A new method adopted by marginalised communities seeking justice against oppression is the threat of leaving the Hindu fold and embracing Islam.
While the larger Hindu community appears disinterested in numbers, Islamic missionaries are quick to incentivise any move to bolster their faith.
The core truth, however, is a change in faith does not result in a change of fate.
A group of Valmiki women was recently stopped from entering a local temple by some Thakur men in Rakedha village of Uttar Pradesh’s Bulandshahr district.
One of the men, who has been booked under the SC-ST Atrocities Act and is absconding, was seen in a video telling the women that the temple had been funded by Thakurs and they simply did not want the group in.
A day after the FIR was filed, both communities — the ‘lower-caste’ Valmikis and the ‘upper-caste’ Thakurs joined by Brahmins — met at the office of the sub-divisional magistrate in Khurja city for a ‘compromise’.
Dalit outfits from Khurja joined the Valmikis in support.
They issued threats of conversion to Islam. However, as the Thakurs apologised for their conduct and promised to lift the prohibition, the Valmikis did not convert.
Such threats from the Dalit community are not uncommon, especially in Uttar Pradesh, even though they may not act on it every time.
One reason is that many feel that leaving the Hindu fold would help them escape birth-based discrimination that’s rampant in Hindu society and has religious sanction in some Hindu religious texts.
One of the tallest Dalit leaders of modern India, Dr BR Ambedkar, left the Hindu fold after declaring that “even though I was born in the Hindu religion, I will not die in the Hindu religion”.
However, unlike Ambedkar, who embraced Buddhism after rejecting Islam as one of the considered options, many Dalits — most of whom keep his portrait in their homes — choose Islam for conversion threat.
Sunil Kumar, a Valmiki from Rakheda, told this correspondent that though the threats of conversion came from Dalit outfits in Khurja and not from the victims, he supported the idea. “We like the Muslim ways. Even though they have castes too, they don’t practice untouchability. They share from the same plate,” he said.
Two women, who were among those stopped at the temple gate, nodded. “When they [upper-caste] don’t allow us to enter their temple, don’t count us as Hindus, it’s better to leave Hindu religion altogether,” one of them said.
Asked why they considered Islam and not other religions, say Buddhism, which would allow them protection and benefits reserved for scheduled castes, or Christianity, the three drew a blank.
They said they did not know much about the other religions. They did not personally know any practising Buddhist or Christian.
It emerged that most Valmikis in Thakur-dominated Rakheda village only knew of three communities — the upper-caste Hindus, the lower-caste Hindus as themselves, and the Muslims.
Conversations revealed that they interacted with Muslims more closely than they did with upper-castes, despite a common place for worship. Dalits and Muslims were overwhelmingly part of the working-class and toiled together in fields and in places of labour.
Villagers informed that Muslims in Rakheda belong to Shakka (water-carrier) caste, which is also considered lower.
Dalits recently got a separate Valmiki temple built in their colony, partially funded by the Thakurs, alienating them from upper-caste Hindus even further.
Most Valmikis that this correspondent talked to were of the opinion that the Muslim community is more egalitarian than the Hindu community.
“Muslims eat from the same plate and worship at the same place. They discriminate neither in food nor in faith,” a Valmiki man said.
A similar observation was made in another area of UP last year — Incholi district which is some 100 kilometres from Rakheda. A man belonging to the scheduled Jaatav caste, who had threatened the administration with conversion to Islam over a demand, told this correspondent, "Muslims may fight a lot among themselves but in mosques, they are one. I have been working with Muslims for 18 years now.”
This perception of Dalits about Muslims isn’t uniform across the state. It changes with local social realities.
Ghosiya village in Kaushambi’s Chail tehsil, which is hardly a 30-minute road journey from Allahabad airport, recently witnessed the horror of a minor Dalit girl’s gangrape. The 13-year-old was nabbed by three men who dragged her deep into a field, unclothed her, raped her and filmed the act.
The girl later told this correspondent that during the criminal act, the men asked her to plead in the name of Allah. She did but the men did not spare her anyway.
On the day of the crime, the Dalit community staged an agitation against police for allegedly favouring ‘upper-caste’ Muslims — the community that the perpetrators belong to.
This correspondent found that the lower caste Pasis of Ghosiya and surrounding areas see Muslims as oppressive upper castes. Muslims are rich, dominant, and own property and agricultural land.
A senior policeman at Sarai Akil police station, on condition of anonymity, said that Muslims in that area are mostly Syeds, Khans and Pathans — which are considered superior groups.
Dalits of Ghosiya said that as children, they would be asked to carry their own mats to sit on by Muslim students and teachers at the local government school.
They said their Muslim pradhan doesn’t extend the benefits of various government schemes to them for fear that they would rise in status and stop toiling in their fields.
Conversations revealed that Dalits did not see religious conversion as a way out of their poverty, discrimination and marginalisation as they were not ‘oppressed’ within their religious fold.
A Pasi family of Ghosiya told this correspondent that despite Buddhist temples in their close vicinity (Kaushambi is an important Buddhist site), they never considered conversion to Buddhism.
The family said that education or migration to cities were their only escape.
Neither do all Dalits feel a pressing need to move out of the Hindu fold nor does this work as a solution for all.
Even in Rakheda village, opinions on conversion are divided. Many said they won’t change their religion.
“I’ll fight, I’ll die but I will not change my religion. Why should I? I love my gods,” a woman said.
Switching religions does not guarantee an escape from birth-based discrimination, however.
