Bengaluru: Dalits among Christians and Muslims remain excluded from reservations more than 70 years after India passed an order--the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950--to recognise and identify groups as belonging to a Scheduled Caste (SC). Caste identity, however, was first limited to followers of Hinduism and later extended to Sikhs (1956) and Buddhists (1990).

In January 2020, the Supreme Court of India agreed to examine a plea by the National Council of Dalit Christians, a private organisation, to make reservations "religion neutral" so that Dalit Christians and Muslims too can benefit. The plea is pending before the court.

"These communities should be granted reservations," Satish Deshpande, a sociologist at the Delhi University, told IndiaSpend in an interview. Deshpande has been studying caste and class inequalities for more than three decades, and has served as the editor of three books, including The Problem of Caste. "There is a strong case for including Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste category" is what a 2008 report for the National Commission on Minorities had concluded; Deshpande was the report's lead author.

Among Dalits of different religions, nearly 47% of Dalit Muslims in urban India are in the below poverty line (BPL) category, the report noted from 2004-05 data. This is a significantly higher percentage than Hindu Dalits (41%) and Dalit Christians (32%), it said. In rural India, 40% of Dalit Muslims and 30% Dalit Christians are in the BPL category, it added.

Limited data about different caste groups can impede informed policy and welfare measures. Deshpande says the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (STs) categories should be sub-classified so that the more marginalised groups within these can avail of more benefits. The Supreme Court is reviewing its decision on the sub-classification of SCs and STs.

Deshpande cautioned that reservation for the economically weaker section (EWS) is "constitutionally unviable" because this identity is based on economic considerations and excludes caste groups that have already been provided reservations, making it a quota for the upper castes.

Edited excerpts from an interview in which Deshpande talks about reservations, the need for political will to collect disaggregated caste data and why sub-quotas within castes will be a positive step:

A petition for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims to be recognised under the Scheduled Caste category is pending before the Supreme Court. Why has this been denied for over 70 years?

The legal position is that reservation cannot be granted on religious grounds. The unstated political position is that SC and ST parliamentarians have been hostile to this [religion-neutral caste identity] idea. Our 2008 report on this issue concluded that there is ample socio-scientific evidence on the discrimination faced by Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians. The economic data shows that they are worse off than the other segments of their communities--they are over-represented among the poor or disadvantaged and under-represented among the privileged by all conventional measures of poverty or disadvantage.

The current position is inconsistent and unjust. If religion is no bar for Buddhists and Sikhs for receiving reservation despite being recognised as distinct, non-Hindu religions, then why not [grant reservation to] Christians and Muslims? They are excluded because they are considered to be "non-Indic" religions. This does not make sense as both [religions] have deep roots in India.

The constituency [Dalits among Christians and Muslims] itself is not strong or large enough to affect electoral considerations. There are no two ways about it--these communities should be granted reservations.

How has this impacted these communities?

Caste discrimination along 'touchable' and 'untouchable' lines continues to be strong. There has been no authoritative count because marginalised castes within these communities have not been recognised officially. Most Dalit converts in northern India are from among the lower--and often the lowest--castes; there are hardly any converts from among the upper castes. In the South, a large population of converts is from among the Dalits and OBCs [Other Backward Classes] but also a significant number is from among the upper caste. The northeast is a special case. Caste identity is not so prominent there albeit some predominantly tribal states, such as Nagaland and Mizoram, are overwhelmingly Christian.

In [many parts of] India, Dalit Christians and Muslims are forced to have separate churches/mosques and burial grounds. There have been several intra-church agitations. After denying caste-divisions for long, the Catholic church and other denominations have recognised the issue. Among Christians, it [the subject of Dalit Christian identity] is no longer as suppressed as it used to be.

Dalits among Muslims are a tiny minority. Of late, the broader Muslim identity has come under so much pressure that the internal differentiation has lost its sharpness. Even class, which in India was a reliable protector across religions, does not protect Muslims anymore. Economic inequality among Muslims is least as they are mostly poor, whereas there is much greater inequality among Christians as some sections are rich.

As with other illegal practices, direct evidence of caste discrimination is difficult to collect through surveys because people seldom admit it. So the evidence on caste discrimination tends to be inferential evidence, like the under- or over-representation of caste groups relative to their share in the total population. For example, data on consumption expenditure collected by the National Sample Survey consistently shows (with rare exceptions) that average consumption expenditure for Dalits is lower than that for other castes--even when other factors like religion, region, occupation, educational level etc. are the same.

India's census does not enumerate caste data. How should this be ideally collected?

The Census [office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner] has considerable expertise. Much of the data that the Census collects is incredibly complicated. For instance, data on occupation. Yet, it is processed, and made usable. The data on religion and language is [also] complex. This too gets processed as usable data. The same can be done for caste.

We need to collect synonyms [for caste names] and design the questionnaire to have more than one way of asking the question.

We must ensure that aggregated caste categories can be disaggregated by specific caste names, so that data is available for individual castes within a category. For example, [data about] the OBC category does not tell us about the population of the various, different castes that constitute this category in different regions/states. If we had this data, then meaningful aggregates could be put together in a region-specific manner, leading to more useful information. This is far more valuable than very large aggregations such as 'OBC' that conceal many differences within a cluster without the opportunity to disaggregate.

