Whats worse — to be a Muslim in India or a Dalit wanting azadi from caste?

What's worse — to be a Muslim in India or a Dalit wanting azadi from caste?

When he was 12, Kittan often fantasised sitting outside the tea stall at his village square after a hard day’s work, holding a glass tumbler full of piping hot tea and a cigarette hanging from his lips. He had just started working — assisting his father, a manual scavenger. But it didn’t take long for Kittan’s fantasy to come crashing down. “I had gone to the tea stall and asked for...

When he was 12, Kittan often fantasised sitting outside the tea stall at his village square after a hard day’s work, holding a glass tumbler full of piping hot tea and a cigarette hanging from his lips. He had just started working — assisting his father, a manual scavenger. But it didn’t take long for Kittan’s fantasy to come crashing down.

“I had gone to the tea stall and asked for a cup of tea. Although I didn’t have the money to buy a cigarette, I quickly picked up a cigarette butt lying on the ground and pretended to smoke. The tea stall owner had lined up three glasses — two glass tumblers and a paper cup. As I reached out for the glass tumbler, the next thing I remember was a tight slap landing on my face,” recalls Kittan.

Now in his 20s, Kittan has swigged down many a cup of tea and humiliation since then because of his caste by the members of caste Hindus ruling the everyday norms in his village.

Such childhood memories, Kittan says, are part of almost every Dalit’s life. “You must have heard of such stories told many times. Yet each time it happened to me over the years, the pain felt the same, if not more.”

“Caste Hindus have been deciding for decades what a Dalit like me can and can’t do, or eat or drink from, or with whom. They even decide which roads we can walk on or not — with our heads lowered to the ground or held high,” laments Kittan. They have built, he adds, both visible and invisible walls around us.

The high walls

It was one such very visible 20-foot wall — called the ‘caste wall’ by news media —  built five years ago to keep the Dalits separated from their ‘upper’ caste neighbours at Nadur village in Coimbatore’s Mettupalayam taluk, not very far from where Kittan lives, that had collapsed on December 5. The wall collapse killed 17 Dalits. Following the incident, nearly 3,000 Dalits from Tamil Nadu decided to convert to Islam, alleging continued caste discrimination and torture.

The announcement by Tamil Puligal Katchi, a Dalit outfit, on mass conversion of Dalits to Islam on January 5 had created a major flutter in the state.

This was not the first time the Dalit community in Tamil Nadu had expressed their desire to convert to Islam — which they feel was the only way to break free of the shackles of deep-seated caste apartheid.

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Back in 1981, tired of being subjected to everyday discrimination and violence, nearly 800 Dalits converted to Islam in Meenakshipuram — or Rahmat Nagar as the converts call it now — in Tirunelveli district.

Much to the chagrin of right-wing outfits, the embracing of Islam by Dalits, created an upheaval both in and outside the state. The BJP — which was officially founded just a year before — had sent a huge delegation led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the village on a ‘fact-finding’ mission.

As the party made it to the Lok Sabha in 1984 with two seats, Rahmat Nagar went on to become a rallying point for its ‘Hindu Khatre Mei Hai’ (Hindus are in danger) project.

Nearly 40 years later, the BJP continues with its drum beat that ‘Hindus are in danger’ — in a country where Hindus make up 79.8 per cent of the total population — even as Dalits face increasing discrimination and caste violence by fellow Hindus who consider themselves superior.

“Our situation hasn’t changed over the years. We are still violated by the caste Hindus and not allowed inside their houses in the village,” says a woman who identifies herself as wife of Rangaraj, a member of the Tamil Puligal Katchi in Annur, Coimbatore district.

Despite Tamil Puligal Katchi’s announcement on mass conversion of Dalits to Islam, both Rangaraj’s wife and Kittan are skeptical if a new religion will help them come out of old (caste) stigma and live a liberated life.

‘What would change?’

“Even if we embrace Islam and stop going to temples, will anyone be able to change our identity in this village? We will still be identified as the ‘Dalits who converted to Islam’,” she adds.

It is not just Rangaraj’s wife, but more and more Dalits in the area — Annur, Thudiyalur and Mettupalayam region, where a section of Dalits embraced Islam a few years ago and some more are expected to do so now — are asking the same question.

S Chinnaraj, a resident of Nehru Nagar in Thudiyalur, where about 10 families have embraced Islam in the last seven years, feels that they can never get rid of the ‘Dalit tag’ till the time they continue to live in the same place.

Also read | Buried tales of Dalit discrimination in Tamil Nadu village

However, Chinnaraj’s neighbour  VJ Ashik, who converted to Islam around 16 years ago, disagrees.

“When I was a Dalit, I was not allowed to walk on the ‘caste Hindus’ street’. But today, I own a garment shop in a shopping complex owned by the same caste Hindus who once discriminated against me. And I’m still living in the same village.”

Ashik, who used to go by the name of Venkatachalam when he was a Hindu, says: “When I was a Dalit and had studied till Class 10, when I approached an office nearby for a job, but I was offered a cleaner’s job which involved cleaning the toilet. But caste Hindus with the same qualification were given dignified jobs.”

