On July 10, the Kerala High Court directed the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development (KIRTADS) to reconsider the petitioner Rebeka Mathai’s request for a declaration that she belongs to the Paniya caste and is entitled to all the benefits of the Paniya caste with the issuance of a community certificate in her favour.
The court held that the KIRTADS’s report dated August 26, 2016, and March 12, 2019, were prepared based on general statements that generally in the case of inter-caste marriage, the socialisation process of the offspring of such couples is more attached to the high-ranked father.
The petitioner submitted that she is an offspring of an inter-caste couple with a mother belonging to the Hindu Paniya community and a father belonging to the Orthodox Syrian Christian community. The petitioner sought a declaration from the court that she belongs to the Paniya caste and is entitled to all the benefits of the Paniya caste and for issuance of a community certificate.
The petitioner contended that she was born in the Paniya community and was raised, following the tribal traditions with all the disadvantages attached to the tribe. She further submitted that her parents were excommunicated by the petitioner’s paternal relatives and had no cordial relationship with them ever since their marriage. She claimed that her paternal relatives never accepted her parents’ relations and thus, she was raised as a part of and within the cultural bounds of the Paniya Tribe and this has resulted in them being discriminated against socially as well as culturally and has contributed to their socio-economic backwardness. She also submitted documents pertaining to her school admission register which showed the petitioner’s caste as a Christian converted from Hindu Paniya Community.
The petitioner applied for a caste certificate on June 30, 2015, before the Taluk Office, Palace Road, Thrissur, which was rejected. The Tahsildar found that the petitioner and her family lead a life distant from the way of life and social circumstances of the Paniya community.
The petitioner further submitted documents from the Head (Moopan) of the Govindamala Tribal Colony to state that the community follows a matrilineal system. The Moopan further certified that the petitioner belongs to the Paniya community and that she was born and brought up in that community. The petitioner contended that based on the aforementioned documents, it is beyond doubt that she belongs to the Paniya community.
Thereafter, the KIRTADS conducted an enquiry into the case, which was conducted without affording the petitioner an opportunity to be heard. The KIRTADS released a report dated August 26, 2016. However, the petitioner moved the Kerala High Court, which directed the KIRTADS to reconsider the petitioner’s request after affording her an opportunity to be heard. Thereafter, on March 12, 2019, KIRTADS released another report, after hearing out the petitioner, wherein the KIRTADS held that the petitioner does not belong to the Scheduled Tribe Paniya community of Kerala and she belongs to the Orthodox Syrian Christian community.
Following the KIRTADS’s 2019 report, a show-cause notice was issued to the petitioner on April 11, 2019. The petitioner responded to the notice, submitting that she was raised according to the customs and tenets of the Paniya community. Thereafter, the Scrutiny Committee issued an order on January 6, 2020, rejecting the petitioner’s claims of being from the Paniya community and cancelled all community certificated issued to that effect.
On January 21, 2020, the Kerala government issued an order stating that the petitioner does not belong to the Scheduled Tribe Paniya community and that neither she nor her siblings were eligible for benefits extended to the members of the Scheduled Tribe community.
The court referred to the KIRTADS’s reported dated March 12, 2019, which said, “as in case of inter-caste marriages, it could only be interpreted as a lower social ranked women marrying a higher ranked man and it evidently revealed that socialisation process of the offspring of such couples is more attached to the higher ranked father and in this case the offspring of the inter-caste/culture couple are gradually waving away their Scheduled Tribe Paniyan and are free from the social stigma that a Scheduled Tribe community supposedly is carrying forward.”
The petitioner challenged the KIRTADS’s observations, claiming that the “caste disability do not vanish even someone marries a person belonging to a higher caste.”
The Government of Kerala challenged the petitioner’s pleas, submitting before the court that she has suppressed relevant facts from the court. The government’s counsel revealed that the petitioner’s maternal grandfather belonged to the Christian community. The counsel further revealed that the petitioner’s maternal grandmother also converted to Christianity after marriage. The counsel also revealed that the petitioner’s mother’s caste was entered as ‘Christian Jacobite’ in her school records.
