Daipayan Halder

Why Dalits dump old gods

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

First published on subalternstudies.com on April 9, 2008 

Brand Dalit. Branded Dalit. The activist with a known cause is a pretentious and privileged animal. As far removed from ground reality as Madhyamgram is from Massachusetts. And then there is the faceless untouchable, who, is, was, will be, the damned – in the many villages of India Shining. Humiliated, humbled, raped, burned. Is there a way out? Reservations, you say? Proselytisation, they counter, is the answer. Is it?

Every year, on Buddha Jayanti, Dalits (a catch-all term for the country’s socially oppressed) reject their inherited faith and embrace Buddhism. Their Jesus, Ambedkar, had shown the way in October 1956. And every year, Brand Dalits (op-ed page hacks, khadi-adorned activists, seminar regulars and worthies such like who speak for Dalits) argue how it is an exercise in futility. That conversion to another faith brings about no discernable change in the way society treats Dalits. Whether you are a Buddhist Dalit, a Dalit Christian or a Dalit Muslim, you were, are, will remain a Dalit. They argue Dalits learnt the futility of conversions long before the advent of ‘foreign’ religions like Islam and Christianity. That those who converted to Buddhism to escape social ostracism, reconverted to Hinduism to avail of the benefits of becoming dwija (twice-born) through good karma in the present birth. Further, caste wheedles its way into other religions as well.

To such assumptions, Mohammad Saleem Adil, a 47-year-old lawyer based in Delhi, firmly disagrees. A decade-and-a-half ago, Adil was Satbir Jathav, a Dalit who had been enduring years of social discrimination. Then he decided to embrace Islam.

“There was a need to connect, to not be persecuted for being born an untouchable,” he says. “This was possible, I found out, in the same lifetime, but only by discarding Hinduism. I was an outcast all my life. Then, after converting, I felt like I finally belonged.”

Thousands of miles away, in the Burdwan district of West Bengal, primary schoolteacher Jyotirmoy Mondol embraced Buddhism around the same time. The 35-year-old’s reason: in a neighbouring shanty, a Chamar family was publicly beaten up by locals for allegedly skinning a live cow.

“Economically they were much below me,” he explains, “but socially we belonged to the same strata. I could not sleep for nights after that incident. The conversion was like a rebirth; I felt at peace with myself. The stigma of being a lowly-born was no more.”

All Dalit conversions, though, are not knee-jerk reactions to caste inequities or discrimination. Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad cites the example of the backward castes of Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu, who for seven long years discussed the issue of conversion before giving up on Hinduism.

“In 1981, to free themselves from untouchability and police harassment, 150 Dalit families from this village in Tirunelvelli district embraced Islam; Meenakshipuram became Rahmat Nagar,” he recalls. “With conversion came wealth and several of them got jobs in the Gulf counties.”

There are other instances. From being an entirely marginalised community of toddy tappers and coir weavers who were not allowed into upper-caste Hindu temples and whose women were supposed to leave their breasts uncovered, the Nadars of Tamil Nadu gained immense socio-economic mobility by embracing Christianity in big numbers in the late 18th century.

This was the community that would engender achievers such as the late Tamil Nadu chief minister K Kamaraj, the Amritraj brothers of tennis and Shiv Nadar, founder of the HCL group of companies.

The Branded Dalit will thus vehemently argue that yes there are inequalities in other religions as well, but not as stark as in Hinduism, and untouchability, the worst of human indignities, is definitely not followed in other religions. The fact is most Dalit converts today are happy with the new faith they have embraced. More, re-conversions to Hinduism are done mostly by coercion. Left to themselves, Dalits would remain Christians or Muslims because of the obvious benefits-either social, educational, financial or all of them, that most often come with it. The Brand Dalit will rave and rant. Conversion is an easy option. Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life, purge it of vices like untouchability. But that, the Branded Dalit will tell you is another story. Till then, there are other false Gods.

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