Dalits have been excluded from the caste structure of India since long and the discrimination against dalits are also found in the Indian mythology as well as in history. Varna system created different class in the ancient Indian society where the dalits were marked as untouchables as they had been involved or systematically forced to engage at lower end jobs e.g. agricultural labor, disposing dead bodies, working with leather, cleaning toilets and sewage etc. in the society. Dalits are known as the depressed class in the society as they have failed to receive respect as dalit identity. After a century long struggle, dalits are still discriminated in the contemporary India. They are not happy with their religious identity as Hindu because of low caste, untouchable status, social, occupational and economic backwardness. Therefore, they fall in identity crisis and hanker after for religious identity. High level of discrimination and inequality within Hindu religion stress them to convert to other religion especially Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. The reason why they choose other religions is that these religions do not have any caste hierarchy and inequality at least theoretically. B. R. Ambedkar, who is known as the founder of dalits movement in India, had embraced Buddhism along with half-million other dalits in 1956 (Vedantam: 2002). The trend of conversion was fueled and encouraged by Ambedkar among the dalits to escape the caste system as well as to exert their anger against the beneficiaries of caste system. Recently Tamil Nadu and Gujrat provinces have enacted anti conversion law on the line of the existing Acts in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh. This law is criticized by the Christian missionaries, dalits and other religious institutions as a tool of provincial governments for curbing the conversion tendencies among dalits.
The main research question in this paper is why this anti conversion law was imposed. Simultaneously two other questions are derived from the question are: What are the intensions of government behind the law? And, why do dalits convert? Subsequently a third question is required to analyze, are not they still ignored in a rigid structure after being converted?
The objectives of the paper are to criticize intension of the governments and the criticism done against government in this connection, to analyze the discrimination practiced against dalits for centuries, to assess the struggle of dalits within a rigid structure.
Hierarchical caste system
Manusmriti is a Hindu doctrine that provided formal sanctions to social inequality in society based on a hierarchical caste system. Varna, derived from Manusmriti, has four layers of caste. These layers are,
In the Manusmriti, dalit is described as polluted. Ghose (2003) has explained the origin of the dalits exclusion, “The dalit is the “unborn,” with no physical link with the supreme being.….from the body of Brahma comes the four main categories of Hindu society, namely the four varnas (colors or castes): brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (warriors), vaishyas (businessmen), and shudras (servants). The priest is born from the mouth of the Creator, the warrior from the arm, the businessman from the stomach, and the servant from the foot. Untouchables are born from outside the body of the Creator, almost a different species from Brahma’s children.” In fact, dalit segregation is rooted in the Indian mythology from which the Hinduism was derived. They are not children of God; they are partitioned from caste Hindu through religious beliefs and practices. Hierarchical caste system is practiced over the centuries and thus has planted the seeds of discrimination against dalits.
Anti Conversion Law in Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu government has recently enacted the Anti Conversion Law that bans religious conversion “by force, allurement or fraudulent means”. According to the section 3 of the Anti Conversion Ordinance, “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.”[i] The ordinance was issued on October 5, 2002. Jail and monetary punishment are applied if anybody is accused under this law. This ordinance[ii] requires all conversions to be reported to a magistrate. The issue of dalits conversion had been annoying state and central governments of India for last couple of decades. Venugopal (2003) has supported the central government’s influences on state governments to enact such a law to curb the conversion rate as the Ministry of home affairs of government of India had advised the state governments to enact laws that prohibit change of religion on the line of the existing Acts in other states following the Meenakshipuram event in February 1981 when many Hindus converted into Muslim in Tamil Nadu.
Intention of Anti Conversion Law: Why the law was imposed?
