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Bhagana’s Dalits: From struggle for justice to conversion to Islam
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Bhagana’s Dalits: From struggle for justice to conversion to Islam

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Bhanwar Meghwanshi

For nearly four months they were subjected to social boycott, economic blockade and mental torture. They were not allowed to fill water from public taps, they couldn’t use the common space for defecation in the village, the only non-Dalit doctor had stopped their treatment, and they could not use the village land even for animal droppings or to bury the dead animals. That their bride or groom could sit on a horse was out of question. 

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When life became so suffocating even to breathe the air, the 70 Dalit families of Bhagana resorted to leaving the village on 21st May, 2012 along with their animals. Expecting justice they came to the mini secretariat near the district headquarters, Hisar and started protest demonstrations. Bhagana Dalits appealed everywhere from the Sarpanch of the Village Panchayat to the President of India, they went to the Tehsildar, made the sub divisional officer aware of their suffering, submitted applications to the district police superintendent and the district collector, met several times with the previous and present CM, knocked the doors of various commissions, institutions and organizations, but to no avail.

In order to take their struggle further, they left Hisar and camped at Jantar Mantar, Delhi since April 16, 2014 and tried to narrate their painful story to the entire country, but in this cacophony of politics and society the voice of Bhagana Dalits was never heard. They fought each day, at each level: first they left their homes, then their village, then their district and state and eventually exhausted with all that, they left their religion too, something which caused a little commotion. But still nobody is talking about solving their problem. Now the subject of discussion has changed and nobody wants to know what circumstances forced the Bhagana Dalits to take such a huge step?

Bhagana is a traditional village located only 17 km. from the district headquarter in Hisar, Haryana. Residents of this village constitute 59% Jats, 8% general upper castes {Brahmin, Bania, Punjabi}, 9% Other Backward Castes {Chimbi, Teli, Kumhar, Lohar and Goswami} and 24% Dalits {Chamar, Khatik, Doma, Valmiki and Baiga}. When the Ambedkar Welfare committee was constituted here in the year 2000, Dalits began to organize themselves. They could clearly see the injustices meted out to them in the village, and they began uniting to demand their civil rights, which made the status-quoist forces uneasy. Dalits demanded the lease of residential land and also put up a demand to ensure their participation in the village common ground (Shamlati).

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The struggle actually began in the year 2012, when Dalits initiated the demand to rename the Chamar Chowk in the village as Ambedkar Chowk and to install an Ambedkar statue there. Actually, this chowk is located where the Dalit families reside; many Dalit houses open into this chowk. But it was not palatable to the village elites/musclemen, that Dalits occupy this chowk. Not only this, even the registration and distribution of plots under the Mahatma Gandhi Basti Vikas Yojana (to provide residential plots to the Dalits), was not acceptable to them. They couldn’t even tolerate the movement of Dalits on the village common grounds (Shamlati). To sum up, Bhagana became hell for self-respecting Dalits. In such a situation Dalits had no choice but to leave the village and raise their voice for demanding justice.

And thus, the struggle went on. In the past three years, this war became more dense and strong. First outside the mini secretariat in Hisar and finally at Jantar Mantar- this struggle continued. Fighting since 2014, making Jantar Mantar as their base, these Dalits couldn’t get any justice. On top of it an additional case of kidnapping and gang rape of four Dalit minor girls also happened during this time. In this case also, the role played by the police wasn’t satisfactory, which further increased their resentment.

The previous government of Haryana made many promises of ensuring justice to the struggling Dalits, but they were voted out of power. The suffering Bhagana Dalits even met with Mr.Khattar, the current Chief Minister of the BJP government, on four occasions but even then nothing happened. Due to the long struggle, the leaders of Dalit organizations also turned away. When no one was left, they had to take some action; so a pamphlet making a clarion call for a rally during the session of the Parliament was sent to all. This rally was organized on August 8, 2015 and about 100 families declared to embrace Islam by reading Kalma and Namaz at Jantar Mantar, causing a nationwide stir.

In response to this an all-caste (sarvajati) Mahapanchayat took place in the village, in which the leaders of Hindu Mahasabha, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal were also present. They openly declared their decision: “Those who have converted should return after reconversion to Hinduism, otherwise we won’t let them enter the village.” The International General Secretary of the VHP, Dr Surendra Jain said, “This conversion is complete blackmailing, it will not be tolerated under any circumstances.” Dharam Siwach, of the HMS has taken a resolve: “We will make the Bhagana Dalits return to the Hindu religion at any cost.” The hindutva leaders under the guise of explaining have tried to bully the converted Dalits who have returned to the village. Meanwhile, the hindutva governments both at the national as well as state level have started unleashing the tyranny of power. Soon after this conversion, on Friday night, the police forcibly removed Dalits sitting in protest demonstration for the past three years outside the mini secretariat, Hisar and have torn their tents.