“It was not the first time I was facing discrimination on caste lines, but I wanted it to be the last,” Ashik adds.

M Siddique, a former Dalit from Annur, says after converting, they [Muslims] did not treat him like an ‘untouchable’. “They also helped me get a decent job,” says Siddique, who used to work as a sanitary worker in his village before converting to Islam. Now, he works as a salesman at a shopping complex in the city.

Caste then, religion now

However, not everyone feels the way Ashik and Siddique do. Abdul Akbar alias Gowtham Mani, who embraced Islam around seven years ago, says now that he doesn’t have to face caste-based intolerance, he is being targeted for his religion.

“Every day, we go to say our prayers in one of our Muslim brother’s house. Once a week, we go to the mosque, which is about 2 km from the village. But since the number of converts has increased, we thought of constructing a mosque nearby. But caste Hindus were not willing to give an inch of their land for a mosque.”

Earlier, the caste was the barrier, now it is religion, Akbar says, adding that he now wants to move out of his village and settle in a Muslim-dominated town.

Another resident Vikram joins the conversation. “Although there have been cases where people who have converted have managed to improve the quality of life, they are still not welcomed by the caste Hindus.”

In 2016, Vikram goes on explain, when C Sasikumar, a Hindu Munnani functionary, was killed near Thudiyalur, Muslim residents in the locality were the first victims of stone-pelting. Stones were pelted on their houses and mosques in and around the locality. Some people even had to flee the district for a while to save themselves from the rioters.

“So, we also fear that the situation may worsen — from discrimination to hate — at the hands of caste Hindus after conversion,” Vikram adds.

States with anti-conversion law that band forcible conversion

For the Dalit women in the region, there are other worries.

“My daughter is in Class 10. In a few years’ time, I will have to send her to college. If she manages to get decent marks, she can get a seat in a good government college under the SC category. But, if we embrace Islam, there’s no guarantee that I will be able to send her to college. I don’t have enough money, we survive on a meagre income,” a woman in Thudiyalur tells The Federal on condition of anonymity.

Most Dalits in Nadur village — which is considered the trigger point for the mass conversion announcement — feel that there is absolutely no reason for them to convert to Islam.

“It took over several generations to enter the Mariyamman temple in our village. Now, when my daughter’s generation has got a chance to enter the temple, why would we lose that right and embrace Islam,” asks D Santhi, a resident of the village.

Santhi’s feelings were echoed in the turnout for conversion on January 5. Incidentally, the claim by the Tamil Puligal Katchi that as many as 3,000 Dalits would embrace Islam in phases from January 5 seems to have fallen flat.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

When The Federal spoke to a number of people who had been approached by the Tamil Puligal Katchi, it found that most of them were skeptical about embracing a new religion. “That too Islam? Muslims are already treated with suspicion and pushed into a corner by the majority in this country. It will be like jumping from one well into another,” says a young man from Nadur village who doesn’t wish to be identified.

Just a few days after the wall collapse incident, Coimbatore region, like the entire country, witnessed a slew of protests demanding unconditional withdrawal of the Citizenship Amendment Act.

So, many were not surprised when only a handful of people turned out for the conversion event on January 5.

Some in the village also alleged veiled threats by members of the Hindu Munnani — a frontal organisation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Tamil Nadu — who visited the Nadur villagers, warning them against conversion to Islam. Incidentally, the Hindu Munnani was formed against the backdrop of the Meenakshipuram ‘mass conversion’ incident.

“Rajukumar of Hindu Munnani visited the village and threatened people asking them not to convert. I heard he also explained them the ‘consequences of embracing Islam’,” says U Palanisami, a local CPI leader in Nadur village.

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However, Tamil Puligal Katchi general secretary M Ilavenil is confident that more people will come forward. “It is happening in phases and we wanted to ensure that the conversion happens with proper documentation. We will soon make it public once at least 100 people embrace Islam,” says Ilavenil.

Despite the poor response, Ilavenil believes that leaving Hinduism alone will give them freedom from caste oppression.

That Ilavenil, in all probability, could be wrong was evident in what a senior Dalit activist working in the region has to say.

The activist — who helped rehabilitate the Dalits (who converted to Islam) assaulted in  Puliyankudi village in Tirunelveli district in early 1980s — says that the mass conversion can only challenge the ‘Hindu system’. Such conversions have never saved the people from caste atrocities.

“When a few hundred people in Puliyankudi were assaulted by the caste Hindus, initially it was presumed to be a communal riot. But the people said they were abused with casteist slurs while being beaten up.”

Even wilful conversions, he says, would only send out a political message. “It would not help them break free of the caste identity,” the leader says.

But founder of Dalit Camera, B Ravichandran, says a Dalit feeling that he is unequal to caste Hindus is ingrained and will remain so until he leaves the Hindu fold.

Ravichandran, who himself has announced to embrace Islam shortly, adds: “Despite having a PhD, I could not secure a job, only because I am a Dalit. So, it doesn’t matter even if I don’t get a job because of embracing Islam. At least I can live a life of dignity.”

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