To curb the mass conversion from Hindus to Christianity, Islam and Buddhism is the main intention for imposing the anti conversion law. A good evidence to prove this intention could be to refer Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s argument during the debate on the Bill of Anti Conversion.[iii] She has defended her good decision to pass the law by giving some examples of conversion that were took place in her state, which means if the law is there, no such free conversion process can take place that indicates the intension to prohibit individual’s freedom to choose his or her religion. Ordinance’s requirement for reporting to Magistrate for each conversion may have bureaucratic intention to create hassle, harassment and delay in the conversion process. Thus, the anti conversion law has two fold hassles for people who want to convert. One is reporting to a magistrate and the other is heinous interpretation of the words “force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means”. These words can be utilized sharply and brilliantly by the government administration to color white case into a black case that may lead accusing innocent into guilty. If it happens, the law can turn in to an evil law that could be manipulated by government to curb the conversion by shutting down the freedom of individual to choose religion.
Hindu leaders claim that the Christian missionaries are converting innocent and ignorant people by offering inducements such as free education, free medical facilities and employment opportunities.
Hindu leaders explain social services of Christian missionaries as inducement or bribe that attract dalits. Poverty stricken dalits are truly impressed by the chapel services and these good offers attract them to convert to Christianity. Therefore, Hindu leaders are happy as the new law is a way to resist these poor dalits to enjoy civilized facilities by conversion.
The law may encourage many vindictive groups to bring false charges against religious institutions and new believers that may escalate violence and riots between Hindus and other faiths. Even the promise for spiritual blessings and eternal life could be considered as the ground of accusation under this law. Anti conversion law reflects basically the interest of upper class Hindu fundamentalism that accuses low cast Hindus for converting to other faiths. In my opinion, unverified reports may increase the rate of administrative hassle against dalits and the term ‘forcible or induced conversion’ may transmit phobia among them about the conversion process.
Venugopal (2003) says, “In a predominantly Hindu Society, a large-scale conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam has a tendency to disturb the local custom and faith as well as indigenous institutions…”. As a retired justice and a member of the upper caste Hindu society, Venugopal criticizes large scale conversion process and claims it as disturbance that should be prohibited by law, and thus he indirectly approves that anti conversion law can stop conversion process. Therefore, there is no doubt about it that the state government of Tamil Nadu has enacted anti conversion law, which is highly appreciated by caste Hindus in India for curbing conversion rate among dalits.
Impact of the Law on dalits, Human Rights and religion
In response to the ordinance, Pope John Paul II has expressed concern, Christian leaders and churches rejected the concept of forcible or induced conversion. They claim that conversion is the exercise of free choice by an individual in fulfillment of his or her own spiritual needs, this is a basic Human Right, and is guaranteed in the Indian Constitution and by the United Nations. Such ambiguous terminology has been used to harass and intimidate Christians in the States of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh. Even Christian education and spiritual blessings and rewards have been treated as ‘allurement’ and divine judgment has been interpreted as ‘force’. Some Christian leaders fear that the chapel service in school, hospitals and children home may be considered as violating the new law.
The anti conversion ordinance is strongly criticized by leaders of different religious groups.[iv] Muslim and Buddhist institutions do not have chapel services like Christianity but they are accused of spiritual inducement by the fanatic Hindus. Hindu-Muslim religious conflict and riot is a well known phenomenon in India. Hindus preserve the beliefs that Islam and Christianity are the religion of invaders in the Indian subcontinent. Mughol Empire ruled by the Muslims and British Empire governed by the Christians might have raised such beliefs. Hindus have been encountering Muslim and Christians over the centuries and thus they have developed a sense of rivalry and intolerance among each other. Conversion of dalits into Muslim and Christianity is major assault on Hinduism. After the partition in 1947 Hindu-Muslim relation has reached at the pinnacle of rivalries especially among the fanatic Hindus and radical Muslims. Enacting such law may raise Hindu fundamentalism, which in turn may trigger angers and anguishes among oppressed.
A large number of Christian missions and institutions are based in Tamil Nadu. Christians have already built many Churches in Tamil Nadu and the process is continuing. Increasing demand of Churches was because of the increasing Christian community and most of them are converted from low caste Hindus. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bharatia Janata Party (BJP) have appreciated Chief Minister Jayalalithaa for her bold step to enact anti conversion law and eventually criticized leaders of other religious groups who have expressed their discomfort with the law. Dalits have become more desperate after their right to conversion has been outlawed. I think, dalits at post Ambedkar movement era are well organized and have strong network to survive for their rights. Even though the ordinance is passed, dalits still have arranged mass conversion program in front of police resistance and obstacles.
