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Mainstream Vol. XLVIII, No 17, April 17, 2010

Should Dalit Christians/Muslims be excluded from Reservation?

Monday 19 April 2010, by Ambrose Pinto

The Ranganath Mishra Commission Report was tabled in December 2009 in Parliament. Some of its important recommendations are 15 per cent reservation to minorities in education, Central and State Government jobs and social welfare schemes in the OBC quota. Out of 15 per cent reservation for minorities, the Report recommends 10 per cent to Muslims and the remaining five per cent to other minorities. It also recommends the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the list of the Scheduled Castes. How is the Report different from the present practice? At present all minorities, including the so-called Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians, are entitled to reservation of 8.4 per cent out of the 27 per cent reservation meant for the OBCs. This percentage has been hiked and religion has been kept out of reservation for the SCs in the Report. The report has said that the Scheduled Caste (SC) status should be de-linked from religion and the SC net should be made “religion-neutral”. This is what Dalits have always been asking for over the years. While exercising the right to the choice of religion, they would like to remain as Dalits and strengthen their unity. The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 paragraph 3 unfortunately defined a Scheduled Caste in terms of religion and not in terms of social and educational backwardness. Dalits
and other progressives have argued that the Order of 1950 was against the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution. The Ranganath Mishra Commission has set that right and the converted Dalits are pleased. The inclusion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims could further strengthen Dalit unity and increase their assertiveness.

Dalit Arguments

The argument of the converted Dalits has been that conversion does not change their socio-economic situation. To further substantiate the argument, they have presented several research findings and statements by their representatives. Here is the statement of Vijayawada MP Rajagopal in the Lok Sabha on the issue. While asking learned friends on the Internet from the Dalit background not to distance themselves from the reality of the country, he made the following statement on March 22, 2005 in the Lok Sabha:

Dalits practising Christian faith are excluded from the Scheduled Caste category and are treated as the BC category only. If we look at the living conditions of all Dalit Christians, there is no difference in economic or social conditions when compared to other Dalits. It is an irony that just by practising their faith of choice, they are excluded from all the benefits that they originally enjoyed as Dalits in a democratic and secular country like India. I have personally seen the living conditions of Dalit Christians in various villages in my parliamentary constituency and in spite of several years of Independence, they are still living in temporary hutments as daily wage farm labourers. The situation is such that unless both the wife and husband work they cannot meet both ends and the earnings are just enough to feed their family with low nutrition food. Hence, I feel Dalits who practise their own faith of worship, which could include Christianity, Islam, should also be treated as Dalits with full benefits that come under Scheduled Caste category.

The Chinnappa Reddy Commission Report, the Mandal Commission, the Sachchar Commission Report and other studies have highlighted the marginalisation of Dalit communities irrespective of religion.

The other argument is more central. In the existing practice, Dalits do not have the freedom of faith given to all citizens of the country. They continue to be SCs if they remain untouchables, impure and polluted or if they convert to Buddhism or Sikhism. If they dare to switch over to Islam or Christianity, then they cease to be Dalits and their rights to live as Dalits is taken away from them. The progressive lot among the Dalits hold that this is a ploy of the communalists to keep them under caste subjugation. In other words, the Indian state seems to be telling the Dalits if they want to derive SC benefits, they should strengthen the Hindu caste order by remaining in it and
they should be seen by the upper castes as untouchables, impure and polluted. The object of reservation seems to be to keep the Dalits subordinate to caste Hindus so that the caste Hindus can make use of their cheap and bonded labour. If they protest against caste by joining egalitarian religions like Christianity and Islam, they should pay a price for it and they would not be eligible for any reservation benefits. This is something that can never be reconciled in a secular democracy. To deny Dalits the right to freedom of religion, is to violate one of the fundamental rights in the Universal Declaration of Rights and needs to be universally condemned.

Reactions to the Report

Political parties have responded to the Commission Report on expected lines. The BJP has said that they would oppose the Ranganath Commission Report as its implementation would disintegrate the society. The statement is in accordance with the party’s anti-minority ideology. For Sushma Swaraj, “it is a conspiracy that the Congress has been planning for a very long time and the BJP will not let them do this injustice to the backward people”. One wonders: when did the BJP last take interest in the backward classes? The party had vehemently opposed the Mandal Commission. The Bill, if passed, would encourage conversions according to Arun Jaitley, the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. With this anti-minority mind-set and a determination to keep the Dalits in the Hindu fold for cheap labour and exploitation, in the name of caste and religion, such statements are natural for the BJP. Anti-minority propaganda is one of the important ways through which the party has divided the nation and in the process proclaimed itself as the protector of the Hindu community. What kind of protection is it if the party is not wedded to the removal of caste and untouchability?

All the other parties are in support of the recommendations of the Mishra Commission. The RJD and the LJP have already voiced their demand for the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. Another voice seeking the Report’s implementation is that of the Nationalist Congress Party. West Bengal’s ruling Left Front major Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and the CPI have welcomed the Ranganath Mishra Commission Report recommending 10 per cent reservation for Muslims and five per cent for other minorities in government jobs. The DMK has favoured the Report even before its presentation in the Lok Sabha and has made continuous pleas with the Central Government for the implementation of the Report. The Janata Dal (S) wants the report to be implemented. So does the BSP. All this means that if the government is determined to go ahead, it can implement the Report. The UPA would receive the required support.

Fears of the Congress

But will the UPA with the Congress as the leading group implement the Report? The indicators are not very positive. While the Christian and Muslim converts are demanding its implementation across the country, the position of the government has been on expected lines. The government has made a statement that it will discuss and consider the document in all sincerity. What does this sincerity mean? It is unwilling to say for now whether it will accept the recommendations or not. Sincerity for the Congress is not the objectivity of the report but political expediency. It is already four months now since the presentation of the Report in Parliament. The government says it wants to mull over the Report further. When facts and figures are available in the Report for everyone to see, what is it that the government desires to mull over? One fails to understand the reasons for the establishment of the Ranganath Commission if the government is not too keen to implement its Report. Besides, other reports have also backed the Ranganath Commission’s findings. Is the Congress afraid of incurring the wrath of the vested interests of the dominant community? Political expediency cannot be the norm for implementing the agenda for the minorities. If the Women’s Bill can be passed, why not the Ranganath Commission recommendations? Given past experience, the Congress will likely weigh the political cost prior to deciding to implement the Report in spite of the situation favouring the party. The implementation of the Report could only bring more of the minorities and others into the Congress fold than alienating any group. Those who threaten the implementation have never been a part of the Congress constituency. And yet, the party may imagine that it would be perceived as anti-Hindu. Such imaginations are fictitious and can only be a reaction to the statements of the BJP. The only way of responding to the BJP is by aggressively implementing the Report and secularising the communal space the party is holding on to because of the nervous-ness and dithering of the Congress party on important concerns for the minorities and the marginalised.

A former Director of the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is currently the Principal of St Joseph’s College, Bangalore.

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