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Safeguards valid for tribals who convert

Rakesh BHATNAGAR

Sunday 8 February 2004, by BHATNAGAR*Rakesh

NEW DELHI : It’s a win-win situation for members of the scheduled tribes who convert. According to a recent Supreme Court order delivered by a Bench headed by Chief Justice V N Khare, a convert from a ST (necessarily Hindu) to any other religion not based on caste, will retain the benefits of various constitutional safeguards.

If the "erstwhile tribe continues to treat him or her as its member" despite the conversion, an apostate will still enjoy the privileges not available to members of his new religion.

The SC order came on a Kerala government appeal against an HC order saying a person accused of molesting the daughter of a former ST, now a Christian, can’t be charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Thus, the girl who was allegedly molested was no more a member of a scheduled caste or tribe, the high court said. The accused could only be tried under ordinary criminal law and not for committing excesses on a class of oppressed and suppressed citizens, it said, thus absolving the accused of committing atrocities on an ST girl because her parents had embraced Christianity.

Setting aside the Kerala HC judgment, the SC said whether such an accused is liable to face charges under the specific Act would be decided by the trial court.

That conversion has already become a way of life for many due to various reasons, including poverty, is not an issue. But should those who have embraced a non-Hindu, casteless religion be allowed to avail the privileges and protection under the penal law meant only for the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes?

"Change of religion does not necessarily mean loss of caste. If the original caste does not positively disapprove, the acceptance of the caste can be presumed if he (a convert) is elected by a majority to a reserved seat. Although some dent is made in the classical concept of caste, it may be noticed that the principle that caste is created by birth is not dethroned. There is also a judicial recognition of caste autonomy, including the right to outcaste," the Bench said.

However, the Bench also underlined another judgment: "A person may be governed by a different law than the law governing the community to which he originally belonged to but that would not mean that notwithstanding such conversion, he may not continue to be a member of the tribe (he had belonged to before conversion)."

The well-reasoned judgment based on various pronouncements made by different high courts on conversion cannot be brushed aside as a verdict restricted only to a person accused of molestation. In fact, it has wide political ramifications.

Would the seats reserved for SCs and STs be made available to some members of non-Hindu communities who had deserted a Hindu caste to join a new religion?

See online : http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/...

P.S.

The Times of India, Sunday, February 08, 2004.

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