ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Padmanabh SamarendraSubscribe to Padmanabh Samarendra

Religion and Scheduled Caste Status

The Supreme Court's judgment in the case of Mohammad Sadique carries disturbing implications for Muslim Dhobis, Dooms, Julahas, Mochis, etc, who face social disabilities similar to Hindu Dhobis, Dooms, Julahas, Mochis, etc, but are denied the same legal status. It seems to convey that the former could get the Scheduled Caste status provided they agree to convert to Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism. This judgment is in conflict with the basic tenets of the Constitution. There is thus an urgent need to review the relationship of religion and caste as assumed in the acts that deal with the question of the membership of SCs.

Religion, Caste and Conversion

The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950 and the two amendments of 1956 and 1990 posit a direct correlation between religion and caste. Only a Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist, according to these acts, can be a member of a Scheduled Caste; caste thus is assumed to exist and survive only within the specified religious communities. This assumption has been a source of litigations often involving those Christian converts and their descendants whose membership of a Scheduled Caste was disputed on account of a change in their religion. The Supreme Court had upheld the assumption that the presence of caste was contingent on religion. However, its understanding of the relationship of caste with religion in the subsequent decades witnessed major shifts. The influence of this new understanding was reflected in its recent judgments when it adjudicated on the pleas of those descendants who were trying to recover the membership of castes which their ancestors had seemingly lost following their conversion to Christianity.

Census in Colonial India and the Birth of Caste

Caste, as conceived in contemporary academic writings or within the policies of the State, is a new idea produced during the second half of the 19th century in the course of and because of the census operations. Colonial census officials, working with concepts of varna and jati, struggled unsuccessfully to define and classify these into castes on a single pan-India list, where each caste had to be discreet, homogeneous and enumerable. The history of caste enumeration in the Indian census illustrates how difficult it is to capture indigenous social hierarchies and identities under the term "caste". We embark on a new caste census without having addressed many of these challenges.
Back to Top