For 2000 years, the Hindu caste system treated India's 'untouchables' as less than human. Millions chose new religions to escape or at least protest. But today, ultra-nationalist Hindus are seeking to block off even that avenue.
By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2003).
ON A SWELTERING Independence Day in Gujarat, a group of 50 or so Dalits--the outcastes once known as "untouchables"--listened as community leaders railed against the caste system. "For 55 years India has been independent," the speakers declared, "but still we have not gained our independence." "Jai Bhim!" the small crowd shouted in response.
For many Dalits, that phrase--"Jai Bhim!"--has become a greeting, an expression of solidarity and a kind of war cry. It means "Long live Bhim!" and honours Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a political leader from the independence era who introduced an affirmative-action programme for Dalits in the Indian constitution, where they are referred to as "scheduled castes."
Ambedkar argued that there was no hope for the untouchables within Hinduism. The only way they could escape from their caste was to renounce their religion. "I was bo
Orn a Hindu," he once said, "but I will not die a Hindu." In 1956, he led more than a million Dalits to convert to Buddhism.
"Dr. B.R. Ambedkar fought like a warrior for human rights," Manoj Gohel, a Dalit who converted to Buddhism in 2001, told me the evening before the Gujarat event. "He is our messiah. We consider him our god. His dreams are very well known: To make India free of this casteism; to make India free from this untouchability; to bring equality for all people and prosperity to all people. And to free Dalits from the grip of Hinduism."
Today, however, many fear that Hindu extremists will turn that form of liberation into a crime. Last year, two Indian states--Tamil Nadu and Gujarat--passed legislation granting the state governments sweeping powers to prevent proselytizing and stop religious conversions. The president of the national ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, or BJP, commended the move and called for a national anti-conversion law. "A lot of money is coming into the country from Islamic organizations to aid conversions," claimed BJP President Venkaiah Naidu.
Such statements go to the heart of the Hindu-nationalist vision of India and its objection to Dalit conversion. The BJP is the political wing of the Sangh Parivar, a loose grouping of offshoots of a high-caste paramilitary organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Espousing the ideology of "Hindutva," the group conceives of India as a Hindu country waging a battle against foreign invaders. With incendiary propaganda, it has managed to unite Hindus of high and low caste, despite their many reasons for division, against the spectre of a demonized Islamic world. But any mobilization of the downtrodden threatens to smash the Hindu alliance to pieces. For that reason, Hindu ultra-nationalists have long viewed religious conversions as a dangerous threat to their ultimate goal: transforming India from a secular to a Hindu state.
"The moment you change your religious identity," explains Martin Macwan, the head of Navsarjan, a Gujarat-based organization that works for Dalit rights, "your political affiliations change."
For 2,000 years, Hindu belief has divided humanity into four Varnas, or groups: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Once, the caste you were born into determined your social status and the job you could do. Brahmins and Kshatriyas, at the top, were the scholars, priests, rulers and warriors of the society. Vaishyas were traders and the Shudras were menial servants. Beneath them all were those forced to perform tasks deemed by the Hindu religion to be polluting--making shoes, treating leather and scraping human excrement from primitive toilets, among myriad other jobs. Held to be "untouchable," these people could not enter the temples, drink from the wells or bathe in the waters used by other Hindus. Viewed as subhuman by their own religion, millions converted to Islam and Christianity over the centuries.
"Although India has laws prohibiting discrimination and there has been some positive change in access to public services, still the practice of untouchability and caste-based discrimination persists, mainly in rural areas," says Sukhadeo Thorat, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Between 1981 and 1997, there were 200,000 atrocity cases filed with the police, while the most recent economic data shows untouchables are twice as likely to work as poorly paid wage-labourers than other castes, twice as likely to be unemployed and nearly twice as likely to be living below the poverty line. The scheduled castes are at least 25 years behind the rest of the population in terms of poverty." One has to look no further than the Sunday newspaper to see the evidence that discrimination continues, with matrimonial advertisements that specify the desired caste, and even rental properties offered "for vegetarians," code for "Brahmins only."
In two well-publicized cases last year, Dalits in Tamil Nadu were beaten for bathing in an upper-caste well in Rajasthan and forced to eat human excrement as punishment. In Haryana, not far from New Delhi, a mob of caste Hindus lynched five Dalits employed to dispose of cow carcasses after accusing them of skinning a live cow, an animal sacred to Hindus. The last incident reawakened the Indian media to the persistence of caste discrimination and provided a platform for leaders seeking to emulate Ambedkar's mass conversion of the 1950s. Udit Raj, founder of the Lord Buddha Club and president of a national employee organization called the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organizations, seized the opportunity to hold mass conversion rallies in several states and later founded the Justice Party, a political body that seeks to unite Dalits and India's religious minorities.
"What we are looking for is to liberate all people from mental slavery," Raj told me. "Caste and Hinduism are the same thing, so if my people want respect and dignity, they must come out of the caste system . . . We are trying to spark a fire."
Opponents of conversion have been working just as hard to extinguish that fire. While Gujarat, the state torn apart by Hindu-Muslim riots last year, is considered to be in the vanguard of the march towards Hindutva, Tamil Nadu passed its anti-conversion law first, raising the alarm that the Hindu-nationalist ideology was gaining ground in the traditionally more tolerant south.
