About 30 kilometres from Jhajjar and exactly 20 days after five Dalits there were killed for "supposedly skinning a live cow", a dark Diwali noon this week saw seething Dalit anger burn its bonds with Hinduism. Under a leafless tree in Haryana's Meham district, 90-odd men, women and children took angry vows never to worship Hindu gods, perform Hindu rituals, celebrate Hindu festivals. They were converting to Buddhism, they said, in the hope that they will better their lives. "You value cows more than us, make us rake your latrines, never forget we are lower-caste even if we become president," fulminated Ajit Dhaiya, a fortysomething irrigation department worker who had come from Bhiwani to attend the conversion ceremony. "You can keep your religion and your cows, we are off."
The vigorous shaving of heads, lighting of incense sticks, and parroted chants—"We shall never worship Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwar; we shall never think of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu"—before a dull brass idol of a new god seemed less a pledge to be Buddhist and more a rejection of Hinduism. Till, Meham labourer-painter Satbir Budh, 38, spoke of his seven years of being a Buddhist convert: "From being known as a Chamaar, I am now called a Buddh. From being barred entry in the village temple, I am an annual pilgrim at Buddh Vihar at Nagpur's Dikshabhumi; I was an outcast all my life, I belong now."
To belong, to connect, not to be persecuted (or even killed) for being born "untouchable", all of it is possible in this lifetime. But possible, a growing number amongst Dalits are saying, only by discarding Hinduism, the faith that weighs them weak with the baggage of birth. This rejection of their inherited faith occurs sometimes in quiet private ceremonies, at other times as loud political protests. Like the mass Dalit conversions that happened in Gurgaon in Haryana 14 days after the Jhajjar lynchings on October 15. Or like the spurt of conversions Dalit outfits foresee occurring in protest against the new bill in Tamil Nadu that proposes to prohibit "conversion from one (religion) to another by use of force or allurement or fraudulent means". But beyond the drama of such conversion politics, of religious propaganda and protest, are stories of people who have changed their faith to change their fate. To salvage self-respect and grab upward mobility outside the Hindu hierarchy. How have they fared on their chosen new paths?
"Becoming Buddhist made me realise that like others with good health and intellect, I too could achieve my potential," says Keshav Tanaji Meshram, 65, one among the six lakh Dalits who turned Buddhist in the historic 1956 conversion rally held by Babasaheb Ambedkar. "Dalits were in intellectual bondage, believing we should be happy with whatever we received. But conversions have made no difference in the way upper-caste Hindus look at us." A retired professor and acting head of the Marathi department in Mumbai University for two years, Meshram claims a Brahmin vice-chancellor held back his promotion despite the fact that he had authored 32 books: "I was told I didn't have a doctorate but so
didn't many other department heads. My caste was the main reason." Adds Om Prakash Singhmar, 49, a junior engineer with the Delhi Development Authority who converted to Buddhism two years ago, "Most continue to look down on me as a Dalit, even though I have converted." But the changes are internal, he insists: "I feel less frustration now, more equal. I am convinced that my children, who have started identifying themselves as Buddhists in all school forms, will reap the benefits of my conversion."
Academic insight corroborates Singhmar's belief. Says Gopal Guru, professor of political science at Delhi University, "Conversion is an ongoing process, that's why in the beginning it will seem incomplete.Tangible benefits and changes accrue over time." Activist fervour takes the point further. Says Udit Raj, India's new "conversion messiah" and chairperson of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, "Dalits convert because they know its benefits. And even if there weren't any benefits, they should anyway reject a religion that has people killing Dalits to protect a cow."
All conversions, though, are not knee-jerk reactions to the latest caste atrocity nor the result of cynical manipulation by politicians. The Dalits of Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu discussed conversion for seven years before quitting Hinduism to free themselves from the practices of untouchability and police harassment. In 1981, 150 Dalit families in this sleepy hamlet in Tirunelveli district embraced Islam. Meenakshipuram was now Rahmat Nagar. Murugesan, now 45, was rechristened Amir Ali, little knowing that his name connoted wealth. He says he counts his blessings and monetary gains: "Caste Hindus stopped calling us dirty caste names. They had to call me Amir bhai. The wealth too came. I've been to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia three times, worked in the harbour there. All Muslims there ate from the same plate. I was no longer untouchable. Had I remained a Pallan (a Dalit sub-community), I'd have continued to drink tea from separate glasses kept for untouchables." Ahmed Khan, two years old when the mass conversion happened, is a role model for the village youth today. At 23, he has already done a three-year stint in Dubai: "In the last 15 years, every Muslim family here has had two-three members working in the Gulf."
Thousands of miles away, Delhi-based Trilok Singh, 30, loves to hear of Meenakshipuram's affluence. It reaffirms his belief in the decision he took to convert to Christianity five years ago. A Jatav, Trilok lived in a Delhi slum cluster till a leap of faith taught him lessons in upward mobility. "I have learned manners after my conversion," says he. "We always had a TV, vcr and fridge. But being treated as an equal in society has taught me how to put them in the right place in my house, so they look beautiful." The first thing Trilok did after he converted was to move out of the slum and invest in a small flat in Vasundhara in Ghaziabad. He then married Anita Silas, a parishioner in the church he went to every Sunday. The couple now have two daughters, the eldest going to a neighbouring playschool. "My decision not to remain a Dalit has changed my life," says Trilok.
