challenge the dominion of their oppressors, and strive for a more just and inclusive society.

Conceptualizing conversion

In India, a country known for its diverse religious landscape, the perception of conversion extends beyond the spiritual realm. For a vast majority of people, conversion is not limited to a mere change in religious beliefs, but rather encompasses a broader range of social, cultural, and political implications.

Religious conversion, in popular usage, refers to the complete adoption of a specific set of beliefs associated with a particular religious denomination while excluding others. It involves the abandonment of one’s previous religious affiliation and the decision to affiliate oneself with another denomination (Pratik, 2015).

In the Indian context, convenience plays a significant role in religious conversion. It is observed that many religious conversions are driven by practical considerations rather than a genuine change in beliefs. People often opt for conversion for trivial reasons, such as gaining admission into educational institutions that favor individuals of a specific religion.

The process of conversion is a complex and multifaceted journey. Doubt, pressure, and motivation are key elements that propel individuals towards initiating change in their lives. Whether driven by a chronic dissatisfaction with oneself, external or internal pressures, or a deep-rooted motivation for personal growth, religious conversion signifies a profound transformation in beliefs, behavior, and social relationships. By embracing this journey of change, individuals seek to find solace, meaning, and a sense of belonging within the context of their chosen faith.

A large percentage of religious converts in India belong to the lower castes who convert to caste-less religions such as Christianity or Islam to escape the caste divide and all the other problems that accompany it. Conversion from a religion like Hinduism, in which caste plays a pivotal role, to religions like Islam and Christianity, which do not differentiate on the basis of caste, has many obvious benefits.

The advantages of liberation from societal constraints on the lower castes are numerous and far-reaching. By breaking free from the limitations imposed by society, individuals from lower castes can truly realize their full potential and seize a world of opportunities that were once denied to them in the name of tradition.

For many individuals, conversion serves as a defining moment in their lives, providing an escape from the emotional burdens that come with feeling unworthy and lower than others. Prior to conversion, they often experience a deep sense of unhappiness and despair, as they are conditioned to believe that their social status is fixed and immutable. However, through the act of conversion, they embrace a new faith that sees all individuals as equals, regardless of their social background. This newfound belief system instills a sense of self-worth and empowers them to rise above their past circumstances.

Conversion and social transformations

Religious conversion is not a solitary endeavor but has broader social consequences. It results in personal transformation, social transformation, and cultural changes. The formation of a new identity is a significant outcome of conversion. As individuals navigate through the conversion process, they develop a sense of self that is intertwined with their new beliefs and values. This new identity often provides them with a sense of purpose and belonging within their chosen community.

Caste is inconsistent with conversion

One of the fundamental principles of the caste system is that membership is solely determined by birth. A person’s caste is predetermined based on the caste of their parents. This hereditary aspect of the caste system ensures that social status is inherited and remains unchanged throughout an individual’s life. Consequently, the social mobility within the caste system is limited, as individuals are bound to their caste from birth till death. The caste system does not allow for conversion or acceptance of newcomers. Since each caste is a closed corporation, there is no place for individuals to convert (Vasundhara, 2023) and join a caste that they were not born into.

Caste is inconsistent with conversion. The issue of where to place converts in the caste system is a significant problem that arises in connection with conversion. This problem highlights the inconsistency between caste and conversion, as well as the ethical issues associated with assigning a convert to a specific caste. As the historian John Webster has remarked, “Caste is generally independent of religiosity, for both Hindu and Christian members of Untouchable castes are often treated as equally inferior (quoted by Vasundhara, 2023).

Caste among Non-Hindus

Caste among Non-Hindus is distinctively dissimilar to caste among Hindus. Non-Hindus do not perceive caste as a religious doctrine. In contrast, religion plays a significant role in compelling Hindus to observe and adhere to the principles of caste. Caste among Hindus is treated as a religious dogma, emphasizing the importance of maintaining social isolation and hierarchy.

Does conversion trigger change in social status

Moving from one social or cultural context to another can have a profound impact on an individual’s or group’s social status. This transition can often lead to the person or group being stigmatized within their new environment. Stigmatization, rooted in the diversity of human differences, is a pervasive and inescapable phenomenon.

Being or feeling stigmatized is virtually an inescapable fate due to the inherent nature of human differences and the societal constructs that perpetuate stigmas. No individual can completely control or change their inherent characteristics, such as their race, gender, or disability. As a result, they may face prejudice and discrimination solely based on these traits, irrespective of their personal qualities or achievements. Accordingly, the arguments of the Scheduled Castes that their stigmatized social status persists even after conversion to Christianity or Islam may be construed as a inescapable phenomenon. And this phenomenon, however, cannot be made the basis for asking quota benefits after conversion.

The trade-off

Religious conversion is a personal choice that individuals are entitled to make. However, when it comes to claiming additional quota benefits, it is essential to consider the principles of equity and fairness. Those who have chosen to leave Hinduism and embrace Islam or Christianity, and have enjoyed the benefits offered by their new religious community, should not be entitled to claim additional quota benefits on the Hinduism side of the fence. Upholding the principles of social justice and maintaining a fair reservation system is crucial for the progress and inclusivity of our society.

Offering quota benefits for those who left Hinduism has been likened to incentivizing conversions (Jagannathan,2022), which raises concerns about the long-term consequences for society. To address these concerns and promote social cohesion, an alternative approach involves reconversion and acceptance within the castes that individuals previously left.

(Author: Prof. Prasad is a Social Anthropologist. He was associated with the National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (NIRD&PR), Hyderabad)


 Galanter, Marc (1992): Law And Society In Modern India 249. Oxford University Press, Oxford
 Jagannathan, R (2022): There Is No Case For Quota Benefits To Dalit Christians; Here’s What Hindus Must Tell SC Bench, Swarajya, Wednesday, August 31, 2022
 Pratik, Astha (2015): Religious Conversion, Academike, March 19, 2015
 Rana, Ramey Krishna (2023): "Breaking| SC Status To Dalit Converts: Can Caste System Be Imputed To Islam And Christianity- Supreme Court To Consider", Verdictum, 12 April, 2023
 Vasundhara (2023): Caste and Conversion in India - Legal Services India.

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