A few days ago, some Dalit families, accounting for around 40 individuals, converted to Islam in the southernmost Indian state of Tamil Nadu, blaming upper caste harassment as India Today reported.
We could multiply the instances of Dalit conversions, but let’s look at why they convert, outside from the obvious truth of Islam itself.
Dalits: Hinduism’s Subhumans
The Dalits are not a modest demographics: making up 20-25% of the total Hindu population, they number around 200-250 million, which is nearly comparable to the population of Muslims in India (estimated today between 250-280 millions, more than the official government numbers).
To know the Dalits is basically to know the Hindu caste system or varna (which means “color”). Caste hierarchy among Hindus has a racial component, as the Aryans who invaded the subcontinent between 2000 and 1500 BCE attempted to differentiate themselves from the indigenous populations with caste.
Caste division finds it legitimacy in the Hindu sacred scriptures.
For instance, we read in the Rig-Veda 10:90, the oldest Hindu canonical text, how castes were born out of the primordial sacrifice of Purusha or “the Cosmic Man”:
The Brahmanas were His Mouth, the Kshatriyas became His Arms,
The Vaishyas were His Thighs, and from His pair of Feet were born the Shudras.
The Brahmins are the scholars, the Kshatriyas the warriors, the Vaishyas the tradesmen and cultivators, and the Shudras the artisans and laborers.
These distinctions reverberate in later major Hindu scriptures.
But some could ask: Where are the Dalits in this picture? Well… they’re nowhere.
“Dalit” itself comes from a Sanskrit word meaning someone literally outcast, not belonging to any varna.
So whereas a Shudra suffers from enormous discrimination, he somehow still has a caste, but this isn’t the case for the Dalits.
This is why when people read classical Hindu texts such as the Manu-smriti, a text that Dalit activists burn regularly, they tend to forget that all these heavily discriminatory practices in fact target the Shudras (themselves making up the majority of the Hindu population, by the way), not the Dalits, who don’t even have the “chance” of belonging to the lowest caste.
The closest term to Dalit we find in the Manu-smriti is chandala, the product of an “illegal union” between a Shudra man and a Brahmin woman, but their status is not detailed as that of the Shudras.
In other words, they’re so dehumanized that they have no caste at all. The hate against Dalits is so extreme in India that in one bizarre case, state police had to protect a Dalit groom from the mob because this groom rode a horse during his wedding, something not allowed for Dalits in traditional Hinduism. Dalits are seen as “polluting” the Hindu public space. They are also not allowed to read the Hindu sacred scriptures, to enter Hindu temples, among countless other discriminatory norms.
Such dehumanization and religious discrimination bears a heavy toll.
Writing for National Geographic in the early 2000s, Hillary Mayell gives us an idea of the extent of the discrimination, citing government reports, which of course only provide a partial picture:
Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the illiterate Indians are Dalits, according to figures presented at the International Dalit Conference that took place May 16 to 18 in Vancouver, Canada.
Statistics compiled by India’s National Crime Records Bureau indicate that in the year 2000, the last year for which figures are available, 25,455 crimes were committed against Dalits. Every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched.
No one believes these numbers are anywhere close to the reality of crimes committed against Dalits. Because the police, village councils, and government officials often support the caste system, which is based on the religious teachings of Hinduism, many crimes go unreported due to fear of reprisal, intimidation by police, inability to pay bribes demanded by police, or simply the knowledge that the police will do nothing.
Non-stop violence and rape inflicted on this oppressed population.
You’d think that such cruelty against Dalits would go down with the rise in literacy, but The Hindu publication reports: “crimes against Dalits increased by 6 percent between 2009 and 2018.”
Modi’s rise to power in 2014 definitely didn’t help the Dalits, as his Hindu nationalist party entrenches caste-based Hinduism, with all its discrimination, despite the fact that Article 17 of the Indian constitution prohibits it.
Such a vibrant democracy.
