01 April 2014

Religious (Non)Reservations In India: A Brief Discussion

India's Constitution and subsequent legislation makes substantial space for "reservations" for so-called "Scheduled Castes" and "Scheduled Tribes." For my American readers, reservations are a bulked-up version of affirmative action. Over the past two or more decades, India's Christian community has protested that those converting from a Scheduled Caste lose their caste-based benefits simply by virtue of their conversion. This, many have argued, is unjust because those new Christians continue to suffer whatever ill-effects of their previous caste status notwithstanding their conversion. Indeed, their economic and social opportunities may well be lessened as a result of ostracism (or worse) from their previous religious community.

Why was this the case when the Constitution of 1949 was drafted? In other words, why weren't Christians (and Muslims), who were as equally disadvantaged as low-caste Hindus, treated in the same manner? Go here to read a very enlightening article by Rowena Robinson. I won't try to summarize her historical account but will comment on three of the points she makes.

First, the Christians involved in the Constituent Assembly were from the elites and simply didn't appreciate the backward status of many Christians:
It is clear that the understanding Christians had of themselves at the time and that the House shared was of a relatively homogeneous community. References were made in the assembly to the huge presence of Christians in the social sector, and even to the community’s “wealth, social influence and status”.
Second, and even more disconcerting, many elite Christians simply didn't care. Quoting a Christian member of the Assembly Ms. Robinson reports him saying:
I may here raise my voice for an unfortunate section of my community – the Harijan Christians. They are untouchables. Sir, and they are treated so, not only by the caste Hindus with whom they have to deal every minute of their lives, but I am ashamed to confess it, they are treated so even by their Christian brethren, and the parents of these children come to us with tears in their eyes to tell us that their children have been driven out of the schools and deprived of their education because scholarships had been stopped for them, while the children of their brothers and sisters who are non-converts are continuing their studies.
Third, there was a trade-off: the new Constitution preserved the right of Christians to propagate their faith. This right, however, has not been preserved well over the course of time and is ever more challenged by the anti-conversion laws enacted in many Indian states. (Go here and here for my discussion of these laws and the current state of religious liberty in India.) Other constitutional interests were also involved in the negotiations that comprised the work of the Constituent Assembly but I'll let you read the full article for the details.

I am far from able to pronounce judgment on the work of the Constituent Assembly and its Christian members. When compared with other parts of former British India (e.g., Pakistan and Sri Lanka), it is clear that Christians in India continue to fare better there notwithstanding the net injustices that the Indian Constitution has permitted.

That such may be the case, however, does not justify the current state of affairs in India. I can only hope that Ms. Robinson's paper proves a useful tool as the battle for fully equal rights progresses in India.

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