In an interesting judgment delivered last month, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that, subject to certain conditions, an erstwhile Christian who “reconverted” to Hinduism was eligible for Scheduled Caste reservation benefits. On March 12, the Indian Express carried a highly critical appraisal of the judgment. For reasons that I will shortly explain, I do not agree with the article. On the contrary, I feel that in terms of the limited question before it, the case was correctly decided – and furthermore, it also contains the germs of a new, progressive jurisprudence dealing with conversions and affirmative action.
The appellant, K.P. Manu, had a great-grandfather who belonged to the Hindu Pulaya community (which is a Scheduled Caste). His son – i.e., the appellant’s grandfather – converted to Christianity. The appellant’s father was also a christian. But at the age of 24, the appellant “reconverted” to Hinduism. He applied for a caste certificate from his community and from the local tehsildar, both of whom issued it to him. This was challenged before a Scrutiny Committee, which recorded a finding that the caste certificate was incorrectly issued, on the ground that the appellant’s father and grandfather had been christians, and that even after his “reconversion”, the appellant had married a Christian woman.
On the basis of the Scrutiny Committee’s report, the State Government directed the appellant’s employer to remove him from service and recover Rs. 15 lakhs from him. This was challenged before the High Court, which affirmed the Committee’s findings. Consequently, the appellant approached the Supreme Court.
Therefore, the Supreme Court was faced with a very narrow question: is a reconvert from Christianity entitled to reservation benefits if his original/ancestral caste is a Scheduled Caste? To answer the question, the Court analysed a number of its previous judgments dealing with the issue of conversions and affirmative action. According to the established jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, “ordinarily”, conversion from Hinduism would mean an expulsion from one’s caste. This was not a hard-and-fast rule though, since admittedly, the caste system been partially incorporated into other religions as well. Consequently, the question would be decided on a case-to-case basis, depending upon the “structure of the caste, and its rules and regulations.”
Because, ultimately, the structure of the caste, and its rules and regulations, were all internal matters, the Court held that a “reconvert” from Christianity would be treated as belonging to his original caste if “the members of the caste accept him.” (paragraph 13) The basic principle, as explained by a prior Constitution Bench decision, was that on conversion from Hinduism, one’s original caste was “eclipsed”, and if “during his/her lifetime the person is reconverted to the original religion the eclipse disappears and the caste automatically revives.”
The State argued that the Court’s prior decisions were limited to reconversion either within the same generation, or – at most – situations where one’s parents converted to Christianity, and one converted back. It contended that the “eclipse theory” could not be extended beyond a generation. In paragraph 33, the Court rejected this contention, holding that “as we understand the authority it does not lay down that it only would apply to the parents and exclude the grandparents.” The Court observe – in my opinion, correctly – that caste stigmas tended to persist through generations (and even upon conversions) – and that therefore, “eclipse-and-revival” was not limited to a single generation. Therefore, it held:
“In our considered opinion, three things that need to be established by a person who claims to be a beneficiary of the caste certificate are (i) there must be absolutely clear cut proof that he belongs to the caste that has been recognised by the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950; (ii) there has been reconversion to the original religion to which the parents and earlier generations had belonged; and (iii) there has to be evidence establishing the acceptance by the community. Each aspect according to us is very significant, and if one is not substantiated, the recognition would not be possible.” (para 34)
All three, of course, were empirical questions.
In my opinion, it is difficult to find fault with either the reasoning or the conclusion. On the specific issue of reconversion and the benefits of reservation, the Court was bound by previous three-judge and Constitution Bench decisions. The innovation in this case is the holding that eclipse-and-revival does not cease if there is a generational gap between conversion and reconversion. I think that the Court is correct to ground this in the fact that social and economic disabilities – which is the entire raison d’etre for reservations – do not disappear with conversion, even across generations.
The Indian Express article has two broad criticisms of the judgment. First, it argues that this constitutes an incentive to “ghar wapsi“. That may or may not be so, but as we have just discussed, that question was not res integra, since it has already been established that reservation benefits can be availed of in cases of reconversion. In any event, ought the Court have held that one is not entitled to reservation benefits on reconversion? That, to me, seems to be as morally fraught a position as the incentive-to-ghar-wapsi.
