Muslims chaff at secular limitation
In his magisterial commentary on the Indian constitution, DD Basu emphasised that the State cannot make reservations on communal lines as this infringes clauses (i) and (ii) of Article 16. Initially, the larger political minority (Muslims) accepted this as an inevitable legacy of partition, while Christians preferred a low profile as the colonial power departed. In recent decades, however, both groups have been chafing at their “theoretical egalitarianism” being cited to deny them reservations as Scheduled Castes.
This is now the holy grail of their political desire. Given the huge controversy over Sonia Gandhi’s food bill, and her known ambition for reservations for minorities (Sachar Committee, National Commission for Linguistic and Religious Minorities), there are concerted moves to push Congress in this direction in order to secure the combined minority votebank as the next general election threatens to be highly contentious, with every political party hell-bent on increasing its vote and seat share.
The temptation to woo minorities will be high as the storm over Raj Babbar’s ‘Rs 12 buys a good meal’ has inspired opposition parties to seek ways to deflate the destructive food security legislation. They should begin with their sums. If we take an average poor family of eight (couple + four children + parents) and accept Rs 12 per meal per person as baseline, we need Rs 96/day for one meal and Rs 288 for three meals/day for one family (Rs 8640/month on food alone). As even Congress accepts this estimate as insulting, a realistic assessment is needed, a task best left to the next government.
To return to the issue of politically driven reservations for minorities, a former chairman of the National Minorities Commission claims that Indian-style secularism appeases the majority at the expense of the country’s two largest minorities – Muslims and Christians. He argues that at the time of its adoption, the Constitution neither declared any state religion nor proclaimed India a secular state. By pronouncing ‘equality before law and equal protection of laws’ as fundamental rights, it mandated the state not to discriminate citizens ‘on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them’ in respect of public places and employment or appointment under the state.
Ostensibly, this made the country ‘secular’. But several specific provisions for certain groups, incorporated in the Constitution from its inception, or inserted later, benefited particular religious communities. Thus, Sikhs won the right to carry the kirpan, and the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu were asked to pay substantial annual annuities to dewasom temples. Moreover, Scheduled Caste reservations were specific to the Hindu community, though Sikhs managed to get included six years later, and Buddhists after four decades.
Both monotheist groups claim that they share the same castes as Hindus, and that their global character has not been able to protect scheduled caste converts from discrimination within the respective faith communities. They resent that when a Scheduled Caste Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh embraces Christianity or Islam, he loses his SC status and privileges, which are restored on return to the original faith. Muslim and Christian leaders now want reservations extended to scheduled caste converts in their respective religions.
This is political gimmickry at its worst. Muslim and Christian leaders know that to amend the Indian Constitution to extend recognition to the existence of caste among them amounts to inserting a Hindu institution into two monotheistic religions that do not recognise caste, and in fact invite conversion to overcome caste disabilities in Hindu society.
Many issues arise from this. First, leaders of both communities must answer how and when they decided to accept caste discrimination within their fold, to the extent that they wish to institutionalise it. Why has the cash-inundated church, which is the largest landowner and runs the largest number of educational, including professional, institutions in the country, been unable to uplift converts from marginal sections of society? Why does the church resist demands from lower caste converts for financial scrutiny and accountability of funds received by the church and affiliated institutions and NGOs run by it? Christian medical colleges recently fought to free themselves from the nationwide entrance examination. Given that they are making money hand over fist, there is simply no excuse for their inability to uplift the former scheduled castes.
Muslim organisations are similarly well-funded by their global co-religionists. Moreover, Islam has a movement, tablighi, which focuses on removing all traces of pre-Islamic traditions and culture amongst the devout. It is amazing that the tablighi movement has failed to address the issue of eradicating caste and racial distinctions among believers; this is obviously an urgent priority.
The flip side of the move to get caste-based reservations for monotheistic religions is that this would be a form of religious aggression on the part of the Indian State, as it amounts to legislating Hindu institutions and practices into their basic structure. It is true that both faiths are demanding this to improve their access to government quotas via scheduled caste converts, but if the doors to Central legislation to reconstruct the very form of a religion are thus opened, it could have unintended consequences.
Christians may ponder if they are open to Government by law reserving promotions in church hierarchy for members from the scheduled castes, who have long been clamouring for upward mobility. Can the Indian Government, like the People’s Republic of China, decide the appointments of Bishops and Archbishops?
Similarly, Muslims may consider if the Government should henceforth legislate to undo the havoc wrought on poor Muslim women by Rajiv Gandhi’s disgraceful Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986? After all, the move was opposed by several respected jurists from the community itself.
Islam and Christianity are both religions of the Book. If they want to amend their character in India for a political advantage or any other reason, then, as non-natal faiths, they must first amend their scriptures and insert the recognition of caste and caste-based discrimination into the Koran and the Bible. Only then can the Indian Constitution extend caste-based recognition to underprivileged castes in their midst.
The alternative is to apologise to the former scheduled castes for the centuries of neglect, social abuse, and economic deprivation, and urge them to return to their natal faith. There cannot be any ‘protective discrimination’ for those who have cheated and betrayed the most vulnerable of their flock.