Friday, August 28, 2015

The Dalits of Bhagana: They asked for justice and got Islam instead

For about four months they faced social and economic boycott, and emotional suffering. They were not allowed to collect water from the public tap or use the common land for defecation. The only doctor (who was not a Dalit) had stopped treating them. They were not allowed to use the village’s land to bury their dead cattle or even dispose of their cattle dung. It was unthinkable that their brides or grooms could ride on horseback on their weddings. When they could not bear this misery any longer, on 21 May 2012, seventy Dalit families of Bhagana thought it best to leave the village with their livestock.
In the hope of getting justice, they assembled near the mini-secretariat in the district headquarters of Hisar and started a dharna (sit-in demonstration/protest). The Dalits of Bhagana appealed to everyone for justice: right from the sarpanch of their village panchayat to the President of India. They went to the tehsildar, took up the matter with the sub-divisional magistrate and complained to the police superintendent and the district collector. They met the then and present chief ministers several times. They approached several commissions, institutions and organizations, and wrote to the bigwigs in all the political parties in Delhi. From nowhere was there any response which might have given them some hope. They moved from Hisar to Jantar Mantar in Delhi to make their protest more forceful. Since 16 April 2014 they have been sitting in Delhi and telling the country about their plight but, in this wilderness of the state and society, there is nobody to hear them. They kept fighting for their rights all the time and at all levels. They first left their houses, then their village, and then the district and the state. Finally, after they started giving up even their religion things stirred a bit. But even now there is no talk of solving their problem. The issues being deliberated seem to be changing and nobody wants to know what circumstances forced the Dalits of Bhagana to take such a drastic step.
Bhagana is a traditional village only 17 kilometres from the district headquarters of Hisar in Haryana. The population here comprises 59% Jats, 8% general category (Brahmins, Baniyas, Punjabis), 9% other backward castes (Chambis, Telis, Kumhars, Lohars and Goswamis) and 24% Dalits (Chamars, Katiks, Domas, Valmikis and Baigs). In the year 2000 the Ambedkar Welfare Committee was formed here and Dalit organizations began to get founded. They started seeing the injustice being done to them in the village and began to come together in an effort to get their constitutional rights. As a result, the conservative forces in the village started getting uncomfortable. The Dalits asked for the title deeds of their residential properties and demanded that their share of the common land be allocated. The real fight started in 2012 when the Dalits began demanding that Chamar Chowk, which was in the village, be renamed as Ambedkar Chowk and that a statue of Ambedkar be installed there. This chowk was situated near the area where the Dalit population stayed and the houses of many Dalit families opened onto it. But the strongmen of the village could not bear the thought of Dalits acquiring the chowk. Not only this, they also could not accept the registration and allotment of the plots given to Dalits as residential land under the Mahatma Gandhi Basti Vikas Yojana. They did not like the comings and goings of Dalits on the common land. The sum and substance of the matter is that Bhagana had become a living hell for self-respecting Dalits. In such a situation, they did not have any option but to leave the village and raise their voice for justice.
And so this fight went on. In the past three years the fight has got very intense and strong: first outside the mini-secretariat in Hisar and in the end when the fight continued at Jantar Mantar. Yet despite the intensity of their struggle since 2014 they have not been able to get justice. To add to this, four minor girls from Bhagana were kidnapped and gang-raped and the response of the police was not satisfactory. As a result the anger kept increasing. The previous government in Haryana had made promises to the protesting Dalits but they lost power. The victims of Bhagana had even met Chief Minister Khattar of the BJP government four times but no action was taken. With the protest going on for very long, even the supporters from Dalit organizations who were with them left. When there was nobody left to back them, the Dalits of Bhagana had to do something.
So they decided to send pamphlets to everybody announcing a rally during the Parliament session. This rally was to take place on 8 August 2015 and during this time 100 families stated that they would convert to Islam, which has resulted in the ongoing uproar in the country. As a result, in Bhagana, a maha-panchayat of all castes took place in which the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal also participated. They openly decided that those converting should return to the Hindu fold and that otherwise they would not be allowed to return to the village. The VHP’s international general secretary, Surendra Jain, said this was complete blackmail and said it could not be accepted under any circumstances. The Hindu Mahasabha’s Dharmpal Siwach pledged that Bhagana’s Dalits will be brought back to Hinduism at all costs. While on the one hand, in the guise of counselling the Dalits who converted and returned home, the Hindutva leaders attempted to threaten them, on the other hand the right-wing governments at the centre and in the state started harassing them. Soon after the conversion, on Saturday night the Haryana police forcefully removed the Dalit protestors, who had been on a demonstration outside the Hisar mini-secretariat for the past three years, and broke their tent. In Delhi the police tried to drive them out of Jantar Mantar on the night of 10 August 2015 by attacking the protestors and lathi-charged them when they resisted.
