Reading time : 12 minutes
Caste system has become embedded in our roots so much so that before knowing about the person, we try to enquire about the caste the person belongs to. The reason behind this mentality is that we link caste with purity and status. If we come to know that a person belongs to a different caste or to a lower caste, then we try to keep ourselves away from that person. We try to humiliate the person for belonging to a lower caste.
That person is deprived of basic Amenities because of his/her caste. That person faces multiple discrimination throughout his/her life journey. One may point out that the solution seems to be easy i.e., get a good job. This thinking is problematic because even social and occupational mobility doesn’t help. As we will see from numerous examples, this solution doesn’t provide any kind of significant remedy to break from the shackles of caste system. Since this example of getting a good job is mentioned here, it also becomes pertinent to address the issue of conversion. One may point out that another solution could be that you convert to another religion. You can embrace another religion wherein the caste system doesn’t prevail. You can embrace an egalitarian religion like Christianity and Buddhism. Dr. B.R Ambedkar also endorsed this kind of solution. Dr. Ambedkar said, “So long as we remain in a religion, which teaches a man to treat another man like a leper, the sense of discrimination on account of caste, which is deeply rooted in our minds, cannot go. For annihilating caste and untouchables, change of religion is the only antidote.”
The author is of the opinion that this solution also doesn’t work. As we will see in this paper, that people who have converted to another religion to attain freedom from discrimination, untouchability, their plight hasn’t changed much. In fact, they have exposed themselves to multiple cycle of discrimination. What they thought would help them, is now haunting them. The conversion problem seems to be a bait where, in beginning, one might get lured away but soon after finds himself/herself in danger.
As it becomes apparent from this above framework, the author is referring to the plight of Dalit people who converted themselves to embrace Christianity.
As we all are aware of, Dalit people face discrimination in their day-to-day life. They are deprived, dispossessed of a dignified life that an individual wishes to live. They are ostracized, secluded. Their lives are subjected to continued subjugation. Basic amenities like education and health are a far cry for them. Though they constitute the productive classes, they are treated like products. Humiliation, deprivation, discrimination, physical abuse, brutalities, dehumanization, structural abuse has become the new normal for them.
Because nothing, they believed, could act as a salvation for them, they took recourse to conversion as a solution for their suffering. Little did they know that such conversion would make their suffering worse. Soon after the conversion, Dalit Christians or Christians of Scheduled Caste origin or Dalits converted to Christianity exposed themselves to not one but multiple series of discrimination i.e., from their own people, church, state, upper Christian.
If we look at the estimates, it is discovered that there are 29 million Christians India which constitute 2.3 of the country population. Out of this fraction, almost 70% of Christians are Dalits. They include the Pulayans in Kerala, Pariahs in Tamil Nadu, Tigalas in Karnataka, Malas and Madigas in Andhra Pradesh, Chamars in Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Churhas from Punjab, Vankars from Gujarat and Mahars from Maharashtra. This establishes the fact that most of the Dalits converts are from SC backgrounds.
In this paper, Author’s attempt would be to create a one stop piece wherein he will make an attempt to understand the plight of Dalit people who converted themselves from Hinduism to Christianity. The author will discuss their demands, particularly the reservation demand. Dalit Christians have been continuously pressing for reservation demand. They want the 1950 Constitution Scheduled Caste Order to be amended. Therefore, the author will also discuss a whole series of cases vis-à-vis the 1950 order to understand the reservation conundrum. But before going into deeper questions, the author would like to discuss one important aspect of Dalit Christians’ lives i.e., a vicious cycle of multiple discriminations.
An argument has been continuously doing the rounds that when a Dalit Christians embraces Christianity, their economic and social situations improve as members of Christianity. This argument gets its support from the fact that Christianity is egalitarian religion, it doesn’t recognise caste system. The author, here would like to point out that such argument is nothing but a myth and myths are not be believed rather they are to be buried. Dalit people continue to face discrimination even after conversion. In this segment of the paper, the author discusses the aspect of multiple discrimination a Dalit Christian undergo.
Dalit Christians are subjected to subjugation and ill treatment by the Upper Christians because of their social origin. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh’s Chunduru village, the Reddys allegedly massacred 12 Dalit Christians because a Dalit Christian youth sat in the local cinema hall with his feet up and accidentally hit an upper-caste youth sitting in front of him.
Dining and marriage with the upper Christians seem to be a far cry. Not only upper Christians, the church also treats the Dalit Christians differently. Incidents have come up in the past where the Dalit Christians were denied entry to the church. They were made to stand outside the church. This shows that though, in theory, Christianity promotes freedom and equal treatment but in reality, caste discrimination is prevalent in Christianity too.
