The system of categorizing only Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Dalits as scheduled castes exposes those who do not fall into these formal categories to harassment from hostile bureaucrats.
Michael *, a Dalit Christian from Thanjavur district, converted to Hinduism a few years ago through the Arya Samaj, to change his Backward Class (BC) categorization to Scheduled Caste. He had hoped that this would make it easier for him to access the job reservation. He even changed his name to Manickam *, which he announced in a notification to the Official Journal according to the procedure. As he had converted to Hinduism, his daughter also received a List Caste Certificate. She graduated from NEET, entered private college, and received a Union Government scholarship for students from SC communities.
However, a year after starting her course, she received a notification that her listed caste certificate was false. Although Manickam has stopped attending church for fear that his SC status will be revoked, many converts who continue to hold onto their Hindu-SC certificates, while following another faith, live on a fragile edge that may turn their lives upside down any day.
The current system of classifying only Hindus, Buddhists and Dalit Sikhs in scheduled castes prevents many people from accessing affirmative action programs and leaves those who have started practicing another religion and interfaith married people. vulnerable to arbitrary police action. Dalit Christians are currently classified as BC in Tamil Nadu. âIn 13 other states as well, such as Kerala and Andhra, they are on the BC / Other Backward Class (OBC) or Most Backward Class (MBC) list. In other states, they’re in the general category, âsaid Supreme Court lawyer and activist Franklin Caesar. This is a consequence of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 which explicitly excludes Christian and Muslim Dalits from the granting of SC status, he further underlines.
According to paragraph 3 of the ordinance, “… no person who professes a religion other than the Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religion will be considered as a member of a listed caste. “
Currently, Franklin’s plea case is pending before the Supreme Court to overturn the above order citing Articles 14 (equality before the law), 15 (prohibiting discrimination based on religion, race, caste, gender or place of birth), Articles 16 (right to equal opportunities) and 25 (freedom of religion for all in India) of the Constitution. Franklin, representing organizations such as the National Council of Dalit Christians, is seeking to make the listed caste status religiously neutral, just as in the case of the listed tribes. Speaking to TNM, he notes: âCaste exists in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, as in churches. There is no point in citing dogma to say that some religions do not recognize castes. Society supports the caste.
It was Franklin who told this reporter the story of Manickam. âHe said he even stopped going to church for fear of repercussions just like what happened with his daughter. This is a point to be taken into account. It is common for Hindu pallars and parayars (Dalit castes) to visit churches as well. Are they going to start grabbing all these people and revoking their SC certificates? Franklin asks.
Before the man issued Manickam’s SC certificate, the Tehsildar reportedly checked the Christian iconography of his home and with the church to see if he still continued to attend the congregation there. Franklin says, âThis system erodes their basic rights in more ways than one. Shouldn’t a Hindu have a holy cross in their home? What if he or someone in his position had an argument with someone powerful? An information or a false statement that the person attended church would be enough to have their certificate revoked. Although this is not the official reason provided.
Bias against intercommunity couples
Between the order of 1950 and bureaucratic excesses, religious conversion and interfaith marriages can turn into a punitive struggle for access to affirmative action programs.
Take the recent Madras High Court Order in favor of Dr P Muneeshwari of Ramanathapuram. She is from the Pallar Hindu community, while her husband is a Christian from the same community. In 2007, Muneeshwari’s caste certificate, identifying him as SC, was suddenly revoked. A bureaucrat on a state government exam she was passing asked to know her husband’s name after noticing that she was not wearing a pottu. From there, the situation worsened, with officials later coming to the bewildering conclusion that she had converted to Christianity and was no longer eligible to be considered a person of the listed caste. Their âevidenceâ was the crosses on display at his home and clinic. She was upgraded to British Columbia instead. His appeals against this decision to various ministries were unsuccessful for years, until in September 2021 the Madurai High Court of Madras court overturned the district collector’s order that revoked his status as SC.
Further, the court called the cancellation of his SC certificate unconstitutional, strongly berating the state. “Some specious apologies have been advanced and cannot be accepted,” says the High Court order with respect to the counter-affidavit filed by the respondents, including the Adi Dravidar and the Tribal Welfare Department.
The order noted that there is no evidence that Muneeshwari “gave up his faith”. He added: âThe actions and conduct of the respondents reflect a degree of narrow-mindedness which the Constitution does not encourage. Nothing can be presumed about a member of a particular community respecting another community or another religion and, indeed, this is the constitutional mandate and not otherwise. The judge also berated the review panel, on the basis of which the SC’s certificate was revoked, adding that “it would do well for [them] to approach the question with a broader mind than is evident at the present time.
His case, like that of Manickam, shows the underlying malice towards people from Dalit communities and / or religious minorities that infiltrates the very mechanisms intended to benefit them. Muneeshwari was not even a Hindu who converted to Christianity – she is simply married to a Christian.
Challenges for Dalits Converting from Hinduism to Christianity
A Madras High Court order issued in November this year raises several other questions. The petitioner, a Dalit, converted to Christianity after leaving Hinduism. After that, he lost his SC status and was reclassified as BC. Having married a Hindu Dalit woman, he applied for inter-caste marriage benefits. The Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy Intercast Marriage Program of Tamil Nadu provides financial assistance for 1) marriages between a SC person and a BC person, and 2) between a BC / Most Backward Class (MBC) person and a Forward Caste person.
The Madras High Court, however, denied the Dalit man his plea. The order said: “The classification of the listed caste, the listed tribe, the most backward class, the backward class … will not change the caste”. According to the court, a marriage between two Dalits could not be considered intercast although one holds a List Caste certificate and the other a BC certificate. The main question then is: if the conversion and re-categorization does not change the location of the caste, should the applicant not receive the SC benefits?
Activist and lawyer Henri Tiphagne tells us: âPeople change their religion for their own beliefs which should not hinder the positive action to which they are entitled. Yet this happens in many cases. Most of these people are unable to even retaliate and recover what has been taken from them. “He adds that today,” a broader movement against the denial of listed Caste status to Christian Dalits is taking shape within the churches themselves. Members of this movement say “how can we be considered a backward class just because we have changed our religion?” “We continue to be buried in separate cemeteries, people from other castes who marry us are still considered dishonorable.”
(* names changed)