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Dalits by definition or by religion?

Dalits by definition or by religion?
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First Published: Mon, Mar 16 2009. 12 26 AM IST

 No sharing: Bhalchandra P. Gaikwad at his shop in Mumbai. Gaikwad is among the many Hindus who are against opening SC reservation for Muslims and Christians, saying they already benefit under the ‘ot
No sharing: Bhalchandra P. Gaikwad at his shop in Mumbai. Gaikwad is among the many Hindus who are against opening SC reservation for Muslims and Christians, saying they already benefit under the ‘ot
Updated: Mon, Mar 16 2009. 09 35 AM IST
Mumbai: Virendra Joshi, who works as a driver in Gurgaon on the outskirts of New Delhi, was elated when the Central government approved a plan last year to give 250,000 scholarships to school students.
No sharing: Bhalchandra P. Gaikwad at his shop in Mumbai. Gaikwad is among the many Hindus who are against opening SC reservation for Muslims and Christians, saying they already benefit under the ‘other backward classes’ category and in minority-run educational institutions. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Joshi had been struggling to pay for the education of his three sons, who he says are very intelligent, and hoped they would benefit from the Rs1,868 crore plan meant for students studying in classes I to X. Joshi then realized that the scheme was meant only for minority students—or those belonging to any religion other than Hindu.
“I am a Brahmin. My children don’t qualify for it,” Joshi said. “They are the wrong religion.”
For once, though, upper class Hindus and Dalit Hindus are on the same side of the often acrimonious debate over reservations, as so-called Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians seek job and education quotas such as those available for Hindu scheduled castes.
“How much do they want? They (poor Muslims and Christians) already have reservations as other backward classes that we don’t,” says Bhalchandra P. Gaikwad, a Hindu butcher who heads the Maharashtra Hindu Khatik (butchers) Mahasangha.
Muslim and Christian communities also benefit from reservations for minorities in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, says Gaikwad. And they also have 50% reservations in their own minority educational institutions, and scholarships, according to him.
“No one protests when that money is given only to non-Hindus,” says Gaikwad. “No one calls it religious discrimination. Now they (minorities) want the benefits given to us, the poor of the Hindus, as well? They cannot get all the benefits.”
Scheduled castes are entitled to benefits such as 22.5% reservations in educational institutions and government jobs, lower education fees, easier terms on bank loans, and preference in government housing.
Last month, Syed Shahabuddin, former MP and organizer of the Joint Committee of Muslim Organizations for Empowerment, summoned a conference on the issue of Muslim reservations in New Delhi. The event was attended by Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan, former chief justice A.M. Ahmadi and A.B. Bardhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India.
Presidential order
Shahabuddhin described as “illegal and anti-secular” a 1950 presidential order that no person who professes a faith other than Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of scheduled castes. The category has remained the exclusive privilege of Dalit Hindus (including Buddhists and Sikhs) so far because of an order signed by India’s first president Rajendra Prasad.
Muslim and Christian leaders argue that the caste system has not spared any religion and although Islam and Christianity do not believe in casteism, they cannot escape it. “There are no two ways about it. Islam does not believe in the caste system. But there are castes among Muslims in India,” said Shahabuddin. “So we should also get reservations in scheduled caste category.”
Right now, poor Muslims and Christians get reservations under the other backward classes (OBC) category. There are no available statistics on the number of OBCs in the country, “after 1931, no caste-based census has been conducted in the country,” said V. Chandrashekhar, research officer at the National Commission for Backward Classes.
Those included in this category are entitled to 27% reservations in jobs, admissions in educational institutions, bank loans and subsidized housing. On the other hand, about 162 million Dalit Hindus compete for 15% reservations in Central government jobs, said S.D. Tripathi, personal secretary to the chairman of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes.
“Obviously there are more OBCs competing for a smaller pie than the Hindu scheduled castes. Our numbers are smaller, so more of us benefit” says Gaikwad. He says that like him, most Dalit Hindus are furious and believe that this is an effort to “break in here and take away our share”.
“But let them try,” he adds. “I don’t think Hindu Dalits are going to let that happen.”
Affirmative action
For many centuries, the scheduled castes or Dalits had existed at the bottom of the Indian social hierarchy, forced to pursue dehumanizing professions such as scavenging for survival. Over the last century, champions of social equality fought a long, hard battle with ancient prejudices, setting the stage for affirmative action.
And so, when independence came, the author of the constitution was also the most influential champion of Dalit rights. B.R. Ambedkar enshrined the idea of a classless society into the nation’s founding document. And to help the more backward, downtrodden sections of society, it laid down the idea of affirmative action, that promised them reservations in government educational institutions and government jobs.
But in the decades since, a nexus evolved between the idea of caste identity and politics and as political power devolved to smaller and smaller sections of the country, caste identity has become increasingly important, explains historian Ramachandra Guha in his book India after Gandhi. Over time, the issue of affirmative action has become increasingly contentious and a bitter debate has raged on which group is more backward and how many special privileges should it get? And where does the scope of affirmative action end?
Dalit definition
This debate is now raging within the Dalit community of India, where the idea of equality of religions is clashing with the definition of a Dalit. “A Dalit was defined by the British on the basis of untouchability, which persisted only in Hinduism. These were the people the constitution called scheduled castes. These were the people that the constitution tried to help,” said Tripathi at the National Commission of Scheduled Castes.
“And since Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are considered offshoots of Hinduism, these religions are included in this category as well. Islam and Christianity, on the other hand, may have economic and social backwardness, but they certainly did not have untouchability, the basis of the definition of a Dalit. That is why they have 27% reservations under other backward classes category,” Tripathi adds.
“There is no question of any sort of untouchability of any kind in Dalit Christian and Dalit Muslim communities,” says Sanjay Paswan, founder editor of Vanchit Vani, a magazine that claims to speak for the marginalized, and the co-author of a 14-volume encyclopedia on Dalits.
“Why should they be given anything under the scheduled caste category? Their religion has no scheduled castes. We will oppose this demand to give reservations to the so-called Dalit Christians and so-called Dalit Muslims,” Paswan said.
And to this end, he has begun to create an alliance with Dalit Buddhists. “We may have our differences. But on this we see eye to eye. We realize that they want the best of both worlds. They want to be a religious minority and get those benefits. And they want to be Dalit and take our share too,” alleged Paswan, who comes from a Dalit family in rural Bihar.
His argument has found support in a familiar quarter. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu organization that is an ally of the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), sees the Muslim and Christian demand as a threat to Hindu rights and “is committed to opposing the demand in every possible way”, says Ram Madhav, a spokesperson for the RSS.
Madhav says he is confident that no government would risk provoking Hindu anger, especially in an election year. Nonetheless, politicians such as Shahabuddin, Ram Vilas Paswan, and H.D. Deve Gowda, who are trying to create a consensus on the issue, seem to believe it is worth exploring. As the debate becomes louder, it is clear that there will be more bitter arguments, recriminations and fragmentation between some of the most deprived sections of society.
This is the third and last story in a series on the quest of non-Hindu communities for caste-based reserved quotas.
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First Published: Mon, Mar 16 2009. 12 26 AM IST