Although three other states (Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh) have had similar laws since as long ago as 1968, the Gujarat and Tamil Nadu legislation affords the state more sweeping powers. Almost identical in their wording, the laws in both states vaguely prohibit "conversion from one religion to another by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means." And they impose harsh punishments. Those found guilty may be imprisoned for up to three years and fined up to 50,000 rupees ($1,090); but if the convert is a Dalit or aboriginal--a member of what the law calls the scheduled castes and tribes--the prison term may be extended to four years and the fine doubled to 100,000 rupees. Both laws also require participants in conversion ceremonies to notify the district magistrate. Violators may be jailed for up to a year and fined up to 1,000 rupees. Dalit leaders point to the latter clause and the double punishments specified for the conversion of members of the scheduled castes and tribes as evidence that the laws are directed against them.
In both states, supporters argue that anti-conversion laws are necessary to control the activities of unscrupulous missionaries. "We require this freedom-of-religion bill because in some cases there was forced conversion," the BJP law minister in Gujarat, Ashok Bhatt, told me. "We want only three things: That there should not be any conversions made forcefully or by bribe or through misguiding people. That should be prohibited by law."
Opponents of the laws believe they have a more nefarious purpose: To set up Christians, and even religious converts, as enemies of the people. Not only would this discourage conversion, but it would also help unite Hindus against a perceived common enemy--just as the demonization of Muslims has done--and prevent a split between high- and low-caste parties.
"The intention of these lawmakers is perhaps to create a rift between religious communities and to give a false impression that there is a phenomenal growth in a particular community and they must be controlled," says Moses P. Manohar of Tamil Nadu's Interchurch Service Association (a Christian group).
In the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, where attacks on the Muslim community in 2002 left nearly 1,000 dead, some Christian leaders fear officials are taking even more direct action to stoke intercommunal tensions. "When the carnage took place here, people had computer printouts with the location of Muslim homes and shops," says Victor Moses, a Roman Catholic priest and director of St. Xavier's Social Service Society in the city. Earlier this year, he adds, police came "in the middle of the night to ask Christian workers about their work, to survey how many Christians they had working in the organization. Later they denied the survey's existence. They are updating and upgrading that list [of minorities] to strike as and when it is possible." Though another Christian leader showed me a list of questions he claimed to have obtained from a police officer conducting this survey, the Gujarat law minister angrily denied its existence.
"What they want to do is to harass us," concludes the Justice Party's Udit Raj. "Their philosophy is weak, their religion is weak; they want to herd the Dalits and the poor into their religion with blind force. Hinduism is under attack because its foundation is based on discrimination."
In two villages near Kanchipuram, a Hindu religious centre in southern India, the conflicting motives that inspire Dalits to convert are evident.
The Dalits of Koothirampakkam live in a ghetto separate from the caste Hindus, and claim they aren't allowed into the main village. Nor are they allowed to buy items from the same store. The village council forces them to help pay for an annual religious festival, but the procession of the icon doesn't come to their ghetto. The Dalits must worship it from the other side of the street.
Last year they threatened to convert to Islam. "Even if we are Hindu we can't pray to God. So why should we be Hindu?" said Chandra Khantan, a 47-year-old resident of the Dalit village. "At least the Muslims will allow us into the mosque." Other residents told stories of violent clashes with the caste village. Pangurangal, a youth in his 20s, claimed that in one fight he was assaulted with an iron pipe.
In the neighbouring caste-Hindu village, many people were reluctant to speak to a journalist. Those who did made no apologies for the segregation of the village, though they denied there was any violence. "They have a separate temple," said 67-year-old Narseeman. "They have a separate water tank. They have a separate ration shop. Why are they complaining?"
There's a similar story in the nearby village of Thirupedu. Following a violent clash with the caste Hindus of their village, 300 Dalits last year gathered up their belongings and moved to an unoccupied area along the roadside. Last December, at the urging of Ranganathan and a group called the All-India Christian Council, they converted to Christianity.
Critics of conversion, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the most vocal wing of the Sangh Parivar, argue that casteism remains prevalent in India's Christian communities, which continue to use terms like "Brahmin Christians" and "Dalit Christians." Leaders of a loose grouping of movements rallying around the slogan "Quit Hindutva" admit that casteism can occur among Christians. But when it does, they argue, it represents a perversion of the Christian doctrine; in contrast, Hinduism explicitly endorses discrimination. And for most Dalits, what they are rejecting is more important than the belief they're embracing.
"Every Dalit must quit Hindutva," says G. Ranganathan, Tamil Nadu state president of the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organizations. "Only then can we get our human rights." For that reason, he organized a mass conversion of Dalits away from Hinduism--to any other religion--last year.
Ranganathan doesn't deny that some Dalits convert for material reasons, as well as psychological or spiritual ones. And nor do the converts in Thirupedu. "They said they would arrange a factory so we would have jobs," said village leader Poonooswami referring to the Christians. "At least they offered to give us cows so that we could start a milk cooperative. They also promised to install electricity connections and water pumps and to build housing for all of us."
The Christian group did help them to build concrete houses, but has not fulfilled any of its other promises. In what might come as a blow to Ranganathan's Quit Hindutva movement, the villagers are now considering filing a complaint against the group under Tamil Nadu's anti-conversion law. "I am a failure in this," Ranganathan admitted with genuine remorse.
Despite their disappointment, the Dalits are determined to remain converts. "Whatever happens, we will not go back to Hinduism," said Poonooswami, standing in a small crowd. "When we converted, we were prepared to die." The others nodded in grim agreement.