With cheap data storage and computing power, it is now possible to have disaggregated data, allowing for different kinds of aggregation suited to different regions or sub-regions. This will help make the caste data robust and usable. We have the framework to collect data. We do not need a new institution but political will to do this exercise.

The Centre's 10% reservation for EWS, which provides reservation to upper castes, has further reinforced caste as a norm. How does this sync with the constitutional need for affirmative action, which was intended for social justice and economic equality?

It [the reservation for EWS] is constitutionally unviable. There are two problems. The first is that reservation cannot be [granted] on economic grounds alone as has been laid down by the Supreme Court in the Mandal [Commission] case. But EWS is on purely economic grounds because the relevant 103rd amendment does not mention caste. Secondly, it provides reservation for dominant castes by excluding those categories for which reservation is provided. This will violate the Constitutional principle of equality (as stated under Article 14). Incidentally, this was the argument used when the Madras High Court first struck down reservations in 1950, but which the Supreme Court later upheld in 1951, leading to the first amendment to the Constitution. The amendment had to include a provision for safeguarding reservations.

The Supreme Court's reasoning at the time was that people cannot be kept out on the basis of caste alone. The remedy--to introduce an explicit clause for those groups--was not seen as a violation of equality. Similar protection has not yet been provided for EWS, and will be difficult as the category does not mention caste.

The Supreme Court has decided to refer the 2004 E.V. Chinniah judgement to a larger bench to revisit sub-classification of SCs and STs to provide reservation to the more marginalised groups within SCs and STs. Can you comment on this?

It is a good idea. The court's earlier position against sub-classification is rigid. In terms of the letter of the law, what the president designates as SCs and STs are a single homogenous group. There is room for sub-quotas. The spirit of the law is to compensate for dicrimination and disadvantage.

If significant under-representation can be demonstrated, and there is some evidence of discrimination against such groups [including within SCs and STs], then sub-quotas make sense, and it should be possible to make provisions. Sub-quotas are unavoidable today and will be a positive step. The census collects data on individual cases on SCs and STs. In many regions, one group dominates [like the Malas in Andhra Pradesh, the Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh, the Mahars in Maharashtra and the Meenas in Rajasthan] while others lag.

At the same time, one has to keep in mind that as the government's ability to create jobs shrinks, the ability of reservations to address caste inequality will also shrink. The ideological importance nevertheless remains because reservations shape our thinking about caste. Sub-quotas will help us to stop thinking of caste groups as large, homogeneous blocks.

Can you talk about how the idea of affirmative action through reservations has changed in the context of demands for reservation by the Marathas in Maharashtra under the socially and educationally backward category, and by the Jats in Haryana under the OBC category? Why are the dominant groups making such demands?

This is a problem of perception because the same word i.e. 'reservation' is being used for a very different phenomenon. Constitutional reservation was a political idea. It was required in order for our claim of being a modern nation to be credible. This is because modern nations required in-principle equality among citizens despite the presence of deep inequalities in practice.

In India, caste inequality and exclusion were mandated by Hindu law. In other words, caste inequality was a matter of codified principles (law) and not just custom or practice. As a modern nation, India needed an explicit break with its past, a break that is more than just a declaration of good intentions. Reservations effectively counter forced exclusion with forced inclusion, which was valid and needed.

The dominant groups are now relying on the same policy frameworks to extract concessions from the state. Although this is called reservation, it is conceptually and politically very different from constitutional reservation. Reservation [for caste groups] was intended to be a form of political and social inclusion and has proved to be the most effective welfare measures.

The perception that 'upper castes' are discriminated against as a group is an illusion perpetuated by dominant ideology. The most vocal segments of our society are the upper castes and they actively cultivate this perception. They have a sense of entitlement based on the past. The OBC category has been critical for thinking about caste. This category spreads across the class spectrum, and accounts for the largest single category from the poorest to the richest. On the other hand, it also illustrates the problems of over-aggregated categories that hide deep differences. Their contribution is in showing how caste identities can be both: sources of power and advantage and disempowerment and disadvantage in different contexts

Three states--Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh--have enforced anti-conversion laws to prevent conversion for the purpose of marriage. Is the state impeding personal space? What would you attribute such changes to?

It is a communal issue. The inherent conservatism of Indian society is finding expression here [through the enactment of such laws], especially in a communal climate. The worries are all one-sided and asymmetrical. The worry is about marrying Muslims, and to a lesser extent, marrying Christians. It is a gender-specific concern. The notion of 'love jihad' implies Muslim men marrying Hindu women and not the other way around. It has nothing to do with religion or privacy.

There is an increased political narrative around nationalism and the need to be a nationalist. How do you assess the Centre's and the public's response to the ongoing farmers' protest to repeal new farm laws, and the protests around the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC)?

The ruling regime's political style defines the spectrum of what is acceptable in the larger social-political context. Today, a certain aggressive, mob-based mode of direct and violent action is being tacitly and explicitly supported by the ruling regime. This is being used to polarise politics. At the same time, political parties have little importance as everything is personalised and projected on a single, great leader. And then there is the Hindutva identity. This defines any kind of political activity today almost independently of content. It does not matter if it is a farmer agitating or agitations against CAA... anyone disagreeing with the government or the ruling party is declared to be 'anti-national'.

Nationalism is a rhetorical claim. Its appeal is at an emotional level where rational argument is rendered ineffective. What concrete actions or policies are you trying to justify by invoking nationalism is the question to be asked.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)