Secondly, the Express piece argues that in holding that a person loses reservation benefits upon conversion to Christianiaty (or Islam), the judgment enshrines a “majoritarian view” of religion. Since the Constitution treats Buddhism and Sikhism as falling within the category of “Hinduism”, it discriminates against non-Indic religions by creating a situation where a person will not lose reservation benefits if she converts to Buddhism/Sikhism, but will if she converts to Islam/Christianity. The piece also argues that it is incorrect to assume that social and economic disabilities disappear on conversion. The focal point of its criticism is contained in the following quote that it excerpts:
“The court observes: “Once such a person ceases to be a Hindu and becomes a Christian, the social and economic disabilities arising because of Hindu religion cease, and hence it is no longer necessary to give him protection…””
At this point, it is crucial to note that this was not an observation of the Court. It is a quote from the previous judgment of Arumugam vs Rajgopal, a previous three-judge bench that the present Court was bound by. Now there is no doubt that this is a very unfortunate legal position, and as a matter of simple fact, patently untrue. Caste-based social and economic difficulties are far too deeply entrenched to be ameliorated by a formal conversion. So, the Indian Express piece is correct to note that:
“Caste consciousness is part of our everyday lives; its universality renders it normal. However much we may delude ourselves, we are all scarred by it. Dalits, irrespective of their religious beliefs, are oppressed victims of deep prejudice and the irrational, wicked belief in Dalit inferiority. To make the argument that the caste system is not recognised by Christianity and Islam is to ignore the realities of the country.”
That said, however, the question of losing caste – and thereby, reservation benefits – upon conversion was not before the Court, and it could not have decided upon it. Furthermore, being a two judge bench, it was entirely bound by precedent, and could not have changed this position even if it wanted to.
That said, a close reading of the judgement reveals that the Court was acutely aware of the problem, and to the extent possible, attempted to craft the beginnings of an alternative jurisprudence. From paragraphs 22 to 31, it quoted B.R. Ambedkar, James Massey, Archbishop George Zur, the Mandal Commission, a Church of the South India Commission, the Chinnappa Commission Report, and a political scientist, all for the proposition that caste-disabilities do not disappear upon conversion. Summing up these observations, it observed in paragraph 32:
“We have referred to the aforesaid materials and the observations singularly for the purpose that there has been detailed study to indicate the Scheduled Castes persons belonging to Hindu religion, who had embraced Christianity with some kind of hope or aspiration, have remained socially, educationally and economically backward.”
The Court then used this fact to reject the State’s contention that the eclipse-and-revival theory was limited to a single generation. If the caste stigma was never lost, even upon conversion, then why ought there be a denial of the reservation entitlement upon reconversion.
While this seems to be in line with Arumugam’s Case, there is a crucial conceptual shift. In Arumugam’s Case, because the Court first held that reservation benefits are lost upon conversion because the social/economic disabilities disappear, its eclipse-and-revival conclusion must be based upon the corollary that on reconverting, one falls right back into those very disabilities that one had escaped in the first place by converting. In the present case, however, the Court extends the eclipse-and-revival theory to multiple generations on the very different reasoning that caste-based disabilities are not lost upon converting and, indeed, persist throughout generations. This is actually precisely in line with the Indian Express critique!
But if caste disabilities are not, as it turns out, lost upon converting, then the inevitable conclusion must be that reservation benefits should not be lost upon conversion. This is because, as the Court as held multiple times, the basis of reservations is social and economic backwardness, and “caste” is simply a convenient (but by no means only) marker of measuring such backwardness. Holding that reservation benefits remain even after conversion, because the ultimate justification (backwardness) is not altered, would be well in line with the Court’s core affirmative action jurisprudence and philosophy.
In K.P. Manu’s Case, the Court has recognised these realities, and its reasoning on eclipse-and-revival directly undermines the established jurisprudence on loss-of-benefits-upon-reservation. It represents the possibility of an alternative jurisprudence that is much more sensitive to the lived realities of caste, disabilities and discrimination.