Guest Post by Anup Surendranath: Children Born Out of Inter Caste Marriages – Abandoning a Pure Group Assimilation Approach

The recent decision by a two judge bench of the Supreme Court
(Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Desai) in Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika v. State of Gujarat has clarified that a person born out of an inter-caste marriage can
inherit the caste/ tribe status of the mother (for the purpose of reservations)
as result of an evidence-based factual determination of the disadvantages
suffered. The court held that a mechanical application of the position in Hindu
personal law that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage inherits the
caste of the father is constitutionally invalid as far as determining
beneficiaries of reservations is concerned. This judgment consolidates the
Supreme Court’s departure in the mid-90s from its early discourse on such
issues developed between the 50s and 70s through cases like Chatturbhuj Vithaldas Jasani v. Moreshwar Parashram (1954), N.E Horo v. Jahan Ara Jaipal Singh (1972) and Guntur Medical College v. Mohan Rao (1976). In my view, the
importance of the decision in Rameshbhai
lies not so much in the fact that it reiterates the established position since
the 1950s that a woman need not necessarily assume the caste/ tribe status of
her husband as far as reservations are concerned, but rather in its
consolidation of the position that the individual experience of disadvantage is
just as relevant as group membership even for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes (admittedly restricted to contexts of non-birth based membership in the
group).
 
In the Jasani and Jahan Ara era, when confronted with
determination of caste/ tribe status arising out of inter-caste marriage and
adoption cases in the context of reservations, the Supreme Court’s response was
to focus on the assimilation of the person within the beneficiary group.
Questions concerning acceptance by other members of the beneficiary group and
nature of assimilation were central to the discussion. However, it must be
noted that even during this period the emphasis was very much on an
evidence-based factual determination but with a completely different focus.
 
The judgment of the Gujarat High Court in Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika (2010) that the action of the relevant
authority in cancelling the appellant’s Scheduled Tribe certificate was valid
on the ground that the appellant could only inherit his father’s caste (forward
caste Kshatriya) and not his mother’s Scheduled Tribe status was rightly seen
as an incorrect application of precedent. The two judges disagreed with the
manner in which the decisions in Valsamma Paul v. Cochin University and Ors. (1996), Punit Rai v. Dinesh Chaudhary (2003), and Anjan Kumar v. Union of India (2006) were interpreted and held that those decisions in fact
supported the position that every such case must be decided on particular facts
as applicable to the individual.  Though
there could be a presumption that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage
inherited the caste of her/ his father, the Supreme Court was of the view that
such a child could lead evidence to rebut the presumption while demonstrating
that she/ he was brought up by the mother and was also accepted by the mother’s
community along with those outside the community.
 
However, the nature of the factual determination being discussed in
the Supreme Court’s judgment in Rameshbhai
is significantly different from what was contemplated in Jasani and Jahan Ara. Starting with Valsamma,
the Supreme Court has sought to move away from a framework that requires
factual determination only along the lines of acceptance by group members and
assimilation. In Valsamma, the
Supreme Court explicitly holds that, for purposes of Article 16(4), recognition
of the individual by the beneficiary group is irrelevant and it is the life experience
of the individual that is relevant. Decided by a two judge bench, the decision
was arguably not in consonance with what was decided by larger benches (three
judges) in Jasani and Jahan Ara. In Sobha
Hymavathi Devi v. Setti Gangadhara Swamy and Ors.
(2005), three judges
of the Supreme Court over-ruled Jahan Ara
to the extent that it does not take into consideration the actual background
and circumstances of the person in question and relies solely on questions of
group assimilation. Marriage into a beneficiary group and acceptance by the
members of that group is held to be insufficient for an individual to claim
benefits under Articles 15(4), 16(4) and 332.
 
The Supreme Court’s decision in Rameshbhai
is a logical extension of the decision in Sobha. While in Sobha,
the question was whether a woman from a socially dominant group could marry
into a beneficiary group and claim the benefits of reservation, in Rameshbhai the court was faced with the
reverse fact scenario. The individual in question wanted to inherit his
mother’s Scheduled Tribe status despite her marriage to a forward caste man. The
court was correct in extending the analysis in Sobha to establish the position that an examination of the individual’s
circumstances can lead to her/ him inheriting the mother’s status.
 
Therefore, the big news from the Supreme Court’s decision in Rameshbhai is not really that an
individual can inherit her/ his mother’s status in certain circumstances, but
rather that the Supreme Court now seems to have established the position that,
in cases of inter caste marriage, children born out of inter caste marriage and
adoptions, there is an additional level of investigation to be conducted to
decide the eligibility for reservations – and that additional level of investigation
centres around individual deprivation and moves away from pure notions of group
membership even in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
 
Undoubtedly, it would have been possible to reach the same conclusion through the framework developed in Jasani and Jahan Ara but the additional individual-based investigation in the
manner envisaged Valsamma onwards
certainly contributes to fine tuning India’s reservation policies.    
 
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