More than three months after the Union government formed a commission to study the possibility of according Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Christians and Muslims, the three-member panel does not have exclusive office space, secretarial staff, and a full-fledged budget.
The Commission of Inquiry headed by former Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan, formed in October last year, has two years to finish the task at hand and submit a report to the government.
The panel has so far met about half-a-dozen times at a room allotted for them at the Dr. Ambedkar International Centre in the capital, where meetings are scheduled to take place till they are assigned an office.
As a result, the commission is currently only at the stage of “literature collection”, following which it will start reviewing all materials available on the subject and then proceed to field visits, according to sources aware of developments.
“The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment [MSJE] has informed us that they will be providing us funds from their contingency budget till March 31, following which a full-fledged budget will be allotted to us in the next Budget,” a panel member told The Hindu, adding that they had been provided vehicles for travelling only recently.
Under pressure from the Supreme Court to clear its stand on the issue, the MSJE set up the commission to examine the possibility of granting SC status to Dalits who have converted to any religion other than the ones mentioned in the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950. Currently, only Dalits of Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist faiths are entitled to be categorised as SC.
One source said that the Union Ministry has supplied the commission with whatever material they have on the subject and also made a presentation to it on what the government’s position on the issue is. The Narendra Modi government has maintained in two affidavits (one in 2019 and another in 2022) that it is not in favour of granting SC status to Dalit Christians and Muslims.
The panel also intends to write to universities and institutes that have researched this subject and also seek materials from State governments, with one member saying, “We are going in with an open mind.”
Several members of the commission are already receiving representations from independent researchers, some within the country and some outside, besides NGOs that have commissioned or authored studies on the issue.
But in the absence of a permanent address, office space, or even official email IDs, some groups are directly trying to meet with Justice Balakrishnan, while some others are communicating with members on their personal IDs.
Interestingly, the panel also faces procedural hurdles. While the Chairperson of such a commission is accorded Cabinet rank and members are given Secretary rank, one member has been seeking that they be placed at the level of a Minister of State at least.
The commission has now submitted a list of their requirements to MSJE, with members saying that the top priority is to get “proper office space”, with at least a conference room and waiting rooms so that expert delegations can be invited for visits and presentations.
Further, the commission has requested one official email ID for the commission and official email IDs for the members as well, along with a website, if possible.
The panel has also asked for secretarial and research staffers, who can handle communication and correspondence, and laptops and computers for its members and staffers. “Right now, one official has been assigned by the Ministry to work with the commission exclusively. Eventually, each member will require at least one staffer each,” another source said.
A member added that once the literature review is completed, the commission plans to visit “at least 90% of the States, if not all because the problem can be anywhere and a perspective may emerge from anywhere”.
Sushma Yadav, a University Grants Commission (UGC) member who is part of the Commission of Inquiry, said, “The Ministry has so far cooperated with us and assured us that all our requirements will be taken care of. They have been quite positive in helping us.”