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|October 11, 2002||
Amberish K Diwanji
Woe Brahmin Raj
Jayalalithaa, despite the pressures of important matters such as the Cauvery water crisis and the kidnapping of Nagappa, still found time to have an ordinance passed that seeks to curb religious conversions. By her ordinance, before any conversion, the local district magistrate has to be informed. Indian laws forbid conversion by inducement, fraud and coercion, so such laws in the ordinance are merely restating the obvious.
There are few subjects that trouble most Hindus as much as the issue of conversion. Reams of words and paper have been wasted on the same (and on this, I too am a culprit). The issue is not merely conversion, but the conversion of Dalits and Adivasis, those poor souls living wretched lives, and who now cannot even decide the religion they belong to without the intervention of the all-exploitative state.
There is no doubt that huge sections of upper-caste Hindus and of the rabid right [the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and so on] would love nothing more than an outright ban on conversions, freedom of religion be damned. Yet banning conversion only looks at the symptom of the disease, not the disease itself, and banning conversion will only add to the exploitation of the Dalits and Adivasis.
In a recent article Varsha Bhosle asked, What happens if after conversion the Dalit and Adivasi still finds himself/herself oppressed (and which, I agree, is often the case)?
The answer is simple: they always have the choice of converting back to Hinduism. In fact, if there is one reason that all the Dalits of India never converted to another religion, it is simply because even after conversion those Dalits would find little change in their social and caste status. In many cities, poor Muslims and Dalits stay cheek by jowl and it is not difficult for Dalits to realise that mere conversion in no way enhanced their status or lives. Both Muslims and Christians also have a caste system that clearly divides them. But if they still do not want to reconvert to Hinduism, does that not tell us something?
Conversion is a very difficult task, which explains why millions of Dalits and Adivasis have not converted, and never might. They still prefer to battle from within Hinduism, hoping that some day the blight of caste will disappear, a battle that they fight alone since most of the rabid Hindu organisations really are not on their side except when they want Dalit and Adivasi support to gang up against the Muslims and Christians.
But some will convert, regardless. As the Dalits and Adivasis, who for millennia have been kept illiterate by Brahaminic prejudices, educate and organise themselves, they will no longer bow to the utter nonsense dished out in the name of traditional Hinduism. They will no longer wait for another rebirth to achieve better status; they might simply prefer another religion in this birth. Hinduism has a choice: reform or lose your numbers. Even Mahatma Gandhi had once warned: if Hinduism does not reform, it will die!
That there are five states in India today that seek to curb conversions -- Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa, besides Tamil Nadu -- only shows that Dalits and Adivasis are asserting themselves, even if the assertion is merely religious conversion. The first four have huge Adivasi populations, while Tamil Nadu has large sections of Dalits who are at the receiving end of cruel treatment by the so-called upper castes, including the middle castes (such as the Thevars who are pitted against the Dalits).
However, lengthening the route does not necessarily stop the journey. What is needed is self-examination and introspection: why is that 55 years after Independence, so many Dalits and Adivasis still seek to convert, even if the benefits are doubtful? Why is the ill-treatment of Dalits and Adivasis, their general exploitation, especially in the rural areas but also in urban centers, all so common?
And the rabid right-wing Hindu groups need to ask themselves, why is that they agitate aggressively against the putting up of a statue of Periyar (as the BJP did in Uttar Pradesh when Chief Minister Mayawati wanted to install a statue of Periyar) yet do not baulk at the existence of a statue of Manu on the Rajasthan high court premises (which also shows how supportive of exploitative casteism the Congress too is)? So we have a statue honouring Manu, the man who divided Hinduism and destroyed its fraternity, who blighted the lives of millions and millions of Dalits, Adivasis and Shudras; and when a Dalit organisation wanted the statue removed, someone got a stay order and the matter has been pending ever since.
Where was the BJP then? Why did it not agitate like it did against the Periyar statute? Where are the RSS and the VHP who so abhor conversions? Where are the Congress, the Communists, and all the other parties who seek the votes of Dalits and Adivasis? And why should Hindus even expect Dalits in their fold when they are all so willing to hail Manu [whose effigy, along with Ravan's, should be burnt every Dussera] but refuse to acknowledge Dalit leaders?
Tragically, caste is alive and kicking. Even today, there exist Brahmin, Kayastha and similar sabhas (I am not against Brahmins per se, but against the upper caste prejudices that perpetuate caste and casteism), seeking to perpetuate Brahmanic and the like exclusivity. Such caste-based outfits exist even abroad, thus only proving how loath the so-called high castes are in giving up their believed superior status.
To end conversions, one has to end casteism and all caste consciousness. Why can't a Hindu simply be referred to as a Hindu? Why do we need to mention the caste? The Ramayana and Mahabharata are replete with mention of caste, especially while referring to the Brahmin and Kshatriya castes. This exists even in modern times. So many of our stories written in the 19th and 20th century use the sentence: "He was a poor, Brahmin boy," or, "He came from a Brahmin family", even if the reference to caste has little meaning to the story. Whatever for? Can't we have new versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata that simply do not mention caste, which, anyway, is profession derived, so how can you be born into a caste?
Shockingly even on the official web site of the President of India perpetuates this distinction. If you see the section on past Presidents of India, while there is no mention of the caste of Rajendra Prasad or K R Narayanan, the biography of S Radhakrishnan mentions he hailed from a "Hindu Brahmin family". Was Radhakrishnan's caste mentioned only because he was a Brahmin? Does his being a Brahmin bestow greater merit on him? This great philosopher would have been appalled.
And finally, do we need awards in the name of Drona (for coaching) and Arjuna (for excellence in sports)? In the Mahabharata, Drona asked the low-caste Eklavya to cut off his thumb to prove no challenge to his favored pupil? What a pathetic coach who could be bought off by the richer Arjuna? And is Arjuna a great sportsman when he willingly used unfair tactics to destroy Eklavya? Why is there no award in the name of the low-caste Eklavya, who taught himself archery (just as most Indian sportsmen are self-taught).
But then, all this only reflects the dominance of the so-called upper castes, and their unwillingness to throw off the yoke of casteism that has given a small minority such awesome and cruel power over a vast majority of the less fortunate. And now the same upper caste Hindus do not even want the Dalits to have the right to convert? Not unless the upper-caste dominated bureaucracy clears it? Whatever happened to fundamental freedom? And what next?
In the ages to come, future generations may well view the present political, social, economic structure as the continuation of minority rule over Indians, a minority rule that began with the creation of casteism, and continued with the Turkish sultanates, Mughals and the British, and stays on with the Brahmin/upper castes.
Now, even the freedom of India's most wretched to convert will be governed by members of the Brahmin Raj.
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