It is true that when you go to fight a battle and your own people have stopped to give you a back, you lose half of the battle there only. When Dalit people converted themselves from Hinduism to Christianity, they could have never anticipated that their own people would start to discriminate. If not the discrimination by upper Christians have broken them, this discrimination by their own people would have definitely shattered their strength to fight the battle of discrimination.
Since this part is discussed in a detailed manner in the upcoming sections, the author would partially introduce to the readers the discrimination perpetuated the state against the Dalit Christians. Ever since, the 1950 Presidential order was put in place, Dalit Christians have been making continued efforts to persuade different governments to amend the order so that they could be covered by the reservation scheme. But all in vain, the government was not persuaded vehemently. On the Contrary, the government amended the order to include Mazhbi Sikhs and Neo Buddhists under the reservation scheme. This act, by the government added to their suffering more misery.
When constitution was being drafted, it was considered desirable by constitution framers that certain categories of people required special rights and privileges in lieu of historical injustices and discrimination done to them. Such rights and privileges were created so as to create a level playing field where they could make their lives better and also through these privileges, they could attain social and economic status and live a dignified life. Certain articles were also added in the Constitution of India to foster this goal. Apart from those various articles, Article 341(1) of the Constitution empowered the president of Indian to specify the castes and groups, which can be considered as SCs to become the beneficiaries of the compensatory discrimination.
To further the goal of creating an environment where certain categories people could live a better and dignified life, an order was promulgated by the then president which is known as the Constitutional (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950. What this order did was that it created government reservation or preferences for SCs in various sectors of government, education, employment and ownership. What is contentious in this order was the 3rd paragraph. The lines of 3rd paragraph restricted the status of SCs to Dalits belonging to Hindu religion. It said that no person who professes a religion different from Hindu shall be deemed a member of SC.
Since the promulgation of this order, demands starting to float to amend the order so as to include the Dalit Christians under the ambit of reservation scheme. Various efforts by not only Dalit Christians, but also by the upper Christians, various scholars were made to persuade the government to amend the order. But all went in vain, Dalit Christians could not persuade the government vehemently.
The demand started gaining prominence once again when the then governments amended the order twice to include the Mazhbi Sikhs and Neo Buddhists within the reservation scheme. It was argued that when they could be given the benefit of reservation scheme, why not us? Now this time, Dalit Christians were alone in their fight, they garnered the support of various eminent personalities, various committee reports. Demands were pressed so vehemently that even the Constitutional Bill was formulated. But nothing could be acted upon and the plight of Dalit Christians still continue to exist in the same as it did at inception.
One might wonder here, when there are so many infirmities with the order, why is the order still intact? Why are the Dalit Christians still deprived of benefits under the reservation scheme? To answer this question, we need to analyse the attitude of judges in deciding the reservation demand questions. But before that is done, it becomes pertinent to summarise all the infirmities present in the order and arguments advanced by Dalit Christians challenging the 1950 order.
There is no doubt in the fact that India is a secular nation. This statement is further supported by Article 15 of our Constitution which prohibits discrimination on the ground of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
However, despite these protections, Article 14 and Article 15 of the Constitution were violated when the then government passed the orders to extend the benefits of reservation scheme to Neo Buddhists and Mazhbi Sikhs and ignoring the Dalit Christians and Muslims at the same time.
Apart from this, the 1950 order comes in conflict with Article 25 of the Constitution. As we all know, Article 25 of the Constitution allows oneself the freedom to profess and practice any religion. But the right of Dalits of SCs origin to profess and practice Christianity gets a blow because as per the 1950 order, they would be disentitled to reservation given to them once they convert. Therefore, the order is also repugnant to Article 25 of our constitution.
These have been the few arguments put forth by Dalit Christians to challenge the constitutional validity of the 1950 order. Therefore, in light of these arguments, a necessity arises to assess the nature of the court cases that have come up before the judiciary.
It is more of a settled principle now that upon conversion, that convert ceases to have any caste. The case in which this principle was ruled out was the Michael v S. Venkateshwaran. According to the court, general rule is that conversion operates as an expulsion from the caste, in other words, a convert ceases to have any caste. This principle was further reiterated in the cases of Coopoosami Chetty v Duraisami Chetty and Muthusami v Masilamani.
The same principle was again reiterated in the C.M Arumugam v S. Rajgopal and others. The court held that “It is no doubt true, and there we agree with the Madras High Court in G. Michael case that the general rule is that conversion operates as an expulsion from the caste, or, in other words, the convert ceases to have any caste, because caste is predominantly a feature of Hindu society and ordinarily a person who ceases to be a Hindu would not be regarded by the other members of the caste as belonging to their fold.”
