The recent mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in Gujarat’s Una district, which included the Dalits who were brutally assaulted by cow vigilantes for allegedly skinning dead cattle, has stirred anxiety among the upper-caste Hindu intelligentsia. Once again, India’s liberals, radical leftists and conservatives are asking, if not in one then in an analogous voice: “Why are Dalits choosing conversion?”
Disturbing liberal sensibilities
The ones who seem to be worried the most, intellectually if not politically, about these conversions are India’s liberals. Their “liberal mind”, couched in an elitist, urban habitus, believes all religions, including Hinduism, to be respectful and egalitarian. This is, of course, nothing but a figment of their imagination. Outside the elitist liberal bubble, the victims of a religion built on inequality, whose caste and communal norms deny humanity to entire communities, are as real as they can be. These victims, the members of the Hindu-Dalit community, face the devastating consequences of transgressing caste and communal hierarchies dictated by the Hindu religion day in and day out.
None the less, India’s liberals seem to be blind to this reality. They go around spreading the fallacy that “Hinduism is respectful to all” like a disease – in university classrooms, newspaper columns, books, public lectures and in day-to-day conversations. Those who seek to challenge this concocted imagination of the liberal mind, especially in academic and literary spaces, risk being quarantined and labelled an “ignoramus”. As result of this twisted conviction, when Dalits choose to opt out of Hinduism, asserting that it enforces a system built on inequality, the liberal mind goes into a frenzy. But liberals are not the only ones among India’s upper-caste intelligentsia who are disturbed by Dalit conversions. Hindu nationalists, who dream of transforming India into an homogenous Hindu nation based on upper-caste supremacy are also worried about mass Dalit conversions, albeit for different reasons.
Shattering the dream of ‘Hindu Rashtra’
There is a long-standing history of conversion of Hindu Dalits to other religions in various states of India. Dalits have been converting to Christianity and other anti-brahminical sects like Kabir Panth for a very long time. And in contemporary times, conversions into Buddhism and Islam became common among Dalits thanks to the efforts of organised movements that seek to counter caste discrimination.
The history of conversion movements clearly shows that Dalits have not been converting to other religions simply because they prefer to adhere to a different belief system. They convert because they actively “reject” Hinduism. The very idea of rejecting Hinduism goes against the Hindu nationalists’ dream of “Hindu Rashtra”, which is fundamentally a concept based on upper caste supremacy. Although conversion into different religions may not free Dalits from clutches of caste, as upper castes maintain their supremacy in other religions too, the very act of conversion prevents the right-wing from achieving their goal of homogenisation.
This is why the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is a right-wing party with close ideological and organisational links to Hindu nationalist organisations like the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is actively working to halt Dalit conversions. Although the Indian Constitution protects Indian citizens’ right to choose and practise any religion they want, the BJP enacted anti-conversion laws in various states it rules. In 2013 in Gujarat’s Junagadh when around 60,000 Dalits and members of other lowered castes converted to Buddhism, the BJP government of Gujarat ordered an investigation and arrested local Dalit- Buddhist leaders. In 2014 in Madhya Pradesh when four Dalits converted to Islam due to caste humiliation and oppression, the police arrested them.
With state sanctions on one-hand and socio-political impunity on the other, right-wing groups and organisations like the RSS, Hindu Vahini, VHP and others are targeting those who choose to leave Hinduism in the BJP ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Jharaknad and Odisha.
For India’s right-wing, it is morally and politically unacceptable for anyone to leave the Hindu religion.
Disproving the radical left’s views on religion
The anti-caste movement has a long tradition of challenging Hinduism. From Bhakti movement to Bahujan movement, anti-caste conscientisation has constantly been countering and rejecting the religious and spiritual justification of caste system within Hinduism. The cultural counter to Hinduism in the Bhakti movement from 14th century onwards, both in South and North India, was spearheaded by lowered-caste saints like Tukaram, Kabir, Nandanar Chokhamela, Bahenabai, Ravidas, Mirabai and many others. They challenged Hinduism through their devotional songs known as abhanags and dhohas. Gail Omvedt, in her book Seeking Begumpura, called this “the period of Indian enlightenment”.
In the first half of the 20th century, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Indian jurist, economist and social reformer who inspired the Dalit Buddist movement, waged an open and sustained war against Hinduism and the caste system. He once said the Indian history is nothing but a “history of mortal conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism”.
For Ambedkar, Hinduism is against the natural evolution of the individual and the society, and many converted Dalits share this position. However, neither Ambedkar nor majority of Dalits reject the importance of religion, and this is where they differentiate from the radical left. For most Dalits and Ambedkar, Hinduism’s faults do not demonstrate the problems with religions at large, because they do not consider Hinduism to be a religion. Marxists, on the other hand, consider religion to be “the opium of the masses” and they reject the idea that any religion can be a tool for ending social injustices.
However, the Dalit conversions establish the fact that religion can be a potent tool for subverting and challenging hierarchies of caste, and therefore falsify the Marxian claim of religion being “the opium of masses”.
Dalit conversions are not revolutionary enough in the eyes of Indian Marxists, since for them conversion is non- material – it is an action that does not bear any change in the material lives of Dalits.
But facts speak differently: according to an India Spend analysis of 2011 Census data, the converted Buddhist Dalits enjoy better literacy rates and better work participation/sex ratio than Scheduled Caste Hindus. Additionally, rejection of Hinduism through conversion is not merely about material mobility, it is more about the realisation and objection of the structurally enforced inferiority justified in Hinduism. For many Dalits, conversion into another religion is a humanitarian claim for equality and justice. The conversion of assassinated civil rights leader Malcolm X and many other black Americans into Islam can be read in a similar way – conversions made to demand equality and justice.
One may choose to see the act of conversion merely as a victim’s passive and polite reaction to discrimination and violence. But one can also see the very same act of conversion as a challenge to the core of the oppressor’s supremacy and an act of rebellion in the name of liberation. In this context, the recent mass conversion of Dalits in Uttar Pradesh are not victim play – they are acts of revolution against the caste supremacy that is being forced upon them by a Hindu-right wing state and society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.