Competing interests and fear of conversions obstruct the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims in job quotas for traditionally marginalized communities.
Successive Indian governments have been reluctant to extend reservation in jobs in government and seats in higher educational institutions for converts to Christianity and Islam, though they have extended the facility to converts to Buddhism and Sikhism.
In India, reservation is given on the basis of the hierarchical Hindu caste system. The highest (or Forward) castes have no reservation, but “Backward Classes” have 27% reservation, the Scheduled Castes (better known as Dalits) have 15% reservation and the Scheduled Tribes have 7.5%. This categorization is based on what one might describe as “inherited or traditional social status” which, among the Hindus in India, corresponds to the caste hierarchy. And caste is often coterminous with educational and economic status.
Caste is generally thought to be an innate and peculiar feature of Hindu society. It is presumed that Indian Christians and Muslims have no caste as these religions are, theoretically at least, egalitarian. Therefore, it is argued that a reservation system based on caste cannot be extended to Christians and Muslims.
But facts are quite the contrary. Indian Christian and Muslim communities are divided along caste lines, though less stringently. Nevertheless, the fact is that, after conversion to Christianity or Islam, they either do not shed caste or the society around them does not let them shed caste. There are, therefore, upper-caste Christians or Muslims and also Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. The Dalit Christians and Muslims carry into their new religious identity the disabilities of their previous Hindu social affiliation.
This is why several organizations, especially Dalit Christian organizations, have been campaigning for extension of the reservation quota to the traditionally disadvantaged social strata among Christians and Muslims.
Several interested parties had approached the Supreme Court in 2020 on this issue. This put pressure on the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi to act. The BJP sees an electoral advantage in cultivating the Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. But at the same time, it does not want to alienate the Hindu Dalits who are in a majority, and who do not want to share their 15% quota with any other Dalit group.
Additionally, the Hindu nationalist party fears that if Dalit Christians and Muslims are also accorded reservation, conversion of Hindu Dalits to Christianity and Islam would increase because many of them see conversion to equalitarian faiths as a way out of the traditional stigma attached to Dalits in the Hindu social order. If Hindu Dalits stick to Hinduism it is substantially because they are eligible for the 15% reservations in government jobs and higher educational institutions. In case reservations are extended to Dalit converts, many Hindu Dalits would convert, weakening Hindu power. The latter prospect worries the Hindu nationalist BJP, and in a way, other mainstream political parties.
The BJP is torn between cultivating the Dalit Muslim and Christian vote banks and keeping its firm hold on its core constituency, the majority Hindus. Dalit Christians are a substantial lot in Central, Western and South India. They could be a substantial vote bank here. According to the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO), there were nearly 3.2 million Dalit Muslims and Christians, which included 800,000 Dalit Muslims and 2.4 million Dalit Christians. Scholars and activists put the proportion of Dalit converts to Christianity at being between 50% and 75% of the Indian Christian community.
The Dalit converts are highly disadvantaged and need affirmative action. Looking at the bimonthly per capita expenditure in rural India in 2004-2005, nearly 40% of Dalit Muslims and 30.1% of Dalit Christians lived below the poverty line.
With the parliamentary elections due in 2024, and the opposition Congress party’s long march having a good run, the BJP needs more than upper and middle caste-Hindu votes to sail through. Hence the move to woo the converted Dalits.
In October, the BJP government constituted a committee to go into the question of extending reservation to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians. And to look sincere, the government appointed a Dalit, K.G.Balakrishnan, a former Chief Justice of India, as the chairman of the committee. The Balakrishnan Commission has been given two years’ time to submit its findings. That would enable the government to hoodwink the converts. Government could pretend to be attending to the issue while avoiding any decision before the 2024 parliamentary elections. The government apparently believes that since the Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims are not politically organized, they could be “appeased” with “tokenism” or pretenses without yielding anything substantial.
The Balakrishnan Commission’s brief is interesting. It is cleverly designed to help it to reject reservation or, at the very least, say that the issue is too complicated. Firstly, it has been asked to collect fresh and accurate data on the economic and social standing of the Dalit Christians and Muslims. This is a challenging task given the fact that there has been no caste census in India since 1931.
Secondly, the commission has been asked to find out about the impact of giving reservations to converts on other categories like Dalit Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. There is a feeling that these categories would not like to share their quota with Dalit Muslims and Christians. Any bid to widen the reservation net could trigger a conflict between the Hindu Dalit majority and the Muslim and Christian Dalit minority. Such a conflict could help gain adherents to Hindutva among the Hindu Dalits.
If the Commission details the problems arising out of reservations, the government can very well cite the “need to prevent social tensions” as an excuse to deny reservation to the Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.
In a further step, the government told the Supreme Court dealing with cases filed by pro-reservationists, that there is justification for not extending reservation to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims because these people are following “foreign” religions, and not India-born religions like Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism.
Pointing out a difference between conversion to Buddhism and conversion to Islam or Christianity, the government affidavit said: “Scheduled Caste converts to Buddhism embraced Buddhism voluntarily at the call of Dr. Ambedkar in 1956 on account of some innate socio-political imperatives. The original castes/community of such converts can clearly be determined. This cannot be said in respect of Christians and Muslims who might have converted on account of other factors, since the process of conversions has taken place over the centuries.” The insinuation is that conversion to Islam or Christianity was due to force or material inducements and not any social stigma.
Alluding to the stigma of untouchability, the affidavit said that “the identification of Scheduled Castes is centered around a specific social stigma (untouchability) and the connected backwardness, that is limited to the communities identified in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 (meaning the Hindu Dalits only).
The issue of reservation for Dalit Muslims and Christians had been examined several times before by the Central government, but successive governments had not acted on the recommendations. In 1985, the Supreme Court agreed that historical discrimination might continue even after a Dalit converted to another religion. But the court did not decide in favor of giving the converts reservation. The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, headed by Ranganath Mishra, in its 2007 report, categorically recommended reservation irrespective of religion as the caste system was “an all-pervading social phenomenon in India shared by almost all Indian communities”.
Commenting on the impact of denying reservation to Dalit Muslims, sociologist Zoya Hasan is quoted as saying that denial of economic opportunities leads to marginalization and powerlessness. “Low income, low merit and low productivity are not the causes but the consequences of such exclusion,” she said.
The Sachar Committee found stark underrepresentation of Muslims as a whole in the government and the private sector. Muslims’ presence in government jobs was reportedly only 4.9% and their representation in the armed forces just 2%. The situation was worse in the private sector where Muslim representation was 1%.
Hasan attributes the educational backwardness of Muslims to their perception that they will not be able to get government jobs, even at the lowest levels, in comparison with other communities. Hence, there is no incentive to go for higher education.