Escaping mistreatment: Why do dalits convert?
Over 200 million dalits have been subjected to discrimination. For the last 2,000 years dalits have continued to suffer humiliation and ill-treatment. Though the discrimination was initiated from the mythology of ancient India, it still persists in the modern India that is known as the world largest democracy with a progressive, secular and liberal constitution. Dalits are mostly landless labors who are often oppressed by the landlords and live segregated quarters in inhuman conditions. There are approximately more than hundreds of mistreatments that are committed against dalits.
Dalits are treated worse than buffaloes, cows and pigs that have access to the pond. Caste Hindus not only avoid dalits touch but also stay away from their shadow, pass up the wind blows across their body, keep away the water used by them. Dalits have been barred from entering into Hindu temple, other holy places, and from participating festivals. Dalits are symbol of pollutes in Hindu theology. After being excluded from the society they have habituated living in segregated quarters or residences separated from caste Hindus. Some time the local doctors do not treat them, grocery shops ostracize them and they do not have access to local restaurants and other public places. Bonded labors, sexual abuses and exploitation have become a regular phenomenon in the hand of upper caste. Due to lack of education, economic, social progress, and unwritten sanctions imposed by the upper caste, dalits adopted inhuman occupation e.g. scavenging, carrying night soil, leather work, beating drums, cleaning toilets, skinning, disposing dead animals, and digging graves etc. Dalit women have been recruiting as the ‘Devadasi’ by the ‘Purohits’ (priests) of Hindu temples for last 2000 years. The duty of ‘Devadasi’ is to entertain Purohits and other guests in the temple by dancing and singing. They are vulnerable to sexual abuses. Rape complaints made by dalit women are dismissed as false by the local police officer without investigation.
The discrimination against dalits existed and still exists in the modern India. Therefore, the dalits desperately convert to other religion because they believe in escaping exclusion by conversion.
Violation of human rights: examples of discrimination
Some examples can be analyzed to have a clear picture of violation of human rights against dalits by the caste system in India.
The Case of Ramvathi Chandra[v]
The case of Ramvathi Chandra exemplifies the types of abuse and discrimination faced by women in India. Ramvathi Chandra and her husband owned land that was coveted by her neighbors who belonged to an upper caste. In January 1999, Ramvathi was raped by five higher caste men. Amnesty believes the rape was a means of isolating her and her husband within the community because of the stigma attached to this crime in India. Ramvathi attempted to bring her attackers to justice, but police refused to file a report on her behalf or conduct an investigation of her allegations. Sometime later, both Ramvathi and her husband were severely beaten. He barely survived; she died.
Numerous cases of rape and kill of dlait women like Ramvathi are the evidences of discrimination against dalits in India. From this example it can be assumed that upper caste can violate the human rights without slightest hesitation because they are backed by corrupted police administration. The pathetic death of Ramvathi weakens the faith on justice and administration of the democratic secular India. Police do not register the case, and caste people dismiss witnesses, destroys evidences by accessing influence, bribe and power. Some time police also commit abuses against dalits. In the case of Ramvathi upper caste men are left unpunished even though she was raped, beaten and died at the end, which indicates the worse form of violation. It may give the impression from the case that Ramvathi does not have right to life because she born as dalit.
A Dalit woman in Madhya Pradesh, India, was raped on February 8 and set on fire by her landlord and one of his friends. They poured kerosene on her and set her ablaze when she threatened to speak up about the rape, according to rediff.com. The woman is hospitalized in critical condition with burns on 90 percent of her body.[vi]
This is another recent example of gross violation of human rights that is committed on February 8, 2004. The inhuman act committed against this woman shows the persistent evil within the caste system in India as well as existence of fanatic Hinduism within government that allows upper caste Hindu to commit violence.
Expectation from escaping
Choo-o, choo-o, na chee! O je chandalini’r jhi!
Noshto hobe je doi, she kotha jaano na ki?
(Don’t touch her, don’t touch her, ugh!
She’s the daughter of a Dalit woman!
