Dalit Christians Quota: SC for Larger Bench's Hearing
The Supreme Court today termed as "sensitive" and "important" the issue of granting Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians for extending benefits of reservation to them and said it might refer the matter for examination by a larger bench, if required.
The apex court said it would also examine the meaning of 'caste' in terms of Articles 16(4) and 15(4) of the Constitution which deal with reservations in state jobs and empowerment of socially and educationally backward classes and ensure that none of the interested groups is left out from being heard.
"If you (parties) feel it requires consideration by a larger bench, let us be informed," a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice S H Kapadia said while asking the counsel appearing in the matter to find out whether hearing of the petition will be in conflict with any other bench which in the past may have dealt with an identical issue.
Maintaining that a bunch of petitions before it raises constitutional issues, the bench, also comprising justices K S Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar, said "as far as possible we want to hear every group and no group should be left out".
The bench said it would bring the issue in public domain by putting it on the apex court's website.
The court said the issue needs thorough examination as there are petitions from sections opposed to moves for extending the benefit of reservations to Dalits who have converted from Hinduism to other faiths.
The bench said the issue was sensitive as it would also have to see what would happen if conversion was due to extraneous reasons, that is, only top secure the benefits of reservation.
"That is why, we want to understand the meaning of caste. It is a very important issue and proper understanding of the meaning of caste is needed," the bench said.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the NGO, Centre for Public Interest Litigation, which had first filed the petition on the issue, submitted at the beginning of the hearing that if Dalits within Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism can be extended the benefit of reservation, there should no reason why Dalits converted to other religions too should not be accorded the benefits.
The bench, however, interrupted him, saying "we don't share the same view. It is a sensitive issue".
When Bhushan said roadblocks were there because of other reasons, which include political, the bench said "we are not worried about the political issues involved in it".
He said despite adopting other religions like Christianity, Dalits continued to be saddled with same socio-economic disabilities.
Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium, who maintained that the government was examining the issue, said Dalits converting to Islam have also sought reservation and were still carrying the same stigma.
Senior advocate Pinky Anand, appearing for a tribal community from Kerala which is opposing the plea for granting reservation to Dalit Christians, said there has been no concept of caste in Christianity.
The court was informed that during the previous hearings, the Centre had said it would study the report of a commission which examined the issue of granting Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians for extending benefits of reservation to them.
The Centre had said it would go through the report of National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) before presenting the Centre's view on the issue.
The NCSC has come out with its report after going through the recommendations of National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (NCRLM) headed by former Chief Justice of India Rangnath Misra.
The petitioners submitted that the matter has been pending since 2004 and has sought an early hearing on the issue.
The court had in January 2008 said there was no urgency in the matter as the Presidential order of 1950 has been challenged.
The Centre had in June 2007 maintained that NCRLM in its report had found substance on the points raised for granting Scheduled Castes status to Dalits who have converted to Christianity.
The PIL had said as reservation was available to Dalits within Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, there was no reason why Dalit Christians should be deprived of the benefit.
The CPIL had contended that paragraph three of the President's "Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order," 1950 was coming in the way of granting SC status to Dalit Christians.
The NGO had submitted that it was the right time that the court should strike down the order requiring all Dalits to belong to a particular religion if they were to avail the SC reservation benefits as it goes beyond the mandate of Article 341(1) and violates the Fundamental Right guaranteed under the Constitution.
All India United Christians Movement for Equal Rights, had said the Congress government had in 1996 brought a Bill in Lok Sabha to amend para three of the "Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950" for extending reservation benefits to Dalit Christians.
The CPIL had claimed that social standing of Dalits, even after converting to Christianity, has not changed and they have to face discrimination even in churches.
The NCRLM, which had prepared its report after visiting various states, had examined whether the Scheduled Caste converts suffer from social disabilities like untouchability even after embracing Christianity.
The demand for granting SC status to Dalit Christians has been opposed in several quarters, including the SC/ST Commission which contended that they cannot enjoy two rights -- that is of minority and SCs.
The CPIL had contended that the earlier court rulings were given on the basis of scanty material and claimed the petitioners had "overwhelming" material to support their claim for reservation for Dalit Christians.
Citing a 2005 ruling of the apex court, where it was said that even if a tribal converted to Christianity, he or she could still avail the reservation benefits as his/her status as ST remained unchanged, CPIL had said the same law should be applicable to Dalits after their conversion.
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