At a time when the Sangh Parivar has been campaigning strongly for ghar wapsi, i.e. return of all the lost sheep to the Hindu fold, the Supreme Court has willy-nilly done its bit to give it a helping hand. In doing so, reservation has been reduced to no better than an incentive to keep the Hindu flock together.
It all began in 1950 when the Union government, headed by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, decreed that those belonging to Scheduled Castes would lose the benefit of reservation if they converted from Hinduism to any other religion. Earlier, Hindus were cleverly defined as those who did not practice Islam, Christianity etc.
The argument was that Hinduism was the only religion that had an inbuilt caste system and all others were egalitarian. However, the assertion that a porter or a scavenger's financial or social status did not change dramatically when he accepted Jesus as his saviour did not find favour with the government.
However, it watered its own stand when in 1956, it granted reservation to Scheduled Castes who practiced Sikhism which, like Christianity and Islam, didn't recognise divisions based on caste. It lost even the fig leaf of an argument when it extended reservation to neo-Buddhists. Needless to say, Buddhism is the first egalitarian religion, for it did not recognise Brahmins or Pharisees. In fact, when Dr B.R. Ambedkar made his famous declaration that though he was born a Hindu, he would not die a Hindu, it was Buddhism which he and his followers embraced in the single largest mass conversion since the time of Emperor Constantine.
Reservation was no longer seen as an affirmative action to undo the injustice done to a large section of the people and to give them a level-playing field. It was, instead, seen as a lid to keep the Dalits from leaving the Hindu group, which should not have been the concern of a secular state. It is now claimed that Sikhism and Buddhism are religions born in India, forgetting that Islam and Christianity are also religions born in Asia.
All through, the apex court has been playing along. In the Mohan Rao case, it ruled that a person could avail of the benefits of reservation, if he returned to the original faith of his parents, even if he was born a Christian or a Muslim. It did not matter even if he had a spouse, who was not a Hindu. Last week, a two-member bench of the Supreme Court went further in the KP Manu case. It has ruled that the reservation facility could be availed of by any person if he "reconverted" to Hinduism and was accepted by the Hindu community. All he had to do was to prove that his parents or forefathers were Scheduled Castes.
Taken to its logical conclusion, a Dalit whose forefathers converted to Christianity in the 19th century and enjoyed all the benefits of education and higher status in the 20th century can today embrace Hinduism and claim the benefits of reservation.
There are laws in many states, which specifically ban conversions based on allurements. Here, the apex court itself is allowing the use of reservation as a carrot to bring Dalits back to the Hindu fold. This gels with the announcements being made by some leaders that India would soon be a100-per cent Hindu state.
As more and more modern Manus come forward to claim reservation benefits, the court can be expected to liberalise the terms of "reconversion". Strangely, it also admits that "there has been detailed study to indicate that the Scheduled Caste persons belonging to Hindu religion, who had embraced Christianity with some kind of hope or aspiration, have remained socially, educationally and economically backward." The redemption is
All this at a time when the constitutionality of denying reservation to Dalit Christians and Muslims is being challenged in the apex court, which has not found time even to constitute a large bench to consider the issue. While the court says that reservation cannot be given to Dalit Muslims and Christians, few realise that the state has virtually reserved a maximum of 50 per cent of all government jobs and seats in educational institutions to the majority Hindus.
The Dalit Christians and Muslims have to compete with the educationally and socially forward castes to get a job or a seat from the non-reserved category. This amounts to double discrimination against them. It is curious that the apex court, which is liberal in extending reservation to those who want to "return home", does not want any reservation for the posts of judges in high courts and the Supreme Court. Charity must begin at home.
The writer is a senior journalist and president of Deepalaya, a non-government organization.