No caste, no religion: Telangana parents fight for children’s rights

The Telangana High Court appears to be playing a pivotal role in the debate, having already handed a win to one set of parents last year.

ByDeepika Pasham

Published Feb 23, 2024 | 12:00 PMUpdatedFeb 23, 2024 | 12:00 PM

Several parents are approaching courts for the rights of their children to say they do not belong to any caste or religion.

Why should children be required to disclose their religion and caste on the admission forms of schools, colleges, or any other higher education institution?

This ongoing struggle has been gaining momentum in Telangana in recent years, with parents approaching courts for the rights of their children to say they do not belong to any caste or religion.

Take the example of DV Ramakrishna and S Clarance Krupalini, a couple from Hyderabad who have been advocating for the right to identify as having no caste and no religion since 2010.

The struggle for an independent identity for their children continues, as they hope to get the justice that Hyderabad couple Rupa and David did last year. This is their story.

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Desire stems from personal experience

DV Ramakrishna shared with South First the challenges he faced over the years, from which stemmed his desire to raise his children without a caste or religion.

He recalled his time at Baptla Agriculture College during his degree education, where he became acquainted with caste-based groups. He recounted instances where derogatory remarks insinuated affiliation with one’s caste.

Coming from a background devoid of caste discrimination, Ramakrishna found these experiences disconcerting, he said.

He said he had grown up in Odisha, where his father’s occupation as a railway employee shielded him from the concept of caste discrimination.

However, when his friend N Uma Shankar faced pressure to join a different group, it prompted them to reconsider their college environment, he said.

To preserve their friendship and escape the divisive atmosphere, they penned a letter to the principal requesting a transfer, ultimately enrolling at the College of Agriculture in the Rajendra Nagar area of Hyderabad.

“I considered myself a progressive individual, deeply influenced by the ideals of freedom fighters and immersed in Leftist ideologies. Despite causing tension within my family, I remained steadfast in my beliefs, even asserting that I would marry someone from a different religion — be it Christian or Muslim — which often led to disagreements,” he told South First.

“After completing my graduation, I moved back to Odisha, recognising the necessity of securing employment,” he recalled.

“I received an offer in pesticide marketing in Warangal and accepted it. Later, my friends proposed the opportunity to work for an NGO programme, prompting my transition. It was there that I met my wife, S Clarance Krupalini,” said Ramakrishna.

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The struggle

Their struggle started with the efforts to get their second daughter Sahaja admitted to school in 2010.

They were dismayed to find that the application form required disclosure of caste and religion, something they opposed.

With the help of their friend, advocate D Suresh Kumar, they filed a writ petition in 2010, resulting in a judgment from the then-united Andhra Pradesh High Court.

Justice CV Nagarjuna Reddy in April 2010 ruled that the option to declare religion also extended to the choice of having no religion at all. “Right to religion means right not to have any religion also,” he observed.

The couple added that the struggle resurfaced for their elder daughter Spandana during the Telangana SSC examination in March 2017.

Online applications require the disclosure of the student’s religious status, without which the application would remain incomplete.

“Despite our efforts to appeal to the state Education Department and the commissioner of education, the issue persisted. Consequently, we opted to complete the form by selecting ‘Others’ in the caste and religion options. Additionally, we filed a PIL in the Telangana High Court in 2017,” they said.

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Case languished for 7 years

In the first week of February this year, the Telangana High Court issued directives to the state government, instructing it to submit a counter within three weeks regarding the 2017 PIL.

A bench, comprising Chief Justice Alok Aradhe and Justice J Anil Kumar, issued these directives while noting that it had been seven years since the case was initiated.

The couple had mentioned as respondents the Union of India, represented by the secretary of the Union Ministry of Human Resources Development; the census commissioner of the Indian Census Commission, and the state of Telangana represented by the secretary of the Education Department.

Telangana Deputy Solicitor-General Gadi Praveen Kumar informed the court that the Centre had already submitted its counter.

Both the Central census commissioner and the Union Human Resources Department explained in their counters that while the state issued caste certificates, oversaw education, and managed the issuance of death and birth certificates, where there was an option for individuals to choose not to mention their religion.

The couple’s advocate D Suresh Kumar told South First, “I am positive about the judgement. This is the time this issue should be raised because the current governments — particularly in Telangana — are talking about the caste censuses. “

He added: “Introducing a column for no caste and no religion is beneficial in many ways. We are not against any religion, but we are striving to give freedom to a legally adult individual to follow — or not follow — a religion.”

Kumar also said: “It is high time the Telangana officers react, because mentioning caste and religion seems to be mandatory everywhere.”

He noted: “Among developed countries, the US stands at no 3 with its population of non-believers. Among states in India, Andhra Pradesh stands first with almost 4 lakh people not practising any religion. So, it is our right to not mention anything on caste or religion.”

Also Read: Telangana Assembly adopts resolution for caste census

Call for scientific categorisation

The court’s notices and the respondents’ replies could be construed as positive in nature for the couple, but not apparently enough.

“The problem, we believe, lies not with individual schools but with state or national policies that lack an additional option or column for individuals who identify as non-religious or without caste,” they said.

“The census records individuals under six religions and a seventh category labelled ‘religion not stated’, which does not accurately represent non-religious individuals. According to the 2011 census, there were 28.7 lakh individuals categorised as ‘religion not stated’,” they noted.

“We assert that they should be categorised scientifically. We advocate for the inclusion of an additional option or column, allowing individuals to claim ‘no religion’ and ‘no caste’ where necessary, from birth to death,” they said.

“This, we believe, is essential for fostering inclusivity and respecting the diverse beliefs of all citizens of India,” added the couple.

Also Read: Lack of political representation hurts Padmashalis in Telangana

Another victory

Meanwhile, another couple — Hyderabad-based David and Rupa— tasted success with their PIL in the Telangana High Court last year.

On 19 July, 2023, Justice Kanneganti Lalitha delivered what is being considered a landmark judgment on their 2020 petition advocating for “no religion, no caste” for their infant son Ivan Rudae.

The petitioners had said they got married in 2011 without any religious rituals, respecting one another’s beliefs.

They noted that when they applied for a birth certificate for their son in 2019, they found that it was mandatory to mention the religious status of the child in one of the columns, without which the application would be deemed incomplete.

Under the column, the options given are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and “other religions”, they said, but there was no option for non-religious persons.

Telangana High Court Justice Kanneganti Lalitha, in her ruling, observed that a Constitution like the one India has “is an organic and breathing document with senses that are very much alive to its surroundings, for it has been created in such a manner that it can adapt to the needs and developments taking place in the society”.

She added: “The petitioners have every right not to follow or profess any religion, and such right is implicit in Article 25 of the Constitution of India. It is the bounden duty of the respondents to act in consonance with the rights guaranteed to the citizen by the Constitution of India.”

The judge also noted: “The system has to evolve along with the times and the changing requirements of the citizens. The constitutional court cannot remain a mute spectator to the legitimate requirement of a citizen. In the light of the above discussion, this court is of the considered opinion that the petitioner has every right not to specify the religion or caste in the birth certificate.

Accordingly, the respondents were directed to provide a column for “no religion”, and “no caste” in the online application format and receive the petitioners’ application for registering the birth of their son, under Article 25 of the Constitution of India.