Caste claim can’t be rejected over personal traits: SC by Krishnadas Rajagopal

A persons's caste claim cannot be dismissed merely because his personal traits do not match the peculiar anthropological and ethnological characteristics of a Scheduled Tribe that he claims to be part of, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

Introducing a liberal interpretation for testing the genuineness of caste claims and benefits, a bench of Justices D K Jain and A K Ganguly said if a claimant has the right documents to prove his ethinicity, then “affinity” to the tribe is only a corroborative evidence.

Explaining its rationale, the bench said a peculiar tribe’s characteristics can change with “migrations, modernisation and contact with other communities”. So, affinity test alone cannot be sole litmus to check a caste claim, the court said.

This is a drastic departure from earlier precedents of the Supreme Court. The judgment itself points out how past precedents believed that “anthropological moorings and ethnological kinship affirmity gets genetically ingrained in the blood and no one would shake off from the past”.

The question before the court was whether an applicant for ST quota will have to establish his ethnic linkage despite producing the necessary documentary evidence.

The court took the middle path to say that though ethnicity is as determinative a factor as documentary evidence while testing a caste claim, it only acts as corroborative evidence. “The claim by an applicant that he is a part of a Scheduled Tribe and is entitled to the benefit extended to that tribe, cannot per se be disregarded on the ground that his present traits do not match his tribes’ peculiar anthropological and ethnological traits, deity, rituals, customs, mode of marriage, death ceremonies, method of burial of dead bodies, etc. Thus, the affinity test may be used to corroborate the documentary evidence and should not be the sole criterion to reject a claim,” it said.

The bench was deciding the case of Anand, who got a job as field officer with the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board showing he belonged to ‘Halbi’, a Scheduled Tribe. His appointment came under challenge, and the Vigilance Cell, after examination of his personal traits, found that they did not completely match the particular characteristics of the tribe. The Cell’s report led the Committee for Scrutiny and Verification of tribe to conclude that he did not belong to the tribe.

A challenge in the Bombay High Court also failed when the court ruled that mere documentary evidence will not confirm the genuineness of a caste claim.

Drawing a few parameters for testing caste claims, the court said “greater reliance” may be placed on pre- Independence documents as they furnish a “higher degree of probative value” than post-Independence caste documents.

Though most documentary evidence relates to school certificates of a family’s ancestors, the court said benefit of doubt should be given to a person, claiming caste benefits, but would be the first generation to attend school. “In case the applicant is the first generation ever to attend school, the availability of any documentary evidence becomes difficult, but that ipso facto does not call for the rejection of his claim,” the court said.

The Financial Express, 9 November, 2011,

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