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Plea for SC/ST status for Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians

The Indian Constitution stands for equality before law, it forbids discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, religion, region or language. However, contrary to the spirit of the Constitution a discriminatory provision in Article 341 was included in it through a Presidential Order of 1950.

According to this Presidential Order once a person belonging to Schedule Caste or Tribe converts to any other religion he forfeits all facilities he was entitled to as a Hindu SC/ST under Section 341 of the Constitution. Later, amendments were made. If the converted person adopts Buddhism or Sikhism his or her privileges remain intact, but if he or she embraces Islam or Christianity, the privileges are forfeited. This seems to be in consonance with Veer Savarkar’s theory of Hindutva which discriminates between Indians practicing Indian religions and "foreign religions."

It is reassuring that certain sincere persons of the community have taken up the cause and have started a crusade to undo this injustice. A surgeon-cum-journalist from Patna, Dr M Ejaz Ali, not only took up the cause but made it his life's mission to end this discrimination. Since 1993 he has been fighting for this noble cause to see to it that this discriminatory provision is removed and equal opportunities are provided to neo-Muslims and Christians at par with neo-Buddhists and Sikhs. 

Movement for Dalit Muslims’ reservation was started in Bihar in 1993. For this mission, the Backward Muslim Morcha was established in 1994 under the convenorship of Dr Ali. He faced many hurdles from every conceivable quarter, including Muslims themselves, but he continued his struggle and succeeded in getting a bill passed in Bihar assembly on July 21, 2000, which was earlier okayed by the legislative council on April 12, 1999.

Thus the neo-Muslims, or Dalit Muslims, are entitled to reservation in Bihar at par with others belonging to SC/ST. Dr Ali and his comrades did not stop here and spread their area of operations and covered the entire nation, resulting in the introduction of a private member’s bill in parliament on May 25 and July 28, 2000. On December 1, 2000, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) parliamentary party leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh again raised the issue in Lok Sabha on a bill brought by E Ahmad for this purpose. Intervening in the debate the then Union law minister Ram Jethmalani informed the House that the government was seriously considering providing reservation to Dalit Muslims and Christians. But since then nothing concrete has so far emerged. Dr Ali and his comrades have not sat idle and are leaving no stone unturned to get justice for these Dalit Muslims.

In this connection a conference was organised in Lucknow that was presided over by Hashim Ansari, the main litigant of Babri Masjid case. Inaugurating the conference, president of All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations Udit Raj said that the Dalit power was divided on religious basis through this discriminatory provision as the Brahminical lobby was afraid that if all Dalits united then they could not continue with their hegemony. He said "we have blood relation with these Dalit Muslims, but very tactfully we were made rivals, resulting in exploitation and harassment. Now the time has come that we should start a united struggle to do away with this discriminatory provision. Thus we will increase our strength manifold, which will go a long way in getting justice and political power." 

Addressing the conference Dr Ali said that 80 percent of the Muslim population belongs to Dalit category, but because of the amendment in Article 341 there could not be any change in their social and economic status ."Eighty percent of our people are living below poverty line, doing manual jobs like rickshaw-pulling, selling vegetables and eggs and cycle repairs. This number is increasing. The time has come that we should realise the gravity of the situation and stand up against this discriminatory provision, which is against the spirit of our Constitution," he said.

Senior IAS officer and principal secretary UP government, Sardar Rai Singh, said that every thing and every point was clear in the preamble to the Constitution and the religious clause in Article 341 was a direct assault on religious freedom. "Moreover, when this article was amended first in 1956 to bring neo-Sikhs and in 1990 to bring neo-Buddhists under its purview, then why neo-Muslims and neo-Christians are discriminated against is difficult to understand," he wondered.

¯ Obaid Nasir in Lucknow

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