The word “ caste ” is defined in Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 5, as under:-
- Caste is a largely static, exclusive social class, membership in which is determined by birth and involves particular customary restrictions and privileges.
- The word derives from the Portuguese casta, meaning ‘breed’, ‘race’, or ‘kind’ and was first used to denote the Hindu social classification on the Indian subcontinent.
- While this remains the basic connotation, the word ‘caste’ is also used to describe in whole or in part social systems that emerged at various times in other parts of the world.
According to Webstar Comprehensive Dictionary (International Edition), ‘caste’ in relation to Hinduism means – any of the four social divisions namely Brahmin (Priests), Khshatriya (Warriers), Vaishya (agriculturists & traders) and Shudras (servants).
In Guntur Medical College v. Y. Mohan Rao, (1976) 3 SCC 411 Constitution Bench of Apex Court has explained the term “Scheduled Castes” and made following observation:-
- The expression ‘scheduled castes’ has a technical meaning given to it by clause (24) of Article 366 and it means – ‘such castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within such castes, races or tribes as are deemed under Article 341 to be Scheduled Castes for the purposes of this Constitution’.
The President in exercise of the power conferred upon him under Article 341 has issued the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950. Paras (2) and (3) of this Order are material and they read as follows:-
- “2. Subject to the provisions of this Order, the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within caste or tribes specified in Part I to XIII of the Schedule to this Order shall, in relation to the States to which these parts respectively relate, be deemed to be scheduled castes so far as regards members thereof resident in the localities specified in relation to them in those Parts of that Schedule.
- 3. Notwithstanding anything contained in para 2, no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu or the Sikh religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.
- The schedule to this order in Part I sets out the castes, races or tribes or parts of or groups within castes or tribes which shall in the different areas of the State of Andhra Pradesh be deemed to be scheduled castes.
- One of the castes specified there is Madiga caste and that caste must, therefore, be deemed to be a scheduled caste. But by reason of clause (3), a person belonging to Madiga caste would not be deemed to be a member of a scheduled caste unless he professes Hindu or Sikh religion at the relevant time.
- It is not necessary that he should have been born a Hindu or a Sikh…
In S. Anbalagan v. B. Devarajan, (1984) 2 SCC 112 which is a case pertaining to election from Rasipuram Parliamentary Constituency (reserved for Scheduled Castes), a three-Judge Bench of Apex Court at the end of para 13 has observed as under:-
- Now, if such a Christian becomes a Hindu, surely he will revert to his original caste, if he had lost it at all. In fact this process goes on continuously in India and generation by generation lost sheep appear to return to the caste-fold and are once again assimilated in that fold.
- This appears to be particularly so in the case of members of the Scheduled Castes, who embrace other religions in their quest for liberation, but return to their old religion on finding that their disabilities have clung to them with great tenacity.
- We do not think that any different principle will apply to the case of conversion to Hinduism of a person whose forefathers had abandoned Hinduism and embraced another religion from the principle applicable to the case of reconversion to Hinduism of a person who himself had abandoned Hinduism and embraced another religion.
In Kailash Sonkar v. Maya Devi, (1984) 2 SCC 91 which arose out of election from a reserved Assembly constituency in Madhya Pradesh, another three-Judge Bench of Apex Court examined the question – whether the loss of the caste is absolute, irrevocable so as not to revive under any circumstance.
After deriving the history of caste system, the Supreme Court observed following guiding principle to determine the question in paragraph 28:-
- Where a person belonging to a scheduled caste is converted to Christianity or Islam, the same involves loss of the caste unless the religion to which he is converted is liberal enough to permit the convertee to retain his caste or the family laws by which he was originally governed.
- There are number of cases where members belonging to a particular caste having been converted to Christianity or even to Islam retain their caste or family laws and despite the new order they were permitted to be governed by their old laws.
- But this can happen only if the new religion is liberal and tolerant enough to permit such a course of action.
- Where the new religion, however, does not at all accept or believe in the caste system, the loss of the caste would be final and complete.
- In a large area of South and some of the North-Eastern States it is not unusual to find persons converted to Christianity retaining their original caste without violating the tenets of the new order which is done as a matter of common practice existing from times immemorial.
- In such a category of cases, it is obvious that even if a person abjures his old religion and is converted to a new one, there is no loss of caste.
- Moreover, it is a common feature of many converts to a new religion to believe or have faith in the saints belonging to other religions.
- For instance, a number of Hindus have faith in the Muslim saints, Dargahs, Imambadas which becomes a part of their lives and some Hindus even adopt Muslim names after the saints but this does not mean that they have discarded the old order and got themselves converted to Islam.
In above Kailash Sonkar (supra) Apex Court further discussed regarding reconversion into Hinduism by the members of the community whose forefathers converted to other religions. Applying the doctrine of eclipse, this Court observed as under:-