By Yoginder Sikand
In 1935, the British, in response to growing demands from the oppressed castes, led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, arranged for a number of castes, whose names were specified in a schedule (hence called Scheduled Castes), to be given reservations in government jobs and elected bodies. These castes, numbering several hundred, had historically been treated as despised untouchables, considered both by the wider society as well as the Hindu religion as sub-humans or worse. They were not defined by any religion. They included a number of castes or sections thereof whose ancestors had converted over the centuries to various religions, such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Sikhism, in search of liberation from the tyranny of the Hindu, or, more specially, Brahminical, religion.
Recognising the legitimacy of the demands of the oppressed castes for reservations as a means for representation, the Constitution of India continued with the special provisions for the Scheduled Castes under Article 341, but in 1950 a Presidential order specified that no person professing any religion other than Hinduism would be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.
This patently anti-secular and grossly anti-democratic order was stiffly resisted by non-Hindu Dalits. In the face of strong protests, over the years the Indian state was compelled to extend Scheduled Caste status to Sikh and Buddhist Dalits. Yet, it continues to deny the same to Christian and Muslim and Dalits. This is a clear violation of the Constitutional rights of these groups that number in the tens of millions. It is a patent act of discrimination on the basis of religion engaged in by the Indian state itself, clearly revealing its pro-Hindu bias. It compels Dalits to identify themselves (often against their will, given the degraded status that Hinduism consigns them to) as ‘Hindus’, thereby artificially inflating Hindu numbers. This is the price that they have to pay in order to receive the crumbs of state patronage. Although the Brahminical texts, the basis of what is called ‘Hinduism’, clearly do not recognize Dalits as members of the Hindu society, treating them as ‘polluting’ outcastes, as outside the four-fold varna system, by insisting that the Dalits identify themselves as ‘Hindus’ if they wish to enjoy Scheduled Caste status, the Indian state has, in one stroke, engaged in a massive act of religious conversion, more aptly described as ‘religious bribery’, converting, through the force of law, millions of people to a religion that is predicated on their degradation and the brutal denial of their humanity. According to the law, if a Christian or Muslim Dalit converts to ‘Hinduism’, he is automatically entitled to Scheduled Caste status. This is another way in which the Indian state acts as a Hindu missionary agent, its secular pretensions notwithstanding.
‘Upper’ caste Hindu leaders seek to justify the discriminatory religious clause attached to the Scheduled Caste category on the grounds that it is a ‘compensation’ for the degradation that Hinduism, in contrast to Christianity and Islam, prescribes for the Dalits, using this as an argument to deny Scheduled Caste status to Christian and Muslim Dalits. This claim is deeply flawed. It clearly contradicts their repeated (and patently false) claims of the superiority of Hinduism and its supposed teachings of universal compassion and tolerance. It also ignores the fact Sikhism and Buddhism (treated by them as ‘branches’ of Hinduism, the protests of their votaries to the contrary not withstanding) clearly denounce untouchability but yet Buddhist and Sikh Dalits enjoy Scheduled Caste status. There is thus no logical reason to deny the same status to Dalit followers of other egalitarian religions, such as Christianity and Islam. The absurdity of this restriction appears even more apparent when considered in the light of the fact that no such religious restrictions apply in the case of the Scheduled Tribes.
It is clear that the misplaced perception of Islam and Christianity being ‘non-Indic’ and, therefore, ‘foreign’, religions is at the root of the refusal to extend Scheduled Caste status to Christian and Muslim Dalits. It is apparent that this restriction also stems from a fear, pervasive among the ‘upper’ caste Hindu ruling class, that if Scheduled Caste status were extended to Christian and Muslim Dalits, scores of so-called Hindu Dalits might convert to Christianity and Islam in order to escape the shackles of ‘Hinduism’, which, as Dr. Ambedkar rightly considered, was a code designed to consign them to eternal, religiously-sanctioned slavery. Such a prospect, needless to say, poses a major threat to the hegemony of the ‘upper’ castes.
Deprived of Scheduled Caste status for decades, the Christian and, in particular, Muslim, Dalits are probably worse off, in terms of major socio-economic indicators, than the so-called Hindu Dalits. Unlike the latter, they are denied reservations in jobs and elected bodies, are not protected from anti-Scheduled Caste atrocity legislations, and no separate provision is made for them in government schemes. In addition to the degradation they suffer as Dalits, they suffer discrimination as religious minorities—at the hands of agencies of the state, ‘upper’ caste Hindus and their ‘upper’ caste coreligionists. This is, therefore, added justification for scrapping the discriminatory provisions of the 1950 Presidential order and for extending Scheduled Caste status to them as well.