Earlier in this segment, a question was put forth by the author, that despite having infirmities in the order, why are the Dalit Christians still being deprived of the benefits of reservation scheme? Now after analysing the above set of cases, answer seems to become apparent. The 1950 order was intended to give the benefits of reservation scheme to people belonging to SCs and if the caste ceases to exist upon conversion, how can Dalit Christians be given something which was intended for SCs belonging to Hindu religion?
The author thinks that this approach of the courts is problematic in way as it says that upon conversion, the caste disappears. The reasoning of the judges in the above cases is premised on the fact that caste and religion are interlinked, intertwined with each other. The root of the problem lies here. The author is of the opinion that judges have to realize that there is need to delink the Scheduled status from religion and make it religion-neutral as in the case of scheduled tribes. This argument was also recommended by a recent Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission’s report (2007). The judges have to think out of box while approaching the issue of reservation of Dalit Christians.
Above was a set of cases where the court followed a minimalist and a narrow approach in addressing the reservation issue. Now, the author will discuss those set of cases wherein a slight relief was given to Dalit Christians belonging to SCs origin. Herein, the judges adopted the maximalist, board, purposive approach in deciding the demand of reservation
Soon afterwards the evolution of principle that upon conversion, a person loses his caste, interesting question started to appear for discussion. Few of them were: –
(i) As to what happens if a member of the scheduled caste or scheduled tribe leaves his present fold, namely Hinduism and embraces Christianity or Islam?
(ii) As to whether it would amount to a complete loss of the original caste, to which, he belonged for ever? and
(iii) As to whether there would be revival of the original caste, if he or his children subsequently choose to abjure the new religion and get re-converted to the old religion?
To find out answer of these important questions, the Dalit Christians approached the Supreme Court and a constitutional bench was set up in the case of the Principal Guntur Medical college, Guntur v Y. Mohan. Rao.
The court while trying to answer question no. two and three evolved the ‘eclipse theory’ and held that if the parents of a person get converted from Hinduism to Christianity and he is born after the conversion and he embraces Hinduism and the members of the caste accept him, he comes within the fold of the caste. The court was trying to implicitly put forth the point that on conversion, caste doesn’t cease to exist. Instead, it is eclipsed and it appears when the convert again embraces Hinduism.
Also read: POLICE BRUTALITY IN INDIA DURING COVID-19
Later, this implicit point was made explicit in the case of S. Anbalagan v. B. Devarajan wherein it was laid down that if the caste disappears, it disappears only to reappear on reconversion and the mark of caste does not seem to really disappear even after some generations after conversion. Another case that further crystallised the eclipse theory was that of Kailash Sonkar V Smt. Maya Devi. The court ruled that, “in our opinion, when a person is converted to Christianity or some other religion, the original caste remains under eclipse and as soon as during his/her life time, the person is reconverted to the original religion, the eclipse disappears and the caste automatically revives.”
These above set of cases made a significant departure from the principle that upon conversion, caste ceases to exist. Above set of cases makes the suffering of Dalit Christians little sufferable by holding that upon reconversion to Hinduism, they can get their original caste back and they can claim the benefit of reservation scheme if he belonged to a reserved category.
However, in Guntar case, the court limited the eclipse theory to reconversion either within the same generation or in situations where one’s parents converted to Christianity, and one converted back. The court restricted the benefit of original caste to single generation.
However, this irregularity was cured in the case of K.P Manu v Chairman, Scrutiny Committee for Verification of Community Certificate. The facts of the case were- Great Grandfather of K.P Manu belonged to a Hindu Pulaya Community. It is included in the Scheduled Caste category and hence, enjoyed reservation benefits. Later on, the great- grandfather converted to Christianity. Thus, the grandparents as well as parents of K.P. Manu were Christians. K.P. Manu was himself born in 1960 as a Christian with the name of K.P. John. However, sometime in the year 1984 at the age of 24, he converted himself to Hindu religion and changed his name to that of K.P. Manu. On the basis of the reconversion to Hindu religion, he had obtained a certificate from the concerned community on 5th February, 1984. However, it was pointed out afterwards that K.P Manu didn’t belong to Scheduled caste because the benefit of original caste was restricted to single generation as it was held in the case of Guntur case. Later on, his caste certificate was cancelled.
The matter went up to the Supreme court. The court didn’t find difficulty in holding that upon reconversion to Hinduism, the caste automatically revives. The court here referred to Principal Guntur Medical college, Guntur v. Y. Mohan Rao, Kailash Sonkar and S. Anbalagan cases to reiterate the principle of eclipse theory. The point where the court found difficulty was with reference to this question, whether the benefit of original caste upon reconversion could be extended beyond single generation? The court involved itself in a purposive interpretation and while adopting a maximalist approach, ruled that there is no reason that any different principle will apply to a person whose forefathers had abandoned Hinduism. This principle doesn’t only extent to fathers but also to forefathers. Thus, in the present case, the Supreme Court held that even if the forefathers of a person had converted earlier to Christianity and if such person reconverts to Hinduism, he may get his original caste back on his reconversion if his community accept him.
