Setting up of Balakrishnan Commission is a delaying tactic: Dalit Christian Groups

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The case for treating Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians as Scheduled Castes was further delayed after the Supreme Court set up a Commission last October.

Riya Talitha |

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NEW DELHI — Prominent Dalit Christian group, the National Council for Dalit Christians (NCDC) has strongly objected to the formation of the Balakrishnan Commission by the Supreme Court. 

In October last year, the apex court called for forming a commission after hearing a bunch of petitions regarding the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims into the category of Scheduled Caste that had come up for hearing after a decade. 

The top court set up a commission headed by the former Chief Justice of India, K. G. Balakrishnan to consider the inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians as Scheduled Castes, with a report expected in two years. 

What is the issue?
The Presidential (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950  states that only those who are Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist can be a part of the Scheduled Caste. It was later amended in 1956 to include Sikhism and in 1990 to include Buddhism. The Presidential order denied the same constitutional status to those members of a scheduled caste who converted to Islam and Christianity. 

Immediately after Independence, reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were constitutionally mandated to rectify historical injustice and to increase accessibility to previously denied resources and opportunities. 

Reservations as forms of affirmative action, remain one of the few mechanisms for socio-economic mobility for caste-oppressed and marginalised groups. However, Dalit Muslims and Christians remained currently barred from contesting in reserved constituencies, as well as from scholarship or employment benefits, despite suffering the same disadvantages as Dalit Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. 

The Modi government endorsed the presidential order in its latest affidavit in the court and opposed the expansion of Scheduled Caste (SC) status for Dalit Christians and Muslims. 

Petition pending since 2004
In 2004, the Centre for Public Interest Litigation and Dalit Christian lawyer Franklin C. Thomas challenged the 1950 order, which was then joined by several other petitions from a range of Dalit Christian, Pasmanda and civil society groups. These petitions together make up the case, which came up for a hearing at the Supreme Court in October last year. 

The NCDC started in Delhi in 2006 as a network of Christians of Scheduled Caste backgrounds and soon spread nationwide. 

According to the council’s president, V.J. George, the NCDC “objects strenuously” to the court-appointed K. G. Balakrishnan commission as well as the Centre’s position. He called it a “dangerous move” meant to delay the resolution of the case. 

“To have it linger, isolated in developments or isolated from achieving progress, because of conversion to Christianity, or Islam shows a malicious intent by the Centre,” he said. 

History of the petitions
The case reaching the Supreme Court this year is a result of decades of on-ground mobilization, solidarity building and advocacy from Dalit Christian and Dalit Muslim organisations from across the country, as well as several Dalit bodies and politically Left groups.

Annie Namala, the director of the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, who has been working for Dalit rights for years now, explained that the Centre aims to promote a “contradiction between religious freedom and untouchability by birth.” 

“Dalit [identity] is by birth, and all the disadvantages you face go with it, to be denied protective mechanisms and support because you have religious freedom, that doesn’t go together,” she said. 

She further explained that without the SC status and all it provides, Dalit Christians are forced to live “double lives” where their religion doesn’t reflect their legal identities. “On official paperwork, they are registered as Hindus, which is not the religion they identify with,” she said. 

Contesting claims
The Centre’s position draws on the argument that Islam and Christianity are both religions of “foreign origin” and so don’t have the practice of casteism embedded doctrinally. 

Paul V Manoharan, a Dalit human rights activist, advocate, and Chair of the National Dalit Christian Watch (NDCW), explained that Dalit Christians “suffer from various discrepancies” under existing legislation. They face discrimination within the church and society and get protection for neither. 

Along with the opportunities, the government denies them thorough reservation and protection against atrocities. 

He said they [Dalit Christians] are thrice victimised and thus “have every right to be included as Scheduled Castes”.

“Throughout the length and breadth of India, Dalit Christians are very much disturbed with the response of the Supreme Court and that the government should be against our community because we are also citizens of this country,” said George. 

‘Govt’s stand is RSS position’
According to Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s statement in the Rajya Sabha, the ruling party’s position on the case is that Dalits who convert to Abrahamic and therefore “non-Indic” religions cannot claim the reservation benefits of Scheduled Castes.

In 1961, the apex decision-making body of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS) made a statement by purporting the idea that separate reservations for different sects would “prove highly detrimental to national unity.”

According to Sanbha Rumnong, a lawyer on the Dalit Christian side for one of the batches of petitions on making up the case against the Centre, “it’s very clear to us how discriminatory the 1950 presidential order is, right? It’s discriminating on the lines of religion. So that is unconstitutional, and that needs to go”. 

Rumnong explains that the problem of how to alleviate the discrimination faced by Dalit Christians and Muslims will involve some element of reservation policy and will likely be complicated. 

Although he is unsure of the outcome of his case, he still maintains that the main issue currently is whether the presidential order is unconstitutional. 

“That has a straightforward answer,” he said: “Yes”

Ranganath Commission recommended SC Status to Dalit Muslims, Christians
The Centre falsely claimed no “documented research and precise authenticated information [was] available to establish that the disabilities and handicaps suffered by Scheduled Caste members in the social order of its origin”. 

Over the years, multiple commissions and reports have been prepared by the Union government to determine the SC status. This includes the Kaka Kalekar or the First Backward Classes Commission of 1955 to the 1969 Elayaperumal Committee report. The most recent report is the 2009 Ranganath Mishra Commission, which explicitly recommended including Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the Scheduled Castes list.

The main recommendations of the Commission included reserving an 8.4% quota out of the existing OBC quota of 27% for religious minorities, mainly Muslims; permitting Dalits who convert to Islam or Christianity to avail of reservation benefits under the Scheduled Caste reservation quota; giving 10% quotas for Muslims and 5% for other minorities in government jobs and in seats in all the higher educational institutions (graduation and above). 

There is indeed a significant lack of data on the demographics of Dalit Christians and Muslims. This absence further exposes them to discrimination by denying them access to protections and benefits.


Riya Talitha is a fellow at the SEEDS-TCN mentorship program.