By Vaagisha Das:
“We have been facing untouchability, atrocity, boycott and gang-rape – at the root of all these problems is the Hinduwadi system. While living in this system, no friend from outside helps us saying it is our internal issue. We have thought that if we have to save our future, if not present, then we will have to go out of this system,” said Satish Kajla wearing a white Muslim skullcap. He is just one of the victims of the rigid Hindu caste system which, to this day, seeks to vehemently oppress those belonging to the lowest of castes – the Dalits. Satish hails from Haryana, where a majority of the Dalits, tired of being forced to live in seclusion by the upper caste Hindus, have chosen to embrace Islam instead. These Muslim Dalits are part of a growing number of the lower caste Hindus who have converted to other religions such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism in order to escape the shackles of the caste system that was an integral part of the Hindu social order. Although given legal sanction by the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste and directs equal treatment, in most communities of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, caste system- and the ensuing discrimination for the Dalits – is commonplace, and little can be done to regulate it.
The term in itself seems to be a contradiction, as there is no concept of a caste system in Islam. Yet the group is slowly seeking to form an identity of its very own, with some Dalits – seen as the lowest of the low in the Hindu caste system, and traditionally performing tasks that rendered them ‘impure’ – converting to other faiths either as a mark of protest against the oppression and acts of violence faced by them due to members of the upper castes, and many more to secure hope for the future, where they will no longer be treated as inferior. With some considering Islam as “a great example of equality in the world”, they became Muslims, hence crafting the term ‘Dalit Muslims’.
However, conversion comes with its own set of difficulties – it is by no means an escape. A majority Muslims in the aforementioned states are low caste converts, and these prejudices of class apparently transcend religions. Muslims are divided into ashrafs – the ‘nobles’ and the ajlafs– the ‘low born’, to say nothing of the ‘jatis’ or sub-communities present within these.
Yoginder Sikand, an Indian writer and academic, says, “As among the Hindus, the various jatis among the ajlaf Muslims maintain a strong sense of jati identity. The emergence of democratic politics is, however, bringing about a radical change in the manner in which this sense of identity is articulated. Aware of the importance of numbers in order to acquire political power and the economic benefits that accrue from it, the Dalit movement has sought to establish a wider sense of Dalit identity that transcends inter-caste and inter-religious divisions and differences among the ‘lower’ caste majority. This wider Dalit identity does not seek to deny individual jati identities. Rather, it takes them into account but seeks to subsume them within the wider collective Dalit identity, based on a common history of suffering as well as common racial origins as indigenous people.” Hence, there is the emergence of a new ‘Dalit Muslim’ identity, seeking to bring all the ‘lower’ caste Muslims under one umbrella, defined by their common identity as Muslim as well as Dalit.
The conditions of Dalit Muslims are worrisome – with respect to poverty, they are unquestionably amongst the worst off Dalits, not even featuring in the affluent group for urban India. In terms of occupation in the urban sector, they are in the bottom slot, with the highest proportion in the ‘casual labour’ and the lowest proportion in the ‘regular wage’ category, and educationally too, they remain lacking- worst off in rural India in terms of illiteracy, but ironically, this is matched by the levels of illiteracy among Dalit Hindus. In short, even when they convert to a different religion, in terms of educational benefits and other forms of help, they remain Dalits first, and Muslims second – a combination ill-suited for survival in India’s hierarchy where wealthy, upper caste Hindus take precedence.
Often, converts have to face violent protests from people who do not want them to leave the religion. This now has legal validation – hence the anti-conversion laws in various states that have already been enacted, and the zealous Hindus who have now propounded the concept of ‘ghar waapsi‘, where, as a Vishv Hindu Parishad party member puts it, “We are bringing people back into the Hindu fold, as it is their original religion.”
This is being done under the guise of the Anti-Conversion Law, which forbids conversion to any other religion unless the head of the district administration is duly notified. Supposedly to protect people from forced conversion- conversion under fraud and inducement, the law imposes a double penalty on people from lower castes wishing to convert, if found guilty of the above. Dalit Christian and Dalit Muslim converts, when arrested under Anti-Conversion laws, are subject to a ‘purification’ or a cleansing and made to ‘reconvert’ to their original religion. The ideas imposed by this programme – that of being of an ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ lineage to belong to the land go directly against the secular policies of our Constitution.
Unsurprisingly, these laws seem to be evoked only when the people involved seek to move out of Hinduism. Even more unsurprisingly, while the administration stringently enforces laws in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, it does not raise the issue of ‘reconversion’ even once. Added to this the violent reactions of the community in which converts are born into (in the community’s pursuit of detainment of those who want to convert, some are even killed), and the difficulties seem to be never-ending.
Even if they do manage to avoid getting arrested on the basis of such anti-conversion laws, the Dalit Muslim converts enter into identity doldrums, where even though they form a minority, and that too a highly disadvantaged one, they are no longer eligible for the positive discrimination extended to Scheduled Castes by way of the Reservation Act.
As a result of wealthy upper-caste Hindus converting to Islam, the concept of class entered the previously class free concept of Islam – thus the Dalit Muslim converts enter a social order that is little different from the one they left behind. Although different in nomenclature, it seeks to do the same thing in principle, which is the continued oppression of the lower class. The Government seems to be of little help, as it fails to recognize Dalit Muslims under Scheduled Caste; effectively cutting off any positive discrimination that might have helped them secure jobs and other opportunities had they not been converts.
Under the Reservation Act, the socially and economically backward classes of society are given advantages in lieu of recognizing years of cruelty, yet “the protection includes Sikhs and Jains, and Buddhists, but it doesn’t include Christians and Muslims, so what happens is that they get excluded from those – the quotas for SCs [Scheduled Castes],” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch. Since the Dalit Muslims seem to be on the same economic and social level, there is little reason for them to not get the same benefits. When these are denied, they are forced to choose between being socially oppressed or having the opportunity to be an a level equal to the rest of the society, and that is a choice no one should ever have to make in a fair legal system.