India’s reservation policy is meant to help Dalits, as long as they don’t convert to Christianity or Islam

In June, we published a blog post detailing the history of Dalit conversion in India and how this can often be an act of self-liberation for members of this historically underprivileged community. This continues to this day, however there are those in the community, particularly those who convert to Christianity or Islam, who can continue to face discrimination and hardship even after conversion.

For this blog, we spoke to a Christian who works on Dalit and other human rights issues in the country, who shared some of her own experiences and shed light on the issues that persist for Dalits in India today.

“Growing up as a Christian in India, there were some decisions that you had to make early on in life. One such decision was what I would put my caste down as in my school’s admission form. I was taught that we are all God’s children and we are all equal, but why was I being asked to classify myself? I was a Christian, so I ticked the box that said OC (Other Caste) because we were taught that Christians don’t have castes and that was the only sensible option available. Also, because I was privileged to not know what caste I belong to. 

Throughout my school years, I never understood why we had to go through the silly (or so I thought) process of mentioning our caste in literally every form you had to fill in. Years later, however, I understood that it wasn’t just a silly form. It was meant to ensure that my Dalit brothers and sisters whose ancestors were deprived of the most basic human rights, for centuries, finally had a chance to be uplifted.

I understood that to create equality, you needed equity. This was the government’s way of correcting centuries of oppression and providing the oppressed a means of upliftment and empowerment. But could all Dalits benefit from this?

Dalit conversion – breaking the stigma?

For many Dalits, conversion to another religion can be both an act of faith, and a means of escape from the oppression they face. But do they really ever get rid of their Dalit identity? Does conversion make life easier for them? Or worse? There are several incidents that point to the latter.

While conversion does break the stigma of untouchability in theory, the reality is that, in many cases, it continues to be practised even after conversion. Be it in Christian or Muslim communities, many people still identify Dalit converts as Dalit Christians or Dalit Muslims.

However, the biggest challenge for Dalit converts is the fact that once they convert, they are deprived of the government schemes and benefits that intend to uplift the Dalit community, thus forcing them into direr situations than other Dalits, apart from the persecution they already face because of their new-found faith. 

The reservation/affirmative action policy

In simple terms, the reservation policy or affirmative action is a policy pursued by the State, originally intended to rectify the historical injustice meted out to certain ‘underprivileged’ sections of society. These underprivileged communities are further divided into categories, namely Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward castes. 

The policy was first introduced in 1950, in which the President published names of communities that were deemed as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Article 341 of the order, which is possibly the world’s oldest affirmative action programme, reserved seats in educational institutions, jobs, and legislatures for these scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. Later, it was amended to include other backward castes and economically weaker sections. There have been several amendments over the years to the percentage of seats reserved and who should be considered scheduled caste, scheduled tribes, other backward caste or economically weaker sections.

The castes that are included in the schedule are called scheduled castes and those tribes in the schedule are called scheduled tribes. While caste is based on Hindu religion, founded upon the varna system of Hindu religion, tribes have nothing to do with religion and are not part of the Hindu varna/caste system. Our discussion on religious discrimination has to do primarily with the reservation for scheduled castes.

Christians and Muslims excluded

There were two key amendments to the reservation policy that reflect religious discrimination – the 1956 amendment that included Sikh Dalits and the 1990 amendment that included Buddhist Dalits in the Scheduled Caste Order. In 2008, paragraph 3 of the Scheduled Castes Order (1950) was amended and stated that no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religion shall be deemed to be a member of the Scheduled Castes. This restricts Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Caste origin from availing the benefits that follow, forcing many to continue doing menial jobs like manual scavenging.  

This led to several protests over the years by Christian and Muslim Dalit groups fighting for the right to be considered members of the SC community. In January 2020, the Supreme Court agreed to examine a plea by the National Council of Dalit Christians to make reservations religion-neutral so that Dalit Christians and Muslims can also reap the benefits. The plea is still pending. 

Some Christians and Muslims argue for reservation because, despite conversion, the Dalits are still discriminated against and remain economically weak. In fact, according to a statement by the National Council of Churches in India, about 70 percent of Indian Christians are from Scheduled Caste backgrounds.

Others argue that the rest of the Christian and Muslim communities should help in the upliftment of Dalits and should not seek government provisions such as reservation. In February 2021, the then law minister of India, Ravishankar Prasad made a statement in the Parliament of India, affirming that those Dalits who convert to Christianity or Islam would lose the provision of reservation and would not be considered a Scheduled Caste, and only those who are Hindus, Buddhists of Sikhs would be considered a Scheduled Caste. 

The issue in question is that if Dalit Christians and Muslims face the same discrimination as Dalits who convert to other religions, shouldn’t they be given the same protection and constitutional benefits? Denying these rights to Dalits who wish to convert to Christianity and Islam indirectly deters them from conversion and is a violation of the freedom of religion or belief.”