The situation now is such that those who have converted are shunned in the village, although it is true that they had been facing a social boycott from the villagers even earlier. They have been made to flee from Hisar and have been forced out of Jantar Mantar as well. In such a situation it would be natural to ask what the future of this long movement of Bhagana is. Will it continue or will it end here? I posed this question to Abdul Razzak Ambedkar, who has been closely associated with this movement and is the chief organizer of the conversions, and he said, “The fight against the oppressors will continue. The sit-in at Jantar Mantar is on and will continue. As far as the khap panchayat’s decision is concerned, we are not afraid. We will go to Bhagana soon. It is our democratic right.” He added, “We knew that our troubles would increase after the conversion because communal organizations are making this a Hindu-Muslim issue. But those Dalits who have converted to Islam will stay in Islam and continue their fight for justice.” In the cruel lathi-charge by the police on the night of 9 August 2015 even Razzak was seriously hurt but his resolve is steadfast. He says, “The Dalits who have converted know that their scheduled caste status does not remain but they hope that the Muslim community will come forward to help them.”
Despite the attacks from all corners, the resolve of the Dalits who have converted has not weakened. Newly converted Satish Kajala, who is now Abdul Kalam Ambedkar, says, “Come what may, we will now stay Muslims. If our ancestors had taken the step we have taken today, then we would not have had to see this day.” Virendra Singh Bagoria, who lives in Bhagana and belongs to a backward caste, says, “We have fully adopted Islam. Now no fear, pressure or temptation can make us Hindus again.” Other Dalits and most backward who have adopted Islam also seem to be strongly in favor of sticking by their decision to convert for now. The efforts of the BJP, Sangh, VHP, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Mahasabha are now concentrated on bringing those who have converted back into the Hindu fold. But the victimized Dalits of Bhagana have made their message very clear: if Hindus do not care about Dalits, then the Dalits too do not care about Hinduism. At a time when a right-wing Hindu ruler has power at the centre in Delhi, if, right below his nose, persecuted Dalits can openly challenge, distribute pamphlets and declare that they have converted to Islam, then it can become an obstacle to the creation of a Hindu nation by 2020. The Dalits of Bhagana took this decision after a lot of thought. When I had been to their sit-in a month back, I had felt that they were leaning towards conversion and that they might take up Islam.
In a democratic country any person can take up or leave any religion. This is their personal choice and there is nothing illegal about it. This is why I have no problem with the decision of the Dalits in Bhagana to take up Islam. I respect their decision. However, my personal opinion is that conversion is not the solution to any problem and that conversion itself is a problem. In organized religion appearances, hypocrisy and politics of the worst kind decide who the privileged classes are. Caste and casteism can be found in all the religions in India. Islam is also not untouched by this. As Dalit intellectual S.R. Darapuri has said, “Conversion is not the solution to Dalits’ problems. Dalits must take the path of revolution. If one must convert, then it is best to convert to Buddhism, in which there is no difference between the principles and the practice. In India, there is a difference between the principle and practice in Islam, Christianity and Sikhism.”
This is really a question to ponder over; will sacrificing one’s religion and taking up another make one free of the effects of the hatred of casteism or will it make one the victim of religious animosity as well? As has been happening with the converted Dalits of Bhagana, as soon as they converted the behaviour of the state and the community became very cruel. One will also have to consider the question if Muslims themselves feel safe today. The way the attacks of the majority are increasing on them, like the examples of Gujarat, Muzzafarnagar and Atali show, even if the Dalits hold on to the Muslims, the likelihood of their oppression ending looks bleak.The final matter is now whether the faith of Dalits of Bhagana in Babasaheb’s Constitution will be as strong or if they will look for the solutions to their problems in the Koran, sharia and their Muslim brethren? Will the causes and methods of the fight change? Will the Dalit Muslims of Bhagana still want to install a statue of Ambedkar in Chamar Chowk and fight or will this now be considered as a form of idol worship? Another question is if Indian Muslims will give Bhagana’s new Muslims an equal status or if they will have to stay backward there also and continue their battle for equality? If it is so, they will be getting into a bigger problem. I will always hope that the Dalits of Bhagana get justice but they have got Islam instead of justice, which is their choice. I stand by their constitutional right to change their religion. It is for the Indian state to ensure that nobody should be able to force them and, whatever be their choice, that they be able to follow their faith. But I still do not think that the solution to Dalit problems is conversion. Today Dalits do not need to leave one religion and adopt another. Instead of adopting any religion, they should reject all religions. Only then is freedom possible. Possibly all religions need Dalits but I believe that Dalits do not need any religion. A democracy without religion is definitely needed to lead a life of liberty, equality and fraternity.
- Bhanwar Meghwanshi
(The author works as an independent journalist covering the issues of human rights in Rajasthan)

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