Your yogurt will get spoiled, don’t you know?)
–Song from Rabindranath Tagore’s
Bengali dance drama Chandalika[vii]
Ghose (2003) has recited Tagore’s, a famous Bengali poet who got noble prize in literature in 1921, ‘Chandalika’ for showing desires of dalit woman to be respected, “In Chandalika, Prakriti, a young dalit woman, falls in love with a Buddhist monk, Ananda, who wins her heart by drinking water from her cup…. who encourages her to take to Buddhism to escape the cycle of degradation.” It is earlier mentioned that caste people do not touch water, food, and even shadow of dalits. Expectation of dalits from escaping their own religion is to get rid of degradation and inhuman treatment. Christian missionaries have chapel services that might be considered as the attracting factors for having a better life. A question may arise why dalits also convert to Muslim and Buddhist because these religions do not have chapel services. The answer is to get rid of century old caste system that has crashed their identity and respected as human being. A religious identity is very crucial for dalits in India. Being Hindu they do not feel proud as Hindu. Shah (2001) has explained the identity that dalits search for with some basic questions that may insist dalits to convert, “…who are WE?…What positions do we have in the society vis-à-vis other communities?….how are we related to others?… ”
Government of India has quota system in education, employment, in legislature and in parliament. When dalits convert, they usually fall out of the caste quota that is allocated for them. Either a religious identity and community is more important to them than government provided facilities or a negligible part of the dalit community is benefited by the quota system that does not fulfill dalits’ needs in general.
Very rigid structure: no where to escape
Dalits, in fact, trapped within a rigid structure of India society form which they can not escape, even after religious conversion. Dalits’ struggle against Bhaminis has encouraged them for converting to other faiths, which offers an identity and equal status. Vedantam (2002) has persuaded that dalis realized their similar kind of discrimination in other religion too, “…such a change neither improves their social status nor remedies their economic problems of unemployment and poverty… Sikh places of worship have separate quarters for dalit Sikhs. High-caste Muslims do not marry dalit Muslims. Dalit Christians can hardly hope to reach any high position within the church.” They may not face other form of assault like rape, abuse, and discriminations but still there is a gray line that alienates them. In the recent days dalits convert to Buddhism, they might have been realized the sense of equality in Buddhism as well as are encouraged by the idol Ambedkar who said, “…of all religions only Buddhism advocates equality of all human beings as a fundamental principle” (Vedantam: 2002).
Gandhi had taken initiatives to reconstruct Indian society, he named dalits as ‘Harijans’, which means ‘the children of God’ and he put lot of efforts to upgrade dalits living standards and quarters even though Gandhi was criticized by the Ambedkar. An argument can be raised from Prashad (1999) that a benevolent leader like Gandhi was not able to come out from the rigid structure, “when a dalit gave Gandhi some nuts, he fed them to his goat, saying that he would eat them later, in the goat’s milk. Most of Gandhi’s food, nuts and grains, came from Birla House…..” Either Gandhi’s efforts to break the wall of discrimination by the term ‘Harijan’ might have been a political hypocrisy or a wholehearted initiative but as an upper caste Hindu his rigidity with the caste society was widely criticized by dalit leaders.
Dalits have their umbrella organization National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), which is quite capable to negotiate with national, international and United Nations treaty bodies. NCDRH works closely with many dalit movements, activists, academics and organizations. NCDRH worked hard in the UN CERD 61 Session that was held in Geneva, Switzerland on 10th August 2002, where the decision was made by the committee to draft a General Recommendation of the caste based discrimination. However, dalits have continued fighting for rights with a goal to bring changes within the rigid structure.
