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28 Oct 2002

MG Update

Dalits convert to Islam, Buddhism and Christianity

By MG News Desk

New Delhi, October 28 (MG): Over a hundred Dalits (low-caste Hindus) converted to Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, Sunday, October 27, in protest against the inequality in Hindu religion, which treats Dalits as sub-human, even less important than cattle.

The new converts included families of the five Dalits lynched on October 15 for skinning a dead cow. For hundreds of generations these people have been skinning dead animals. High-caste Hindus worship the cow as “ mother,” and are generally anti-cow slaughter. However, they have traditionally allowed skinning of dead animals, including cows, and their trade.

On October 15, a mob of 2000 upper caste Hindus lynched five Dalit young men for having “ killed” a cow barely 60 kilometres from the national capital as 50 policemen and senior government officials watched silently. Families of victims say that their relatives were actually killed by the police for refusing to pay high bribes. The latest round of conversions has come in response to that event.

Dalits are aggrieved not only about the continuing harassment and humiliation at the hands of high-caste Hindus, but by the justification of such harassment by religious leaders. Soon after the lynching, a high-profile Hindu religious leader, Giriraj Kishore, told newspersons in Delhi that as per Hindu scriptures, “ the life of a cow is more precious than a man’ s.” 

Dalit leader Udit Raj, himself a convert from Hinduism to Buddhism, said Sunday, October 27, that Hindu religious and ultranationalist organisations like “ the VHP, Bajrang Dal and RSS and their so-called leaders are forcing the Dalits across the country to convert to different religions” . He said that the guilty had been allowed to go scotfree which meant that the government was anti-Dalit. 

Dalits had been oppressed for the last 5,000 years, since Vedic times, because the Hindu religious scriptures sanctioned such mistreatment. “ That left Dalits with no other option than abandoning Hinduism for a dignified life,” Udit Raj added.

Nearly half a century ago, one of the greatest Dalit leaders and the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar, renounced Hinduism along with half a million other Dalits to join Buddhisim. Ambedekar said, “ I was born a Hindu, but I will not die one” . He said there would be no emancipation of Dalits unless they left the religion (Hinduism) which allowed such discriminatory treatment of Dalits.

The present leader, Udit Raj, is a follower of Ambedkar. He supports conversion as “ a healthy process” . “ Conversion from one’ s existing religion to another leads to a change of thought, ” he asserts.

The government, instead of nabbing the guilty, sent the dead cow for post-mortem examination to determine whether the cow had been killed or had died of some other cause!. Fortunately for other Dalits, the post-mortem report said it had died one day before the lynching of the Dalits.

“ We do not want to be a part of a religion in which there is a premium on a dead cow,” said Chhattar Singh, relative of two of the lynched Dalits. Criticising Hindu religious leader Giriraj Kishore for his observation that “ a cow’ s life is more precious than a man’ s,” Udit Raj said, “ the system which has the cow and Kishore in it is not worth much.” 

That the Dalits had changed religion in defiance of Hindu caste oppression was evident form one Dalit’ s name after converting to Islam. He chose to rename himself as "Saddam Hussein." A prominent member of the Dalit community in Gurgaon, his previous name was "Bhim Shankar Das Khairatia".

The new Saddam Hussein said, “ I know how the Western world is after Saddam. He is a hero.” After Meenakshipuram (a place in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu) conversions of early 1980s in which 180 Dalit families embraced Islam, this one was the most dramatic protest against caste oppression which the lynching symbolised.

Last August, 250 Dalits converted to Christianity in Tamil Nadu to escape oppression. Last year 1,500 similarly oppressed low-caste Hindus embraced Christianity.

According to the BBC, 400 Dalits in Tamil Nadu are planning to convert to Islam “ because of what they describe as persistent unfair treatment by their higher-caste Hindu neighbours.” 

Dalits who converted Sunday to Islam said they preferred this religion because it emphasised equality and brotherhood, which they missed in their earlier religion. Islam also gave them dignity, which they never knew as Hindus.

The conversion yesterday took place during a huge Dalit rally in Gurgaon, south of Delhi, against the lynching. About 100 Dalits embraced Islam, while about 15 chose Buddhism and around three preferred Christianity. 

The rally, attended by around 7000 Dalits, decided not to celebrate Diwali, festival of lights, this year in protest against the lynching. They also decided to converge on Dulina, where the lynching took place, on November 4. More conversions will take place on that date.

The electronic media here chose to ignore this event while today's newspapers chose to ignore the fact that the majority converted to Islam which was confirmed to MG by Dr Muhammad Rafiq Azad who performed the rites of the Dalits' conversion to Islam yesterday at Gurgaon.

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