Modi’s Pasmanda Politics: Government Stand on SC Status to Dalit Converts Tells Us the Real Story
Lately, the BJP has made it clear that it aims to mobilise Dalit Muslims, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself asking BJP leaders to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims. But, will it benefit intended communities?
Abusaleh Shariff and Mohd Naushad Khan
The concept of the ‘Pasmanda’ amongst Muslims – now a familar term in national politics – has historically emerged from Bihar. In Uttar Pradesh, such Muslims are categorised as ‘Arzal’. Yet, such a clear identification of ‘lower caste’ Muslims (like Dalits among Hindus) is difficult, although they are present across India. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an emphatic announcement about Pasmanda Muslims in August 2022 and his government constituted a committee soon after to examine if Scheduled Caste reservations can be extended to them, the Union government’s submissions to the Supreme Court took a contrary position – that Scheduled Caste Muslims (and Christians) cannot be granted reservation benefits.
This makes one believe that the prime minister’s Pasmanda announcement has been made from a political standpoint, keeping forthcoming assembly elections and the general election of 2024. in mind Will the government be in a position to accord Scheduled Caste status to ‘converted’ Dalits if the K.G. Balakirishnan committee recommends so? If social justice and welfare indeed are not the motive behind the constitution of the said committee, then it is most likely expected to become political fodder for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and very well may become a futile exercise.
With the government’s position and intention emerging clearly from its recent submissions in the Supreme Court – that it is not in the favour of granting SC status to Dalit ‘converts’ – the fate of the commission and its future recommendations are under a cloud. Against this backdrop, the question that now emerges is whether two long-drawn years of exercise would go in vain.
As things stand today, the ball is in the Supreme Court. But, in political circles, it has already raised the BJP’s pitch ahead of upcoming assembly elections and will continue to do so from time to time till the 2024 general election. Scheduled Caste status is seen as a complex and politically volatile issue keeping in mind its opposition from SCs themselves and groups seen as close to the ruling dispensation.
Yet, will such a move help Dalit-type Muslims – the Arzals and the Pasmanda Muslims – reap the benefits of reservations, and other consequent socio-economic benefits, as envisaged? The authors of this piece think that it will be difficult if not impossible.
The BJP has already strategised to mobilise Pasmanda Muslims keeping in mind its electoral considerations. Prime Minister Modi – during the BJP’s national executive conference in Hyderabad earlier this year – had asked BJP leaders to reach out to Pasmanda Muslims.
However, there seems to be a contradiction in terms of its stated position in the affidavit it submitted to the Supreme Court in the matter of a petition challenging the ‘Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1950’, which restricts Scheduled Caste status to those who convert to religions other than Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, terming it “unconstitutional and discriminatory”
The government in its affidavit said, “The Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order, 1950 was based on historical data which clearly established that no such backwardness or oppression was ever faced by members of Christian or Islamic Society. In fact, one of the reasons for which people from Scheduled Castes have been converting to religions like Islam or Christianity is so that they can come out of the oppressive system of untouchability which is not prevalent at all in Christianity or Islam.”
The government’s affidavit projects Hindu society as both vulnerable and oppressive due to the practice of untouchability while categorising Islam and Christianity as communities which do not adhere to such practices. At a conceptual level, it might be true that Islam and Christianity do not practice caste and have an oppressive culture which is seen as characteristic of Hinduism. However, to say that Muslim and Christian communities in India are not touched by caste is far from the truth. In India – irrespective of religion – caste is cultural, thereby affecting people of every faith.
Given that we have legislation to prevent atrocities against Dalits, will it be acceptable to say that just because someone has converted to Christianity or Islam, the person can no longer claim protection from such laws?
“The Union government’s opposition to extending Scheduled Caste (SC) status to Dalits who convert to Christianity and Islam has shades of social exclusionary intent and compulsions of vote bank politics. If the Constitution (SC) Order, 1950 can allow persons from Sikh or Buddhist religion to be a member of SC, then converted Dalits should also be included, as it does not change their inherent social status. The Order of 1950 falls within the purview of doctrine of lapse, as it seems to be selectively discriminatory and against the egalitarian spirit of the Indian constitution,” says Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.
“Though both Abrahamic religions do not recognise caste and oppose untouchability, in reality, it is prevalent in most non-Hindu religions due to conversions that happened centuries ago. The failure to grant Scheduled Caste status to converts goes against the pith and substance rule of affirmative action to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes, which is to rectify historical wrongs and uplift socially deprived sections of the society,” explains Rai.
The puzzling questions that surround the central debate on the issue are: What is the present socio-economic status of Dalits who converted to Islam and Christianity? What is the answer to the claim made by the government that untouchability is absent in Christianity and Islam? Has the situation of converted Dalits improved as compared to their living standard in the past?
Will the government change its mind if the finding of the commission notes that the condition of converted Dalits has not changed as desired? Or, will the commission paint a picture echoing the government’s stand, similar to its affidavit in the Supreme Court?
“The principle of social justice must be extended to all socially, educationally and historically marginalised groups irrespective of their religious identity,” said Afroz Alam of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. Yet, the ruling BJP took a differing view.
At a political level, the party is engaging such Muslims and Christians, but, in its response to the Supreme Court, has ruled out any grant of Scheduled Caste status. Undoubtedly, Dalit Muslims are subjected to discrimination at multiple levels. Their inclusion in the SC category will provide an opportunity to improve not only their socio-economic and educational status but also help them to gain confidence to become part of and compete in mainstream society.
The Sachar Commission Report, which was tabled in May 2007, noted that the socio-economic conditions of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians have not improved after their conversion. The Ranganath Misra Commission has also suggested that Scheduled Caste status be “totally de-linked from religion, and Scheduled Castes [should be rendered] absolutely religion-neutral like that of Scheduled Tribes.”
In 2008, Geetika Bapna and Satish Deshpande conducted research titled Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communitie: A Status Report on Current Social Scientific knowledge for the National Commission for Minorities.
As per the findings, “There can be no question that Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians are recognised and treated differently in their respective religious communities, and there is no room for debate about the reality that they are consistently seen as ‘socially inferior’ societies by their fellow believers. In essence, Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians are Dalits first and Muslims and Christians second in the majority of social circumstances.”
The analyses carried out by academics from NSSO data revealed that Dalit Muslims are “unquestionably the worst off” of all Dalits, although Dalit Christians fared slightly better. The highest social class among Dalits belonged to Dalit Sikhs. Will the commission take note of the above assertions in the right perspective and recommend Scheduled Caste status to converted Dalits, or fall in line with the government?
Abusaleh Shariff is a chief scholar at US-India Policy Institute, Washington DC. Mohd Naushad Khan is a sub-editor at Radiance Viewsweekly.
Courtesy : The Wire
Note: This news piece was originally published in thewire.com and used purely for non-profit/non-commercial purposes exclusively for Human Rights
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