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How does conversion help backward castes in India? It doesn’t

April 27, 2018

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How does conversion help backward castes in India? It doesn’t

Shabbirpur, Saharanpur: Last September, 33-year-old Sarita, a Dalit, converted to Buddhism and took the surname Baudh to denounce her caste identity. She was among the 180 Dalits in Uttar Pradesh who converted to protest the crackdown on members of Bhim Army, a Dalit rights outfit, following clashes with the upper castes in Saharanpur district earlier.

A mother of a boy and a girl aged nine and seven, Sarita says she sincerely believed all her troubles were on account of her identity as a Dalit, and that she would not have to face atrocities and discrimination by the upper castes once she shed the Dalit tag.

Her hopes, however, soon gave way to dejection, as she saw the upper caste people behave the same way as they had done all along before she converted.

 Ham to bahut khus the ki ab izzat milegi, pyar milega aur log shaanti se rahenge lekin aisa kuch nahi hua. Sabse bada jhatka tab laga jab ham kaam par jaane ke liye jaamindaar ke ghar gaye aur unhone hame usi bartan me chai di jisme hame pehle di jaati thi. Ham unhe bataye bhi ki ham dharam badal liye hai lekin unhone hamare saath pehle jaisa hi bartaav kiya,” “I was very happy that now I would be treated with respect and love and everyone would live in peace but nothing of that sort has happened. I got a big shock when I went to work at the landlord’s house and was served tea in the same utensil as before. His behaviour towards me remained the same as earlier even after I told him that I had changed my religion,” says Sarita, who works as a labourer in the fields of Shyam Singh, a Thakur and an upper caste. Her husband is a mason and lives in Mumbai.

‘Nothing changes on ground’
Sarita recounts that it wasn’t difficult to convince her to change her religion as she had seen children of Dalits, including her own, being treated differently in village school. “They were made to sit separately in classroom while children of upper castes were treated like kings.”

“But nothing has actually changed,” she says, adding, almost as if to console herself, “Mai to majdoor, mera pati majdoor. Jab pradhan ka kuch na badla to mera kya bhala hovega dharm badal kar (Me and my husband are mere labourers. When life didn’t change for the village head after conversion, why would things be different for us labourers)?”

Significantly, the converts have continued to follow Hindu customs and mores. Sarita informed Newscentral24x7 that, as always, she observed Karva Chauth andSakath (a fast observed for long life of male child) even after becoming a Buddhist.

‘Change takes a generation to materialise’
Naresh Baudh, a former village pradhan (head) and a Dalit, too confirmed that converts are still following Hindu customs.

Naresh, who also converted along with his wife some time ago, has a more realistic take on the whole exercise. “Change does not come in a day. It takes a lot of time. People in the village think that once they change their caste or surname, those from the upper castes will start giving them respect or treating equally. But it is not so and it will take years,” he says.

Naresh may not be as naïve as Sarita, but he too believes conversion can ultimately effect social and behavioural change, although it may take a generation or more to materialize.

Shyam Singh, who belongs to a dominant upper class family in Shabbirpur village, is very dismissive of the conversion exercise. “

Chamar to chamar hi rahega sahab. Naam badalne se ke hota hai. Kaam to ye fir bhi wahi karenge aur ham kyu maan le ki upari jaat ke ho gaye hai. Aaj paise ke lalach me inhone kisi ke kehne par dharm badal liya hoga. Aise logo ka kya bharosa kal ko ye musalmaan bhi ho jayenge, (A Chamar will remain a Chamar. Nothing changes by changing one’s name. They will continue doing the same work (skinning dead animals). Today, they may have converted for money. Tomorrow they can also become Muslims for money),” he says.

Singh, a teacher at government primary school in the village, dismisses allegations of unequal treatment to Dalit students saying Dalits have made it a habit of making an issue of everything after the Saharanpur clashes.

In May last year, clashes between Dalits and Thakurs, an upper caste community, in Shabbirpur and adjoining villages resulted in widespread violence and arson in which a member of the Thakur community was killed and scores injured on both sides.

Singh sees hands of elements from other districts, as well as political parties, in the conversion, but stops short of naming any party.

However, representatives of the Buddhist Society defend the latest conversions as neither being forced upon Dalits nor being a gimmick. Bhante Anand Sagar, the Buddhist Society’s representative in the Saharanpur region, says a certificate declaring the change of religion is given to a person only after his consent.

“Unlike Christian missionaries, our people do not go anywhere but people come to us for changing their religion,” he says.

According to Rajendra Kumar, a member of the Buddhist Society in Lucknow, people convert to Buddhism “because they are given respect here and the only thing that matters in our religion is knowledge”.

More a tool of protest than means of change
Vivek Kumar, professor, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), says, “No one wants to convert and this form of conversion is a protest to show the government that people from the lower castes are not being treated equally. This is forced conversion.”

According to Kumar, there has been no change in the plight of Dalits since pre-independence days. “Ambedkar devoted his life to eradicating the infection of discrimination from our society. But the situation of Dalits has worsened instead of improving. A Dalit has to face discrimination and atrocities from cradle to grave,” he says.

Religious conversions have been used by Dalit leaders right from Jyotiba Phule and B R Ambedkar to hit back at the scourge of casteism and untouchability plaguing the Hindu society.

However, instances of mass religious conversion to protest social injustice in the country have been few and far between. The biggest such incident took place in 1956 when Ambedkar along with four lakh Dalits converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony in Nagpur. The next big mass conversions took place in Tamil Nadu in 1981 and in Jhajjar in Haryana in 2002.

In Uttar Pradesh, instances of conversions as well as threats of conversions by political leaders have seen a spike with the coming of the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in the state in 2016.

So far, religious conversions of the kind seen in Saharanpur have served more as a tool of protest rather than as a way to effect social change, as initially believed by Sarita. Conversions can become an instrument of change only when adequately backed by institutions that empower people.

Conversions of Adivasis in Jharkhand and Odisha by Christian missionaries have led to effective social change and empowerment of marginalized sections in a short span of time, thanks to the support of institutions like the church and educational edifices associated with them.

Until similar support is made available to Dalits, their conversion to Buddhism will be able to do precious little to challenge the status quo.