The government’s counsel submitted that the genealogical proforma of the petitioner establishes that her maternal kinsmen were married into the Christian fold. The counsel submitted, “Therefore, it is evident from the petitioner’s mother’s generation that they were away from the cultural background of Scheduled Tribe Christian Paniya community. From the marriage of the parents of the petitioner, the cultural belief of her mother deviated to Orthodox Christian, as the father of the petitioner belongs to said community. The petitioner’s younger brother was baptized in the family church, ie., St.Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Valiyapally, Onakoor, Piravom and her paternal family actively participated in all these rites.”
The government’s counsel further argued that the KIRTADS’s report was prepared after giving ample opportunities for hearing and adducing evidence and after a detailed anthropological and field enquiry and genealogical analysis. The counsel further submitted that the “Scrutiny Committee perused the entire case records and all the relevant documents, the petitioner’s representations and enquiry report of the Expert Agency and after due deliberation, found that the petitioner does not belong to Scheduled Tribe Paniya community.”
“It is only after a valid enquiry and based on the report submitted by the KIRTADS that Scrutiny Committee as well as the Government have taken a decision that the petitioner does not belong to Scheduled Tribe community,” the government’s counsel submitted.
Kerala High Court’s Conclusion
The Kerala High Court’s single judge, Justice Viju Abraham, accepted the petitioner’s arguments while directing the KIRTADS to reconsider her application seeking a community certificate. The court referred to its earlier decision in Indira v State of Kerala (2006) wherein it held that even if one of the parents belongs to a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe community, it is crucial to consider whether the offspring has suffered a disability socially, economically and educationally.
The court also referred to the Head (Moopan) of the Govindamala Paniya Tribal Colony’s intimation that the community follows a matrilineal system and the petitioner belongs to the Paniya community. The court said that the KIRTADS did not consider these contentions properly. “In view of the above, I am of the opinion that the report has been prepared without adverting to the relevant facts and circumstances of the particular case,” the court said.
The court further referred to Madras High Court’s decision in S Paul Raj vs Tahsildar (2021), wherein the court held that the conversion from one religion to another religion would not change a caste of a person, to which he belongs and therefore, it was contended that the petitioner was baptised as per the Christian rites, is not a reason to hold that there is a change of the caste of a person which they belong to.
“Therefore, Exts. P7, P12, P14, P15 and P17 are set aside with a direction to the 2nd respondent to reconsider the matter and submit a report, after affording an opportunity of being heard to the petitioner and after conducting a proper enquiry in the matter,” the Kerala High Court concluded.
Dual Benefits For Tribal Converts to Christianity
The aforementioned case concerns an offspring of an inter-caste/inter-faith marriage with the petitioner’s mother belonging to the Paniya community and the father belonging to the Orthodox Syrian Christian community. The government, however, alleges that the petitioner also belongs to the Christian fold, as her school records indicate she is a Jacobite Christian. Furthermore, the petitioner was baptised as per Christian rites, however, it was argued that it is not a reason to hold that such conversion does not change her caste.
Notably, the country is witnessing large-scale rallies and protests across the country seeking to delist convert tribals from receiving benefits afforded to the Scheduled Tribes communities. One such rally was organised on March 26, 2023, in Assam, wherein over 50,000 tribal people gather in Guwahati to create awareness among the people of the region about the dangerous outcome of the continuous religious conversion taking place in the entire North East for decades.
Baloram Phangso, president of Janajati Dharma-Sanskriti Suraksha Manch (JDSSM), said the dual benefits availed by the converted tribals are hugely hampering the ethnic communities of the region. “Once a person is converted to Christianity, he leaves the rituals, traditions and faiths of the community. However, he still avails the benefits of being on the ST list and additionally gets minority benefits as Christian or Muslim. So the people who still follow the ethnic rituals, customs and culture are deprived of jobs, education and other reservations,” he said.
Phangso pointed out that in States like Mizoram where 90 per cent of Christians are still availing minority status and ST benefits, the 10 per cent ethnic population is always deprived. “We believe that this (the benefits of job reservation as an ST and as a minority) is unconstitutional and hence needs to be revoked,” Phangso added.
One of the major demands of the Janajati Dharma-Sanskriti Suraksha Manch (JDSSM), which organised the massive rally in Guwahati on March 26, was to stop unethical conversions and bring the amendment to Article 342 of the Indian Constitution for Scheduled Tribe and equalise it with Article 341 for Scheduled Caste. Thus, if an SC/ST person converts to another religion, they get delisted from the reservation list.