Ajay Prakash Saroj, an activist in Allahabad who runs a monthly Dalit publication named Shripasi Satta, says that conversion doesn’t change things much for the community. “You come here and I will make you meet hundreds of chamaar families who became Muslims. They continue to be discriminated against even in their new community. They struggle for employment and face great challenges in getting their children married. Actually, they are worse than even before,” he said.
“Na idhar ke na udhar ke [they are neither here nor there],” said Saroj, who propagates economic independence of Dalits to escape caste-based oppression.
This correspondent reported a case from UP’s Baghpat district last year where a Dalit woman married a Muslim man after eloping with him. She left his house within seven months of marriage and filed a police case against him and his family for pushing her into prostitution.
She said that at her in-laws’, she was routinely subjected to casteist slurs and was often told, “chamaari, hum to tujhe laye hi isliye hain” [“this is why we brought you here in the first place”].
One also finds that threats by Dalits of leaving the Hindu fold may be triggered by reasons not related to oppression within the fold at all.
The Incholi dispute, for instance, was not between upper and lower castes but between two groups within the same Jaatav clan.
The sparring groups lived in adjoining mohallas. One group had wanted to install an idol of goddess Kali in a temple located in the other mohalla. The latter objected saying the idol would eat into their community space and should be installed elsewhere. The first group, who claimed that the latter’s objection was primarily due to political differences (he said the first group supported Narendra Modi while another supported Mayawati), threatened conversion to Islam along with his entire mohalla of 50 families if the administration didn’t help him install the idol in the temple of their choice within the nine-day period of Navratra.
Eventually, the dispute was resolved after intervention of a rights organisation called Agniveer and the idol was installed in the same temple on the ninth day. No family converted.
At that time, a senior police officer told this correspondent that it’s become “a fashion these days” to threaten conversion over petty disputes.
“It’s a perception that the current administration will take up the matter seriously in order to stop conversion, particularly to Islam,” he said. “They feel that threats of conversion to Buddhism won’t work, which is not an entirely wrong perception. Even media people like you don’t report threats of conversion to Buddhism the way you report about Islam,” he said.
“As police often find out, they don’t always mean what they say,” the officer said.
A cursory look at news reports suggests that such threats have indeed become more frequent under the Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state.
In May 2017, over 2,000 Dalits in a village in Aligarh district reportedly threatened to convert to Islam alleging oppression by Thakurs. The Dalits wanted to build a temple but the Thakurs were opposing it. The Dalits even threw idols of Hindu deities on the street. It’s not clear from reports what happened to the case.
Again in May 2017, Dalits in a village in Sambhal reportedly threatened conversion to Islam as local Muslim hairdressers were refusing them haircuts owing to an upper-caste diktat.
Again, it’s not clear from reports what happened to the case.
In January 2018, a Dalit family from a village in Bijnor district reportedly first threatened and then reached a mosque to act on their threat of conversion to Islam after accusing police of inaction in an alleged assault by two upper caste men.
The police managed to stop the family from conversion.
In the Incholi case, the man at the centre of the dispute, Rajkumar, who had bought the idol of Kali, later told this correspondent that after his statement was played on news channels, a number of maulvis reached out to him.
“Hum bata nahi sakte aapko ki wo kya kya pralobhan de rahe they. Rupyon ka, zameen ka… (I can’t tell you what all lucrative offers they made to us, of money and land…),” said Rajkumar.
He added that he was “saved” from the “sin” of conversion thanks to Goddess Kali appearing in his dream.
No Hindu organisation or local upper-caste Hindus approached him to prevent him from leaving the Hindu fold, he said.
A local Brahmin, who was pujari at another temple, did offer Rajkumar space for his Kali idol but after Rajkumar declared that he wanted only the temple of his choice, the pujari backed off.
"Yahan hamari koi sunwayi nahi hai (nobody gives us a hearing here)," Rajkumar’s brother-in-law told this correspondent at that time, referring to the silence of the larger Hindu community in the area.
The rights organisation that intervened in this case, Agniveer, says that they have observed that while the Muslim community proactively works to expand in numbers, the Hindu community lets go of its members easily.
Last year, a group of Dalits in Pachgaon Patti village of UP’s Meerut district threatened conversion to Islam after they were allegedly denied entry to a place of worship. The village is dominated by Rajputs and Thakurs with almost an equal number of Dalits and Muslims. It turned out that the perpetrator was only one man — a wandering sadhu, who didn’t even belong to the village — and the matter was sensationalised by student groups.
This correspondent found that even the larger Dalit community dismissed the matter as “netagiri” by children. However, it was observed that the upper caste Hindus took little interest in the matter.
Members of Agniveer went to the village and conducted a yagna with participation of all castes, appealing to all to end birth-based discrimination. “A complete vocal stand against any birth-based discrimination and proactive measures are needed if the Hindu society doesn’t want to further lose members,” says Agniveer’s founder Sanjeev Newar, an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati and Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta.
Something quite opposite, however, is happening in Rakheda. While the upper caste groups lifted temple entry prohibition under pressure of the administration and fear of law, they have resorted to social boycott of Valmikis to teach them a lesson.
This is despite the conversion threat given by them.
As per the Valmikis, the upper castes are not entertaining them at their shops, refusing to buy milk from or sell milk to them and have stopped calling them to work in their fields.
A man told this correspondent he did not know a way out of this other than subjugation to upper castes or exodus to another village.
“Let’s see what the samaj decides,” he said.