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India’s new path to social equality disregards justice

The Indian constitution has been amended to accord special quotas for the poor among upper-caste people in an unjust manner
Indian young Brahmins from the Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul Vishwavidya Pratishthanam (SGVP) participate in the Janoi or 'sacred thread' changing ceremony in Ahmedabad on Aug. 20, 2013

Indian young Brahmins from the Shree Swaminarayan Gurukul Vishwavidya Pratishthanam (SGVP) participate in the Janoi or 'sacred thread' changing ceremony in Ahmedabad on Aug. 20, 2013. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 01, 2023 12:56 PM GMT
Updated: March 07, 2023 06:01 AM GMT

In the past eight years during which the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been in power, the Supreme Court has mostly supported the government policies, leaving political observers worried and perplexed about the political and social road map India is traversing.

They point to various legal victories the ruling party scored in India’s highest court, often the final arbitration point for vexatious and long-drawn legal cases, which have tremendous implications in a complex country like India.

One such case that hits Christians in India coming from Dalit backgrounds was a legal challenge to the government denying them welfare benefits meant for all Dalit people, the socially poor across India.

Dalit people among Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs get these benefits, but not Christians and Muslims because, according to the government, their religions do not follow caste.

After some five decades of legal wrangling, and several commissions asserting that Dalit people among Christians and Muslims deserve these benefits because conversions failed to change their social status, India’s Supreme Court sought the government’s view on the subject last year.

The government asked for more time to study the pleas of Dalit Christians and Muslims and appointed another commission last October. Many Christians and Muslims believe the move aims to delay extending the benefits to Christians and Muslims.

In another case decided in November last year, the Supreme Court approved the government’s amendment to the Indian constitution extending special welfare benefits to the economically poor among upper castes. 

This verdict needs to be studied in detail to understand the social path on which contemporary India is headed. The decision has overturned the decades-old concept of social justice in India, where more than 90 percent population is considered socially backward and is yet to enjoy the benefits of a modern, growing economy.

The government had passed the amendment in January 2019 ahead of the general elections which the BJP won with a landslide, giving Modi a second term. The amendment reserved 10 percent seats in educational institutions and government jobs for “economically weaker sections” among the upper castes.

The Supreme Court through a split verdict of 3:2, in which the then Chief Justice U.U. Lalit was a minority and approved the amendment giving a new twist to the understanding of social justice. Lalit did not object to the special reservation. He just did not agree with the majority judges over excluding the poor from the socially backward caste groups drawing its benefits.

A batch of petitioners had challenged the amendment arguing that the “economic criteria cannot be a basis for granting reservation” and giving these to the upper castes “is a fraud on the constitution and amounted to stabbing its heart.”

They argued that the constitution envisaged reservation not only as a social justice measure but also as a tool to bring the socially poor, who were suppressed for centuries, to the social mainstream.

Indian constitution introduced reservation policy as the country's “affirmative action” aimed at building a new India of equality and justice. Shashi Tharoor, a member of the Indian parliament and noted author termed such reservation as “positive discrimination” in his book, From Midnight to Millennium.

The reservation system allotted a certain percentage of seats both in educational institutions and government employment to specific caste groups. Benefits also included scholarships for poor students. But in the new India, reservation soon devolved into a tool for political bargaining.

Reservation has always been a contentious political social issue with each caste group clamoring for a bigger share of the cake and politicians supporting certain caste groups for political gains.

In 1990, then Prime Minister V. P. Singh recommended special reservations for backward castes, triggering a backlash from upper castes in northern India. The move also faced several court cases and counter-cases in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court in 1992 ruled that all reserved seats together should not exceed 50 percent of the available seats lest the move destabilizes the system. It also ruled that backward caste families with an annual income of more than 800,000 rupees (some US$10,000) cannot benefit from reservations.

However, in its latest judgment favoring the higher castes, the Supreme Court ignored its own judgment of 1992, and said reserving 10 percent for the “economically weaker sections” of upper castes did not violate the 50 percent ceiling.

It is true that certain sections of the upper caste are poor. But what rattled political observers and critics of the new amendment was that it excluded all sections of backward caste groups from its ambit, and accepted anyone from a forward caste group, whose annual family income is less than 800,000 rupees, as economically poor.

It opens a wide door for upper castes, considering that 95 percent of Indian families have less than US$10,000 annually. This income, which amounts to an average daily income of some 2,250 rupees (US$28), belongs to a richer group in a country where 80 percent of its 1.1 billion people live on less than US$2 a day, according to World Bank estimates.

While the Brahmins, the priestly top caste who form less than 3 percent of the Indian population, continue to influence India’s legislative, administrative, and judicial systems – if not with a physical presence they do so largely through the cultural dominance and the pressure they exert on systems and social psyche.

Orthodox Hindus believe Brahmins originated from the head of the creator Brahma. The next in the four-tier caste system, the Kshatriyas or warrior castes, originated from Brahma’s chest, the Vaishyas or the business castes, from his thighs, and the Sudras, who are the farmer or servant castes, came from his legs.

Dalits are outside the caste system and designated to menial jobs such as cleaning human waste. Most of the backward caste groups are Sudras, but also include certain sub-castes of Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. The iron-clad caste system forced them to engage in the occupation of their forefathers with no leverage to move away from social backwardness.

Some social observers see injustice and blatant inequality in reserving 10 percent for the poor among upper castes, who cannot, at any rate, be more than 20 percent of Indians. At least half of the upper castes are economically and socially rich, leaving the rest 10 percent economically weak. Reserving 10 percent of available seats for a group that forms 10 percent of the population is unjust, they say.

Besides, as the English daily Deccan Herald in one of its editorials said, the reservation in “our constitution was meant to correct longstanding and historical injustice based on caste. They are meant to help those who have suffered from social backwardness for generations…caste is an unchangeable marker from birth. So, overcoming caste-based discrimination is not in the same league as economic deprivation.”

But the government is pushing the reservation system in a new way disregarding poor castes and the caste-based discrimination that is still prevalent in India. India is a very complex country and such lavish constitutional gifts bestowed upon certain groups for political gains will have long-standing ramifications.

Only the future will tell us whether the spirit of the Indian Constitution has the strength and vigor to overcome such divisive ideas and sustain the already fragile Indian democracy.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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