But this tale has more twists than many others. Caste wheedles its way into most religions in India. Categories like Dalit Christians, Reddy Christians, Nadar Christians continue to matter. Syrian Christians are known to call themselves "originally Brahmin". Moreover, there is discrimination even within the church: in Tamil Nadu's Tiruchirapalli and Palayamkottai districts, there are separate pews and burial grounds for Dalit Christians. The nine-judge Supreme Court ruling in the Mandal case in 1993 recognised caste in Christianity. And Islam too has its hierarchies, like the Ashrafi Muslims and the Ajlafi (literally servile) Muslims.
"There are inequalities in other religions but not even near as stark as in Hinduism," says Delhi-based advocate Rashid Saleem Adil, 57, who was Ram Singh Vidyarthi two decades ago. How else could a high-brow Syed family agree to give its daughter to him in marriage despite the fact that he never hid being a Dalit convert? They were certainly more tolerant than his first wife's Hindu relatives, who, he claims, "schemed, plotted and poisoned" him when he converted. "I can only say this to Hindutva devotees," he says, "if you think it's hard being a Muslim convert, try living life as a born Dalit."
However, dilemmas do plague decisions to convert.Dalits who turn to Islam or Christianity today risk losing the many privileges of reservations. Hence the appeal of Buddhism, since V.P. Singh ensured in 1990 that neo-Buddhists would not lose out on reservations. So why should a Dalit who has converted to another religion that doesn't believe in caste still enjoy caste-based reservations? Says Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb and an MP since 1990 from Akola, "Because they hail from backward castes and are economically poor. Also, no matter what religion you adopt, your caste remains a reality." Spokespersons of the Hindu establishment would call this a case of having your cake and eating it too, while the converts would call this their inalienable economic right.
There was a time, though, when there were no reservations, and when such quantifiable risk factors didn't hold back those who wanted to renounce Hinduism to escape caste. From being an almost entirely marginalised community of toddy-tappers and coir-weavers who were not allowed into caste-Hindu temples and whose women were not supposed to cover their breasts, the Nadars of Tamil Nadu gained immense social and economic mobility by embracing Christianity in hordes. It began in the 1780s, when the Nadars had everything to gain and nothing to lose, certainly not reservations. There was repression though; houses of neo-converts were often set afire by the upper castes. "But missionary education and self-respect was something we gained," says David Packiamuthu, a retired English professor and a Nadar Christian, And two centuries later, the community has thrown up achievers like former Tamil Nadu chief minister K. Kamaraj, super-cop Walter Thevaram, tennis icon Vijay Amritraj and Shiv Nadar, founder of the hcl group of companies. Significantly, all successful Nadars (like Kamaraj and Shiv) are not Christians. The mass conversions helped the upward mobility of even the non-converts. In other words, the threat of conversion itself is a powerful social accelerator.
But that's in the long run. In the present, observe many critically, neo-converts seem to be grasping for meaning in their new belief systems. The late-fortyish Durgawati of Kaji-Newada village on the Jaunpur-Lucknow highway in Uttar Pradesh converted to Christianity three years ago. "They said it would change my life, but I was still treated as an outcast for being a Christian," she says. Then came a monk, and she converted to Buddhism. But other than the belief that her chronic ailments have been cured by the Buddha, Durgawati isn't sure what else has changed in her life.
Namdeo Dhasal, 53, founder of the Dalit Panthers, ironically pens a weekly column in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna now. His house brims with festive decorations and traditional food on Diwali. But these, he says, are only manifestations of the "cultural influences" of his Hindu neighbourhood. Because he is actually a Buddhist, "though I never formally converted to Buddhism, and in any case conversion is a misnomer as Hindus never saw us as Hindus but outcasts". Though many Dalits are converting, adding to the contradictions is the fact that Article 25 of the Constitution lists Buddhists as Hindus. Neo-Buddhists also have few religious or cultural occasions to celebrate and feel a sense of community. Shanta Devi Wagh, a shopkeeper in Delhi's Bhim Nagar slum, isn't quite sure what she is supposed to do as a Buddhist convert: "We have to celebrate three days: April 14, December 6 and October 14 (Ambedkar's birth, death and conversion days)." But she is certain of what not being a Dalit any more means to her: "My soul feels peace."
Not all neo-converts, though, are too bothered by the burden of a new identity. In Rahmat Nagar, most neo-Muslims do not wear a fez cap, not one woman is burqa-clad, and for the men it certainly does not mean multiple marriages."Even namaz is something they read only on Fridays," says Dameem-ul-Ansari, hazrat at the mosque. But the Dalit-Muslims here have had no difficulty marrying among and socialising with 'traditional' Muslims from other villages.
And for those who still feel that Dalits like Durgawati convert to just about any religion that lures them with sham spiritualism, affected adoration and material motives, Professor Meshram recites a Hindi film golden oldie: "Pal bhar ke liye koi humein pyar kar le, jhoota hi sahi." Roughly translated: "Let someone love me for just a moment, even if it's a pretence..." There is surely a message here for all belonging to a faith which insists that God resides in every object, whether living or inanimate.
By Soma Wadhwa And S. Anand With Charubala Annuncio and Sutapa Mukerjee