Over the last few years, there have been several calls for the inclusion of ‘Dalit Christians’ in the reservation system under the categories of ‘SC/ST’ and ‘OBC’. Though these demands for reservations aren’t endorsed by most churches due to their claims of Christian society not having a caste system (not true), several activists from the Christian community have raised demands for the inclusion of Christians from SC/ST communities to avail the benefit of reservation.
At the time of writing, the Supreme court is yet to give its verdict on a petition filed in January 2020 on this matter, which was filed by the National Council of Dalit Christians (an organisation serving members of the Dalit Christian community in India). However, there has been an increased demand for the same, despite concerns from Hindu organisations who fear that this could dilute the benefit of reservations for Dalit Hindus.
Legal status of reservations for Dalit Christians
The third paragraph of Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 clearly states that only those members of the SC/ST community who are of Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist faith can avail the benefit of reservation, intended to uplift the downtrodden economically.
This means that Muslims and Christians of SC/ST origin cannot claim the benefits given to SC/STs in the form of reservations in government jobs, schools and colleges. Furthermore, they cannot file a police complaint against anyone under the SC/ST Attocracies act (which makes discrimination against members of ‘lower castes’ a punishable crime).
Caste system amongst Indian Christians
Unknown to most, there exists a caste system amongst people of the Indian Christian community. Though not endorsed by the Vatican or any other religious organisation, it is still followed by many Christians, mainly in Southern India. The caste they follow is the one they/their ancestors belonged to before converting to Christianity.
There have been several accounts of discrimination faced by members of the ‘lower caste’ Christians in rural areas of South India, mainly by those belonging to a ‘higher caste’. There have been incidents of Dalit Christians being made to sit seperately from those of higher castes, wells ‘reserved’ for those of higher castes, and becoming victims of untouchability.
One of the advocates fighting the case to delink the SC/ST status with religion told The Hindu, “I remember when I had just completed my graduation and visited a grocery shop in my mother’s native place, the Chettiar shop owner threw away my money just because I had touched his hand”.
Many lower caste Hindus change their religion to escape the evil of untouchability, but are pained to see that the same intensity of it is seen in every religion they convert to.
Why reservation shouldn’t be granted to Dalit Christians
Though the cases of untouchability and discrimination amongst Indian Christians are truly heartbreaking and attract the sympathies of many, it doesn’t make sense to give them reservation since they converted to Christianity only because they were promised a discrimination-free environment.
In rural areas of South and West India, Christian missionaries are known to ‘poach’ lower caste Hindus in villages, and attempt to lure them to Christianity by claiming that there is ‘no place for discrimination’ in their community.
Nobody has stopped them from re-converting to Hinduism after noticing this false promise, yet they adamantly demand reservations for their new community.
Many Hindu organizations worry that including them under the SC/ST category would remove the last few incentives of being Hindu in this Hindu-majority country:
Unlike the Church and Mosques, the government takes away most of the donations received by temples as ‘tax’; while the former two can afford to spend some money to uplift the downtrodden Dalits of their religion, Hindu temples are stripped off their economic power and the Dalit Hindus are completely dependent on the government for their upliftment.
One of the only things that keep Hindu Dalits from converting is that they get to retain their benefits of reservation; If reservations become universal, they would be less hesitant to accept the materialistic offers given by missionaries for converting. This would lead to a widespread decline of Hindu population in the country, which is worrisome to most Hindu organisations.
Another concern which arises is that there could be more competition for fewer seats in jobs and educational institutions for members of the SC/ST community, if the category is extended for Christians. Including Dalit Christians in the reservation system would imply lakhs of new people contesting for lesser number of seats reserved for Dalit Hindus, making it tougher for the already poor Dalit Hindus to climb up the economic ladder.
The reservation system was introduced by Dr BR Ambedkar to ensure that those of the lower categories are compensated for the years of discrimination faced by them, and to uplift them both socially and economically.
Those who converted to Christianity or Islam did so willingly, knowing that they’d be stripped of several benefits when they change their religion. If their only objective was to escape discrimination, why didn’t they re-convert to Hinduism after knowing that it’s a universal issue? It’s time that there should be at least a little incentive given to people for remaining Hindu, and not converting their faith to foreign religions.
Dalit Hindus have been the most discriminated in Indian history, and their upliftment should be the topmost priority. Including people of other faiths to the SC/ST category could lead to excessive competition for fewer seats meant for the members of this community, increasing cut-offs in institutes and diluting their benefits. Such demands shouldn’t be considered till Dalit Hindus become economically stable, since their poverty was a concern for even those who framed the Indian constitution.