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Now the situation is such that those who have embraced Islam are being boycotted in the village, although it is also true that the villagers even before that boycotted them socially. They were chased away from Hisar and have been uprooted from Jantar Mantar too. An obvious question that arises in these circumstances would be: what is after all the future of this long protracted struggle by the Dalits of Bhagana? Will it go further or just end here? I asked this question to Abdul Razzak Ambedkar, someone who is associated very closely with the struggle and was the main organizer of the conversion programme. He says, “This struggle against the oppressors will continue. The protest at Jantar Mantar is on and it will continue. As regards the question of the Khap Panchayat in the village, we aren’t scared of them. We will soon go to Bhagana. This is our democratic right.” He adds, “We knew that after this conversion to Islam our problems might increase because the communal forces are making this into a Hindu-Muslim issue. But those Dalits who have embraced Islam, they will continue this fight for justice from within the fold of Islam.”

During the brutal attack by the police on August 9, Razzak was also severely injured. But he is undeterred. He says, “The Dalits who have converted know that their SC status will not apply anymore, but they also hope that their Muslim brothers will come forward to support them.”

The morale of the converted Dalits is still intact despite the attacks from all sides. The newly converted Satish Kajla, who is now Abdul Kalam Ambedkar, says, “We will now be Muslims, no matter what. Had our ancestors taken the step we took today, we would not have had to see this day.” Similarly, the backward caste resident from Bhagana Virendra Singh Bagoria, who has also newly converted, had this to say: “We have fully embraced Islam and will now never become Hindus out of any sort of fear, pressure or incitement.”

At a time when a right wing ruler is occupying the throne at Delhi, such a bold statement of converting to Islam under his nose, done with an openly announced challenge by the oppressed Dalits, could put some hurdles to the vision of making India a Hindu country by 2020 as stated by VHP. The Bhagana Dalits have taken this decision after much thought. When I went to their protest a month ago, I did sense that they were contemplating a religious conversion and it seemed most likely that they would embrace Islam. 

In a democratic country, any citizen can accept or reject any religion, that is his or her personal desire and there is nothing against the law in this. That is why I have no objection to the conversion to Islam by the Bhagana Dalits. I respect their decision, however my personal opinion is that conversion cannot be a solution to any problem for religion is a problem itself. The pomp and show of organized religion and the disgusting politics religion spews has always managed to maintain the power of religion. All religions found in India have caste and hence caste discrimination, more or less, Islam is not untouched by this either. As articulated by the Dalit thinker S.R. Darapuri, “Conversion is not a solution to the oppression of Dalits. Dalits should choose the way of the struggle. And if they do want to convert, then they should convert to Buddhism which is not different in its ideals and practice, whereas this difference is found in Indian Islam, Christianity and Sikhism.” This is indeed a thought provoking question that can one simply get free from caste-based discrimination by rejecting Hinduism and accepting another religion or does one then become a target for religious intolerance too?

This can be seen in the case of the converted Dalits of Bhagana. The moment they converted the behaviour of both the state and the society became extremely cruel. Then one would also have to consider: are the Muslims themselves feeling safe today, when the majoritarian attacks on them are on the rise- Gujarat, Muzzaffarnagar, Atali etc., are evidence of that? In such a scenario, that Dalits embracing Islam would face any less oppression seems very unlikely.

Lastly, the moot question is, will the Bhagana Dalits still have faith in Babasaheb’s Constitution or will they try and look for the solutions to their misery in the Quran or Sharia or among their Muslim brothers? Will the issues and methods of struggle change? Will the Dalit Muslims still fight to install Ambedkar’s statue at their village’s Chamar Chowk or will it now be a matter of idolatry? Another pertinent question is: will the Muslims of India give them an equal status or will they have to sit with Pasmanda Musims and continue the battle for equality? If that is the case then it is akin to jumping from the frying pan into the fire. That the Bhagana Dalits get justice has been my constant hope, but they found Islam. That is their own choice and decision; we will stand by their constitutional right to convert. No force should be able to pressurize them and whatever they did out of their own free will, is something that is now the state’s responsibility to respect and defend. But I still do not find the solutions to the problems of Dalits in conversion.

Today, Dalits do not have to leave one religion for another. Instead of embracing any one religion, they must reject all religions; therein lies liberation. Obviously, all religions need Dalits, but I believe that no Dalit needs religion. What is needed is a religion-free democracy, where the right to live with equality, freedom and brotherhood is ensured.

(Translated by Saharsh Arya and Akshay Pathak)

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Bhanwar Meghwanshi is an activist based in Rajasthan.

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