7 8 2011Late last month, members of the National Council of Dalit Christians and the National Coordination Committee for Dalit Christians sat on a hunger strike in Delhi, followed by a protest march through the streets of the capital, in which some 10,000 people participated. Their demand: extension of Scheduled Caste status and the benefits that go with it to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. A number of top church leaders, including some 50 archbishops and bishops and hundreds of priests, pastors and nuns, participated in the demonstration, as did members of parliament from various opposition parties. Blaming the Congress Party for consistently denying SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims (who form a sizeable proportion of the Indian Christian and Muslim population respectively), the organisers declared that they would observe 10th August, the day on which a controversial Presidential Order was promulgated in 1950 denying SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims, as a Black Day all over the country. They exhorted Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims to vote only for those parties that are committed to SC status for these communities in the forthcoming panchayat and assembly elections. Leaders of the demonstration met with Mukul Wasnik, the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Pawan Kumar Bansal, Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Salman Kurshid, Minister for Law and Minority Affairs, Narayanasamy, Minister of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, and the National Commission for Minorities, expressing the outrage of Dalit Christians and Muslims against the consistent denial SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims by the Indian state.
The demand for SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims is a long-standing one. Prior to 1947, 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 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 religious label, however, and 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 shackles of caste that are sanctioned in Hinduism which, as Babasaheb Ambedkar rightly insisted, was a code designed to consign the Dalits and Shudras to eternal, religiously-sanctioned slavery. SCs thus included not just those who were defined as following `Hinduism’ (although the very term `Hinduism’ was recognized as vague and amorphous and although the Dalits, being despised outcastes, were treated by the `upper’ castes as actually outside the caste system and the Hindu religion) but also those classified as following other religions, mostly Christianity and Islam.
However, no sooner had the British left than this system of affirmative action was subverted under pressure from `upper’ caste Hindu revivalists with a Presidential Order, passed in 1950, specifying that only Dalits who professed the Hindu religion could be treated as SCs. The Order was probably motivated by the desire to prevent the conversion of Dalits to non-Hindu religions, a strategy which they have historically resorted to in order to escape from the humiliation heaped on them by caste Hindus, which is sanctified as supposedly reflecting the divine will in the Brahminical scriptures. Insisting that one had to declare oneself to be a Hindu in order to be recognized as an SC was thus a bait dangled before the Dalits to remain within the Hindu fold. In the absence of this, there was every possibility of vast numbers of Dalits converting to other faiths, thereby depleting Hindu numbers, which, in turn, would have posed a major challenge to the hegemony of the `upper’ caste Hindu minority and fractured the myth of the Hindus being a single, monolithic `majority’ community—a myth that is indispensable for the `upper’ caste minority to justify its continued dominance by claiming to speak for all `Hindus’, thus projecting its own caste/class interests as synonymous with those of `Hindus’ as a whole. Keeping the Dalits within (and at the bottom of) the Hindu fold was seen as crucial to preserving `upper’ caste rule. If conversion to non-Hindu religions was one major way in which Dalits have, for centuries, sought to challenge `upper’ caste Hindu tyranny, the Presidential Order put an effective halt to it.
Since non-Dalits in general have historically, and now, too, been indifferent, even hostile, to the Dalits, from Babasaheb Ambedkar onwards the Dalits have had looked to the state for redress. And so, when, with the Presidential Order, only those Dalits who defined themselves as `Hindus’ could hope to benefit from state-sponsored affirmative action measures, it meant that they simply had no alternative but to accept this patently unfair measure in order to improve their fortunes, even if this meant accepting to be defined as followers of a religion that is premised on their total degradation. This affront to Dalit self-respect was the price they had to pay in the hope of being able to witness at least some improvement in their extremely degraded conditions, in creating which caste Hindus and their religion were mainly responsible.
Yet, the Order, which was nakedly anti-secular and anti-democratic, was stiffly resisted by non-Hindu Dalit groups. 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. 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. 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’ beings and as avarnas or outside the four-fold varna system, below even the degraded Shudras, by insisting that the Dalits identify themselves as `Hindus’ if they wished to enjoy Scheduled Caste status, in one stroke the Indian state engaged in a massive act of religious conversion, converting, through the force of law, millions of people to a religion that is predicated on the denial of their humanity. The law went further and actually encouraged non-Hindus to convert to Hinduism. According to the law, if a Christian or Muslim Dalit converts to `Hinduism’, he is automatically entitled to SC status. This is another way in which the state acts as a missionary agent of Brahminism.
`Upper’ caste Hindu leaders seek to justify the discriminatory religious clause attached to the SC 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 of theirs is deeply flawed. It clearly contradicts their repeated claims of the alleged superiority of Hinduism and of its supposed teachings of universal compassion and tolerance, and clearly exposes their bogus proclamations that caste-discrimination is actually not integral to Hinduism if it is `correctly’ understood. 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 caste-discrimination and 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 theoretically 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. Moreover, by seeking to restrict SC status to `Hindu’ Dalits on the grounds that it is only in Hinduism that caste-discrimination is sanctioned, those who oppose extending SC status to Dalit Christians and Muslims conveniently ignore the fact that despite their conversion, Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims continue to suffer caste-discrimination not only from their `high’ caste co-religionists but also from the very `upper’ caste Hindus, to escape whose tyranny their forefathers had converted to other, theoretically egalitarian religions. In addition to this, they also suffer from deprivation and discrimination on account of being members of stigmatized religious minorities.
If SC status and the benefits that go with it are intended to address historical caste-based socio-economic deprivation, then Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims have possibly an even more compelling case for SC status than many others. This is because being deprived of SC status for more than half a century, Dalit Christians and, in particular, Dalit Muslims, are probably worse off, in terms of major socio-economic indicators, than many of the so-called `Hindu’ Dalits. Unlike the latter, they are denied reservations in jobs and elected bodies. They are not protected from anti-SC atrocity legislations. No separate provision is made for them in government schemes, in contrast to `Hindu’ SCs. This is, therefore, added justification for scrapping the discriminatory provisions of the 1950 Presidential order and for extending SC status to them as well.
The demands of the Dalit Christian protestors in Delhi are thus entirely valid. The continued denial of SC status to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims makes a complete mockery of the Indian state’s much-vaunted claims of being democratic and secular. That said, it also needs to be recognized that at a time when public sector employment is rapidly contracting and government funding for education being drastically cut (all part of a `developmental’ model that is clearly geared to promote the interests of the dominant castes/classes and global capital), Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims probably stand to gain but little in substantive terms from the benefits of reservations in jobs and educational institutions if at all they gain SC status. Be that as it may, their struggle is a worthy one.