In the above cases, it can be observed that partial remedy was provided to Dalit Christians by the Court while upholding two major principles.
- No complete loss of caste is there upon conversion. You can claim the status of original caste upon reconversion to Hinduism.
- This principle of claiming the status of original caste extends beyond single generation.
The author while acknowledging the fact that a little good was done by the court in improving the lives of Dalit Christians, would like to point out that it was not enough at the same time. The court diverted from the root of the problem. The root of problem lies in the 1950 order. The court brushed aside the responsibility of deciding the validity of 1950 order and the court went on deciding petty questions that would provide a temporary relief to Dalit Christians if their lives were to improved. The important question that the court should have looked into was that of reservation demand by Dalit Christians under the 1950 order. The solutions that were provided in these cases were only a means to reach the end and not the end in itself. End was the complete emancipation of discrimination, providing reservation under the 1950 order. Nonetheless, the extraordinary approach taken in these cases is worth appreciation.
The 3rd set of case wherein the constitutional validity of 1950 order came to be directly challenged was that of Soosai Etc v Union of India and ors. The petitioner, who was a Hindu belonging to the Adi-Dravida caste and on conversion to Christianity continued as a member of that caste-contended in his writ petition to this court that he had been denied the benefit of the welfare assistance intended for Scheduled Castes on the ground that he professes the Christian religion, and that such discrimination had been affected pursuant to the provision contained in paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 and that the provision was constitutionally invalid as being violative of Articles 14 to 17. The question that came to be considered in this case was, whether the 1950 order is invalid on the ground that only Hindu or Sikh members of the Castes enumerated in Schedule to that order are deemed to be scheduled castes for the purpose of constitution of India?
The court took a very narrow approach in deciding the validity of the 1950 order. It held that the President didn’t act arbitrarily in the exercise of his judgement in enacting para 3 of the order. However, the court provided some ray of hope by holding that to establish that paragraph 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 discriminates against Christian members of the enumerated castes it must be shown that they suffer from a comparable depth of social and economic disabilities and cultural and educational backwardness and similar levels of degradation within the Christian community necessitating intervention by the State under provisions of the Constitution. It is not sufficient to show that the same caste continues after conversion. It is necessary to establish further that the disabilities and handicaps suffered from such caste membership in the social order of its origin-Hinduism, continue in their oppressive severity in the new environment of a different religious community.
Taking a holistic approach of cases, the author is of opinion that nothing in the cases provide any substantial remedy to Dalit Christians who want their reservation demand to be fulfilled. It may be because of non-uniformity in the cases. Whatever may be the reason, the fact remains that these sets of cases couldn’t heal the suffering undergone by Dalit Christians because most of cases didn’t have a discussion on the validity of the 1950 order. The author is of the opinion that the time has come for the judges to think out of the box and declare the 1950 order invalid on the ground of infirmities present in it.
The reservation demand by Dalit Christians is not new one. It dates back to the time when the 1950 order was promulgated. If we closely analyse that time and the present one, we find that nothing significant has been done to ameliorate the position of Dalit Christians. The cycle of discrimination has increased. Earlier the discrimination related to physical abuse, but with time, this discrimination has moved away from physical abuse to structural abuse. Dalit Christians continue to suffer even after conversion because of multiple reasons, just to name few, discrimination by upper Christians, their own people, the government for not conceding to the demand of reservation, judiciary for not declaring the order unconstitutional. The author is of the opinion that this has to change. Our constitution specifically provides for betterment of weaker and backward people and if we not willing to change the process, then we are ultimately defying the text of the constitution.
 M Sudhir Selvaraj, VIOLENCE AGAINST CHRISTIANS IN INDIA: A DECADE AFTER KANDHAMAL, Available at- https://thediplomat.com/2018/08/violence-against-christians-in-india-a-decade-after-kandhamal/
 Louis, P., 2007,” Dalit Christians: Betrayed by state and church”, Economic and Political Weekly, pp.1410-1414.
 THE CONSTITUTION (SCHEDULED CASTES) ORDER, 1950.
 AIR 1952 Mad. 474
 (1976) 1 SCC 863
 1976) 1 SCC 863
 (1976) 3 SCC 411
 (1984) 2 SCC 112
 AIR 1984 SC 600
 2015 SCC Online SC 161
Author: SACHIN JEPH
Editor: Kanishka Vaish, Senior Editor, LexLife India.