India’s Scheduled Caste list must be religion-neutral. Muslims, Christians are also Dalit

Dalit Muslims and Christians have been mobilising to be duly added to the SC list. This is a fit case for the Supreme Court to exercise the power of judicial review.
Dalit Muslims and Christians have been demanding SC status | Representational Image | PTI
Dalit Muslims and Christians have been demanding SC status | Representational Image | PTI

“Pasmanda” is an umbrella term encompassing Backward, Dalit, and Adivasi Muslims. While the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Tribes, and Economically Weaker Sections categories are religion-neutral and include several Muslim groups, the Scheduled Castes category is not.

After the promulgation of the Constitution of India, the President, under Article 341 (1), issued the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950, listing the “castes, races, tribes” to be included in the SC category. Para 3 of the order excluded all non-Hindu groups with the proviso of four Sikh castes: the Ramdasi, Kabirpanthi, Mazhabi, and Sikligar of the Punjab region. Subsequently, the SC net was expanded through amendments, and the remaining Sikh and all Buddhist castes of Dalit origins were included in the SC list in 1956 and 1990, respectively.

The Muslims and Christians of Dalit origins, presently accommodated in the OBC category, have been mobilising to lift the religious ban to be duly relocated to the SC category. Since 2004, several petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court by Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians seeking the scrapping of Para 3, which is seen as arbitrary and unconstitutional. It violates Articles 14 (equality), 15 (non-discrimination), 16 (non-discrimination in employment), and 25 (freedom of conscience) of the Constitution. Recently, the Supreme Court decided to adjudicate the matter that has been pending in the courts for over two decades resulting in animated and polarised conversations.

Hinduism and untouchability

The affidavit filed by the Central government on 20 October 2022 against the petitions asserts that caste and untouchability are “a feature of Hindu society” and that “backwardness based on Untouchability is only prevalent in Hindu society or its branches and not in any other religion.” Following this, since the test applied for inclusion in the SC list is “extreme social, educational and economic backwardness arising out of the traditional practice of untouchability,” only castes belonging to Hinduism and its branches—Sikhism and Buddhism—can be considered for inclusion.

This core argument can be unpacked at many levels. At the onset, it is coloured by the orientalist-colonial religionisation of caste, where caste was rearticulated primarily as a Hindu phenomenon, and the ideological factors were privileged at the expense of the political economy.

This orthodox framework that carries the authority of stalwarts like German sociologist Max Weber and his intellectual progeny Louis Dumont, and which has historically influenced most anti-caste writings and activism, has been contested by scholars advocating heterodox approaches such as A. M. Hocart, Morton Klass, J. L. Brockington, Declan Quigley, Sumit Guha, and Hira Singh, among several others. Brockington, for instance, argues for the decoupling of caste and Hinduism and suggests that “the caste system, though closely integrated with the [Hindu] religion, is not essential to it.”

One may distinguish between the fundamental spiritual principles of religion and its contextual legal codification and cultural rituals that carry the imprint of class cleavages and status hierarchies, a feature of all post-surplus societies. In riddle number 22 in Riddles of Hinduism, BR Ambedkar argues that the doctrine of Brahmaism (as opposed to Brahmanism) in Hindu religio-philosophical thought that stresses Brahma as a cosmic principle that permeates all reality, fundamentally equalises all human beings, and could have acted as the foundation for democracy. However, religions are dynamic and cannot be understood in abstraction alone.

Theology and religious life evolve in relationship with the State, political economy, and extant power relations. Attributing any essence to religions—in this case, Hinduism as essentially inegalitarian or Islam/Christianity as essentially egalitarian—runs against historical evidence and will be an illegitimate premise to base social policy. Definitionally, untouchability falls outside the pale of orthodox understanding of the caste system. The critical Hindu reformist voices—Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, MK Gandhi, VD Savarkar, and so on—argued against a birth-based varna (caste) order and almost without exception understood untouchability as an extraneous influence on Hinduism.

A heinous practice like untouchability, officially banned through Article 17 of the Constitution, cannot be construed as a protected category or an essential feature of Hinduism. But the practice of untouchability among Muslims is rigorously documented in the colonial census reports (1881-1931), regional and provincial glossaries and accounts, scholarly works by Ghaus Ansari, Imtiaz Ahmad, Joel Lee, P. K. Trivedi, Srinivas Goli, among several others, movement literature such as Ali Anwar’s Masawat Ki Jung (2005) and Dalit Musalman (2004), and the National Commission of Minorities Report (2008) by Satish Deshpande. Ambedkar also notes untouchability among Muslims in Pakistan or the Partition of India (1945). Untouchability is a pan-religion social evil in South Asia.

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