Keep Dalits in the Fold

The Telegraph
14 January 2001

Up to 1947, several kinds of communities (not necessarily defined by religion) were given reserved political representation in India: Muslims, women, Europeans, Dalits and so on. With two exceptions (Dalits and Anglo-Indians) such reservations were abolished after independence. Communal representation, it was argued, had been divisive. Hindu polemicists who routinely accuse the state of pampering Muslims would be incensed by any move to restore reservations for Muslims. Given this republican allergy to communal reservations, it comes as a surprise that the Constitution has been operating a system of Hindu reservation for half a century.

Dalit reservation is Hindu reservation. The only Indians eligible for scheduled caste reservations are those whom the census records as Hindu or members of religious communities that are treated by the Constitution as Hindu by a kind of default: Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. Muslims and Christians are excluded.

The reasoning behind this distinction is that untouchability (the rule of thumb used to define scheduled castes) is peculiar to the Hindu caste system. Dalits suffer disabilities because caste Hindus consign them to an existence beyond the Hindu pale. Since Dalit reservation is meant to redress this uniquely Hindu wrong, the question of Muslims and Christians sharing in this reservation does not arise.

This is a deceptively simple argument. The injustice that Dalit reservations address is a history of degradation and deprivation, a denial of education and access to employment, a vicious segregation, a denial of the physical space and basic amenities that make for honourable living. Dalit reservations in the domains of politics, academics and employment try precisely to make up for this loss of opportunity in the secular domain: jobs, political power, and education. When well-meaning upper-caste Hindus campaigned to open temples to "untouchables" as a way of expressing their concern for them, they missed the point. Dalits wanted action that acknowledged their humanity, not their Hindu-ness.

Now consider this. A Dalit, sick of upper-caste discrimination, decides like Ambedkar to formally renounce his Hindu identity in protest. Unlike Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism, this hypothetical Dalit converts to Christianity. He is automatically disqualified from every kind of reservation. Why? Are we to assume that by becoming Christian he has emancipated himself materially, has transcended epochs of exploitation? He may not want to worship in Hindu temples any more, nor sup with Hindus, but he still needs access to education, employment and political representation. He is denied them because the Constitution does not allow Christians of Dalit origin to apply for reservation.

If this denial is based on the dodgy argument that Christianity and Islam are egalitarian faiths and therefore their adherents have no need of reservation, why does this not apply to mazhabi Sikhs, who belong to a faith as fiercely egalitarian as any? Because Sikhs are considered Hindus for constitutional purposes. It isn't much of an answer but it is the only one on offer. It is based on the curious assumption that religions of "Indic" origin are basically Hindu.

The sangh parivar lives by this assumption. This should surprise no one. That the Constitution shares this assumption and makes it operational in the business of scheduled caste reservation should raise a few eyebrows. Seen from this point of view, scheduled caste reservations could be construed by a "Muslim" polemicist as a gigantic inducement held out by the state to keep Dalits Hindu.

But let us, for the sake of argument, accept that the reasoning behind the exclusion of Muslims and Christians from scheduled caste reservation is sound. Let us accept that scheduled caste reservation exists to compensate one set of Hindus for their historical oppression by another set of Hindus. This raises another question: why should Muslims and Christians help pay this compensation? Why should they share in the costs of compensating scheduled caste Hindus when they can't share in the benefits of reservation? That they are made to share in the costs is self-evident: when, from the general pool of jobs, academic places and electoral seats, a percentage is reserved for Dalits (defined as Hindus) they become unavailable to everyone, not just upper caste Hindus.

Let me illustrate this: a teaching position, say, a readership in modern Indian history, is reserved for Dalit candidates. A Christian can't apply even though he has no responsibility for the condition of Dalits in this country. So he is made to suffer a loss of opportunity because of something one lot of Hindus did to another. That doesn't seem fair. Perhaps a "Christian" rhetorician could argue that there should be a Hindu quota of opportunity from which the Dalit share should be subtracted, given how keen the Constitution seems to be to keep Dalit reservations Hindu.

Apart from discussing the injustices internal to the mechanism of reservation, I'm trying to make a larger point. "Hindu" ideologues consistently argue that the Indian state panders to minorities, pampers Muslims and generally goes out of its way to accommodate exceptions to a republican norm (such as monogamy) when the sensibilities of minority communities are at stake.

By demonstrating how, in the matter of scheduled caste reservation, the Constitution makes exceptional arrangements (extensive reservation) for beneficiaries specifically defined as Hindu, I want to show that this stereotype of the minority-loving, Hindu-baiting state doesn't fit the reality of the republic.

I am not seriously trying to press for a Hindu quota out of which Dalit reservations should be subtracted: I am trying to explain that in a complex, plural and unequal society such as ours, the state can't always appear to be even-handed, or make the assumption that one size fits all, or always apply a principle uniformly and consistently. Every attempt to make special or exceptional arrangements is vulnerable to the charge of bias or favouritism.

Muslims and Christians could (as I have shown) plausibly argue that scheduled caste reservations discriminate against them or, conversely, favour Hindus. That they haven't made this argument is greatly to their credit. The next time you hear a muscular Hindu working himself into a lather about how soft the state is on Muslims, how it subsidizes haj pilgrims or tolerates polygamy, you could tell him that.

Mukul Kesavan contributed an article, "Keep Dalits in the fold" in Telegraph dt 14.01.2001. (ref. Dalit Forum Digest no.698 dt 15.01 message no.12). Mukul Kesavan lacks understanding of the reservation policy. His statement that the Constitution has been operating a system of Hindu reservation for half a century is wrong. The Constitution provides reservations for the SC & ST. All the STs eligible for reservations are not Hindus but mostly Christians and other communities. The Scheduled Castes have been provided reservations not because they are Hindus but because they are Untouchables. He is again wrong when he says that the Constitution treats Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains as Hindus. If he has in mind Art 25(2) of the Constitution to support his statement he is wrong. That Art does not declare Sikhs, Buddhists etc as Hindus. He is again wrong when he says that the Dalit reservation is meant to redress the uniquely Hindu wrong. No, the reservations are not a compensation for the wrongs done in the past. They are safeguards against the future injustice and prejudicial actions by the society. Since there is no compensation for the past actions, the question for Muslims, or Christians or Hindus paying for compensation does not arise. Reservation only aims at securing them their proportional share in running the affairs of the country which is 22.5% for SCST leaving the balance 77.5% to the non-SCST and they cannot have a grouse against SCST reservations. Reservation for SCST does not affect the General pool.The examples given by Kesavan are all misleading and wrong. The share of SCST must go to the SCST and it is the responsibility of the Nation to ensure that.

NG Uke
Ambedkar samaj

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