Dalits and Islam
Considering how Dalits are treated in Hinduism, it is natural that they’d look for other religious avenues. And a natural option has always been Islam.
This has obviously alarmed the Hindu elite, who fear that a mass conversion to Islam from the Dalits would disturb an already delicate balance for Hindus.
One such Hindu historically was none other than the “secular,” “pacifist” icon, Gandhi.
Akbar Ahmed writes in Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin, p. 115:
Gandhi opposed separate electorates for the lower castes:
Gandhi fiercely opposed this scheme. ‘Give the untouchables separate electorates’, he cried, ‘and you only perpetuate their status for all time.’ It was a queer argument, and those who were not bemused by the Mahatma’s charm considered it a phoney one. They suspected that Gandhi was a little afraid that 60 million untouchables might join up with the 100 million Muslims—(as they nearly did)—and challenge the dictatorship of the 180 million orthodox Hindus. (Nichols 1944:39)
Not surprisingly, Dr Ambedkar, leader of the so-called untouchables, or Dalit of today, repeated again and again: ‘Gandhi is the greatest enemy the Untouchables [60 million then] have ever had in India’ (ibid.: 38).
Dr Ambedkar, who had through sheer courage and willpower obtained a PhD from Columbia University, almost converted to Islam in 1935. Had he done so, the history of India might well have been different. He was prevented by massive Hindu pressure led by Gandhi. But this did not stop him from converting to Buddhism just before he died in 1956. He had few illusions about Hinduism, as he makes clear in his book, Riddles in Hinduism (1987).
Dr Ambedkar was a Dalit activist and father of the Indian constitution. He was voted “the greatest Indian” precisely after Gandhi in a national poll. If he had converted to Islam, it would have been a real gamechanger. After all, his conversion to Buddhism has resulted in 10 million Buddhists in India today, whereas the religion had literally disappeared for around 1500 years due to Hindu persecution.
Individual “secular” elites were not alone in preventing Dalits from accepting Islam: even the “secular” Indian state used mechanisms to distract Dalits.
Himansu Charan Sadangi writes in Dalit: The Downtrodden of India, p. 81:
The Indian state, which prided itself on its ‘secular’ foundations, itself made Dalit conversions to Islam an unviable choice by denying the special benefits that Dalit enjoyed in government services and programmes to Dalit converts to Islam. While this has put a brake on Dalit conversions to Islam, it has not had any significant impact on Dalit-Muslim unity efforts, which are increasingly emerging as an important agenda for the Dalit movement in India today. With the growing political consciousness of the Dalit that emerges from increasing education and participation in social movement, many Dalit ideologues are now advocating Dalit-Muslim unity as an indispensable means of the overall liberation of all oppressed groups in India. Such unity does not rule out Dalit conversions to Islam, but conversion, is not indispensable to the unity project.
So the whole Indian state apparatus has been conspiring to stop Dalits from converting to Islam.
Behold the world’s “largest democracy” and its “secularism,” folks.
But Dalits still convert, and by the thousands, a mass movement which really started in 1981 in Meenakshipuram, yet another village of Tamil Nadu, when hundreds of Dalits converted to protest, again, against caste discrimination.
It triggered both the government, which introduced “anti-conversion” legislation, but also the Hindu nationalists, who were so shocked that they revived a nearly-defunct organization, the now influential Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), just to crusade against Dalits’ acceptance of Islam. (The VHP since then has involved itself in many anti-Islam acts, such as the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid.)
The Da’wah should definitely focus on Dalits in particular, to accelerate their embrace of Islam.
We can also wonder: Why doesn’t the Western media highlight the plight of the Dalits more often?
After all, if Dalits made up their own country, they’d be the fifth largest one, just after Indonesia.
Perhaps the news ignores them because their miseries are not due to Islam or “barbaric” Muslims.
And a final question: Are Dalits even Hindus to begin with, considering that they have no spiritual or legal existence in traditional Hinduism, at all?
This would be a legitimate question for the Hindus who criticize Islam for the concept of dhimmis, for instance.