Article 18 (1) of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ensures the freedom of religion and religious beliefs, “…..Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice…. ” Therefore the anti conversion law enacted in Tamil Nadu and Gujrat has gone against the interest of U.N. even though defenders of the law may argue strongly on the ground of words like ‘force’ and ‘allurement’ that sounds legally accurate and defendable but the intention behind the law is vicious and evil. In the presence of protests and criticism why government is in its full pace to implement anti conversion law, which could be a relative question. Firstly, BJP, VHP, Congress and leaders of other political parties and groups keep the concept of caste based discrimination away from racial discrimination to divert the argument of international community on the ground of racial discrimination because these parties’ ideology represent hierarchical Hinduism and Casteism. Secondly, Indian bureaucracy and Judicial body are mostly consists of caste Hindus. Therefore, atrocities against dalits occur in spite of constitutional guarantees, and administration harasses dalits under the power of anti conversion law. And this is a worse example of the victim of evil law that fulfils the desires of majority caste Hindus.
Behind Jayalalithaa’s Ordinance, Volume 19 – Issue 22, October 26 – November 08, 2002, India’s National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU, (URL: http://www.frontlineonnet.com/fl1922/stories/20021108002903300.htm). Site visited on March 09, 2004.
Dalit Raped and Set on Fire (02/18/04), (URL: http://www.dalit-awakening.org/docs/news/2004/dalit021804.html). Site visited on March 09, 2004.
Discrimination Against Women, (URL: http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/india/women.html). Site visited on January 16, 2004.
Ghose, Sagarika (Spring, 2003) ‘The dalit in India. (caste and social class )’, (URL: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m2267/1_70/102140949/p1/article.jhtml). Site visited on March 09, 2004
Lindner, John (Editor, Christian Aid Mission) ‘India State Enacts Anti-Conversion Law’,(URL: http://www.crosswalk.com/). Site visited on March 09, 2004.
Prashad, Vijay (1999) ‘Untouchable Freedom: A Critique of the Bourgeois-Landlord Indian State’, Chapter 6, Subaltern Studies X, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, p.175
Shah, Ghanshyam (2001) ‘Dalit Movement and the Search for Identity’, Chapter 9, Dalit Identity and Politics, New Delhi: sage, p. 195.
Vedantam, Vatsala (June 19, 2002) ‘Still untouchable: the politics of religious conversion’, Christian Century, (URL: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m1058/13_119/88581910/p1/article.jhtml). Sited visited on March 09, 2004.
Venugopal, Dr Justice P. (Retd) (May 11, 2003) ‘Why Anti-Conversion Law needed’, Organiser, (URL: http://www.organiser.org/11May2003/p14.htm). Site visited March 09, 2004.
[i] Contravention can attract a jail term up to three years and a fine of Rs. 50,000. If the convert is “a minor, a woman or a person belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe,” the jail term can be for five years and the fine Rs.1 lakh. For details see, , visited on March 09, 2004.
[ii] The ordinance follows the pattern of those passed by the Madhya Pradesh state government in 1968, and the Arunachal Pradesh state government in 1978. Orissa enacted the “Orissa Freedom of Religion Act” in 1968, which was overturned by a higher court, and then restored by India’s Supreme Court in 1973. For detail see, , accessed on March 09, 2004.
[iii] Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said existing laws were not adequate to curb conversions. There had been reports of such conversions from Virdunagar, Ramanathapuram and Theni districts, she said. “More recently, there were similar reports from Kancheepuram district,” she said. For detail see, rediff.com: Anti-conversion bill passed by Tamil Nadu assembly , accessed on March 09, 2004.
[iv] The Dalit Panthers of India leader, R. Tirumavalavan, termed the law “anti-Dalit”, as it would force Dalits to accept untouchability crimes without seeking refuge in other religions. Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam president, M.H.Jawaharullah has termed the law as a black law. Tamil Nadu Bishop Council president and Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore, Arul Das James, said Christians were “greatly shocked, distressed and disappointed” at the “draconian” ordinance. For detail see, , visited on March 09, 2004.
[v] The case of Ramvathi Chandra is quoted here from ‘amnestyusa’ web site, for detail see Discrimination Against Women, , site visited on January 16, 2004.
[vi] The news ‘Dalit Raped and Set on Fire (02/18/04)’ is quoted from , site visited on March 09, 2004.
[vii] Quoted from Sagarika Ghose’s ‘The dalit in India.(caste and social class )’ for detail see(URL: http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m2267/1_70/102140949/p1/article.jhtml). Site visited on March 09, 2004.