Recently, the Supreme Court of India has sought the petitions challenging the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950, which allows only members of Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions to be recognised as SCs excluding Dalit Christians and Muslims form its ambit.
The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950 initially provided for recognising only Hindus as SCs, to address the social disability arising out of the ‘practice of untouchability’.
On the recommendations of Kaka Kalelkar Commission 1955; the Order was amended in 1956 to include Dalits who had converted to ‘Sikhism’ and once more in 1990 to include Dalits who had converted to ‘Buddhism’.
The Union government in 2019 rejected the possibility of including Dalit Christians as members of SCs, rooting the exclusion on an Imperial Order of 1936 of the then colonial government, which had first classified a list of the Depressed Classes and specifically excluded “Indian Christians” from it.
Scheduled Castes (SC)
Scheduled castes are sub-communities within the framework of the Hindu caste system who have historically faced deprivation, oppression, and extreme social isolation in India on account of their perceived ‘low status’.
Only marginalised Hindu communities can be deemed Scheduled Castes in India, according to The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950.
Why Dalit Christians were excluded under ‘Scheduled Caste’ status?
Opinion of RGI: In 2001, when the Registrar General of India (RGI) opined against including Dalit Christians and Muslims as SCs, it referred to its 1978 note and added that like Dalit Buddhists, Dalits who converted to Islam or Christianity belonged to different sets of caste groups and not just one, as a result of which they cannot be categorised as a “single ethnic group”.
Constitutional Clauses: For including Dalits of Christian and Muslims community, requires to amend by Clause (2) of Article 341 of the constitution.
Article 341 of the constitution:
The Scheduled Castes;
Clause (1)The President may with respect to any State or Union territory, and where it is a State after consultation with the Governor thereof, by public notification, specify the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within castes, races or tribes which shall for the purposes of this Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Castes in relation to that State or Union territory, as the case may be
Clause (2) Parliament may by law include in or exclude from the list of Scheduled Castes specified in a notification issued under clause ( 1 ) any caste, race or tribe or part of or group within any caste, race or tribe, but save as aforesaid a notification issued under the said clause shall not be varied by any subsequent notification.
Less marginalised as compared to Hindu SCs: It was noted that Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin had lost their caste identity by way of their conversion and that in their new religious community, the practice of untouchability is not prevalent.
Arguments in support of inclusion of Dalit Muslims and Christians
First Backward Classes Commission’s report in 1953, The HPP report on SCs, STs, and Minorities in 1983 and several other committees have mentioned the issue.
The reports argued that caste-based discrimination continues even after conversion, hence entitling these communities to SC status.
Attempts made for their inclusion
On March, 1996, based on a recommendation of the then Ministry of Welfare, the P. V. Narsimha Rao government first brought a Bill to amend the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order.
The Atal Bihar Vajpayee government had in 2000 repeatedly sought the opinion of the Office of the RGI and the then National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on whether Dalit Christians could be included.
However, the attempts have remained stagnant over years.