Shankarlal Khairaliya was, till a few weeks ago, an active member of the Balmiki samaj. Now he is Saddam Hussain. October 22, 2002, prompted this somewhat radical shift. That was the day when an angry mob of well over 4,000 'unidentified' persons lynched, battered and killed five Dalits in Haryana's Jhajjar district. The five, professional animal skin traders, were allegedly carrying a dead cow which the crowd thought had been slaughtered by them. The local cops just stood by as the lynchings took place, saying later that they had been outnumbered. Khairaliya, like many other Dalits, who comprise 35 per cent of Haryana's population, was shaken.
Says an angry Khairaliya, now Hussain: "I have read the kalima (a Quranic verse ). I'm a Muslim. I won't go back to the Hindu fold where we have been discriminated against. I was called, not by name, but by my caste in a pejorative fashion." As if the killings weren't bad enough, VHP leader Acharya Giriraj Kishore subsequently told journalists something to the effect that a cow being the "holy" mother was more precious than human beings—and Dalits at that. The VHP, however, denies that Kishore issued such a statement and has reasserted on its March '82 resolution to work towards an egalitarian Hinduism by crusading against untouchability and caste discrimination.
Hussain, though a trifle bewildered by his new status, says: "In a religion where mere cattle are more important than human beings, there's little hope for us. After all, we (scavengers) pick up the dead cows. We've worshipped them for years. The moral guardians of society and benign upper castes never show up when a cow dies."
Hussain is not the only one who converted. He was part of a group of 80-odd Dalits who switched to Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Except for Hussain and another family which turned to Christianity, all others accepted the Buddha's way at a specially-convened deeksha ceremony in Gurgaon. So, why did Hussain choose Islam while the others converted to Buddhism? "As a Harijan we've no status in this country. As a Muslim, you are better protected. Islam is more egalitarian than Hinduism. In terms of international opinion, it's under the arc-lights. Plus, there is the support of the popular media. As a Buddhist, I would have been okay, but becoming a Muslim is a definitive statement on the system," says the 28-year-old, who works freelance with car finance companies.
But converting to Buddhism is easier than becoming a Muslim. Says Hussain: "I have had VHP people threatening me." In the Balmiki colony where he stays, tension runs high and people talk in hushed tones about Hussain's "revolutionary" step. Has his life changed after adopting the new religion? Says Hussain, "It's too early to say," but adds defiantly, "I didn't worship Hindu gods and I won't offer namaz either."
Other Dalit households which have converted are similarly defiant. Sital Das, a speech therapist and consultant, says his family of nine converted at the October 27 deeksha ceremony. "I used to worship Ravidas. Not any longer. For me, Buddha and Baba Bhimrao Ambedkar are the presiding deities." This is a rather surprising side-effect. For, Ravidas was a Nirguni sant popular among the lower castes and has never been a part of the caste-Hindu pantheon. That Das repudiates a figure he should have logically afffirmed is symptomatic of the trauma that a violent rupture like giving up one's faith for another entails.
Das's reasons for converting are pretty much the same as Hussain's. Says he: "As a Buddhist, I'm now a member of the international fraternity. My cries won't be in vain. We've representatives the world over, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Far East."
What'S the extent of this Dalit mobilisation? These neo-converts have, interestingly enough, been 'Sanskritised' or have acquired the culture of the caste Hindus over the years.They are also part of the emerging middle class which has benefited from the decade-long liberalisation Hussain, for example, was a member of the Ram Vilas Paswan's telephone advisory committee. Unlike some of their brethren, who still live on the margins of our society, the neo-converts have considerable upward mobility. They even have their own housing societies now. What they lacked was self-respect, which they intend to regain by renouncing Hinduism.
The man behind this latest round of controversial conversions is a figure about whom more is likely to be heard in the coming days. Udit Raj, a revenue bureaucrat and a former Left activist at JNU, is the chairperson of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations. And like bsp supremo Kanshi Ram, who made his name organising one of the most powerful SC government employees' unions in Punjab in the '70s and '80s, Raj has made Haryana his theatre. Says he: "This upper caste Hindu government isn't interested in Dalits, except for votes. There's no interest in developmental issues or anything affecting the common man. The sole emphasis is on mobilising and protecting Brahminical bastions. This ceremony and the conversions—particularly to Islam—are a riposte to what the VHP wants."
Raj is very vocal on Jhajjar. "If you had visited the spot (where the killings took place) on October 22 and seen what I saw, you would have decided right then and there to give a call to all the Dalits of the area to convert to Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. Under the present system of inequality, conversions for Dalits is much more than a mere change of opinion, it's necessary in order to survive, for a life of respect. Why should the Sangh be so scared?"
The question now is whether more conversions will follow. While Gurgaon district magistrate Anurag Rastogi says that officially only five persons converted, Raj paints a different picture: when he reached the conversion spot—christened Lord Buddha Club—in Gurgaon, several other organisations of Muslims, Christians were present. "We could have conducted more conversions, but for logistical problems."
Not all Dalits want to convert though. Says Dalchand, brother of Dayachand who was among the five killed, and himself a trader in animal skins: "There are serious problems but there's no question of changing one's religion. We were born Hindus and will die as Hindus. Even though we are not likely to get justice under the current dispensation, changing religions does not help." Dalchand was one of the people who approached the Gurgaon district magistrate the day after the conversions to tell him that he and his family had not changed their faith, despite claims to the contrary.
With incidents of public victimisation of Dalits being reported from places as diverse as Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, conversions are seen as a way up the social ladder or for plain survival.
Days after the killings, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, UP CM and Dalit leader Mayawati and the Haryana government announced compensation for the kin of those who died. Says the family member of a victim: "In life those who died never imagined seeing so much money. In death they have got it." The tragic irony: what they gave in exchange was life itself.