Ambedkar declared in 1935, “I won’t die a Hindu.” He didn’t. But his mission to prevail upon his fellow Dalits to move over to Buddhism was a non-starter.
Only in Maharashtra, his home state, the Buddhists are about 5.82% of the population and the third largest community. Nationwide, they constitute hardly 0.7% of the population.
After his death, Ambedkar became a much greater icon, with parties vying to court the Dalits, at least closer to elections. The Dalit organizations have gained clout too, and some of them do preach conversion to Buddhism, but to no real effect.
In fact, in Maharashtra, the Mahar sect is seen as having exchanged one label for another. They are now taken to be ‘untouchable Buddhist’, in the words of a commentator.
Whatever their voting power might be, whatever the reservation benefits, there is no escape from stigma anywhere in the country.
So, if Buddhism didn’t do the trick, how about Islam?
Ambedkar himself rejected the option for a variety of reasons, particularly because of the doctrinaire approach of Muslims to most issues.
But then Islam’s promise of egalitarianism is very real. Despite the widely reported caste differences among them, or the persecution of the Ahmadias or the Shia-Sunni schism, there is a measure of enviable equality within the community. Still there is no movement towards that religion except in spasms here and there.
Periyar EVR, the founder of the Dravidian movement, had advocated conversion to Islam as a way out for the Dalits, knowing fully well that his own OBC following would not be too excited about the liberation of the untouchables from bondage.
Recently, Tamil Nadu was agog after reports that the Dalits, denied the right to hold a temple festival in Pazhangkallimedu, a village near Nagapattinam on the eastern coast, could embrace Islam.
Subsequently even the Muslim organizations, originally in the thick of it, have piped down and are claiming that they are not keen to convert anyone. It is up to them to decide, they say. There is virtually no movement on that front among the Dalits, even while the deadlock over the temple issue persists.
It is known that it was Tauheed Jamaat, perhaps the most radical Islamic outfit in Tamil Nadu, which rushed its leaders there. But it is singing a different tune now, saying that they had gone there only to impress upon the aggrieved Dalits not to be in a hurry and that they could convert only if they were fully convinced.
Islamic organizations remember what happened in the wake of Meenakshipuram in Tirunelveli district back in 1981. A few hundred Pallar families had then converted, hitting the headlines and sending everyone in the state into a tizzy.
Hindu organizations rushed to plead with the yet to be converted, to not follow suit. None other than the Opposition leader AB Vajpayee came down to check on what was happening. The Dalit segment of Pallars were then protesting the arrogance of the Thevars, a dominant OBC in the region.
For all the wrenching and hand-wringing by the Hindu outfits, conversion protests continued untrammeled. Dalit communities with unaddressed grievances came out with threats to walk over to Islam, giving the state many a sleepless night. There was some temporary patchwork to appease, but the then MGR government was hugely embarrassed. More so when allegations of Gulf money were raised. Then began a crackdown, and a couple were even detained under the National Security Act. The wave tapered off in due course.
For a while now, the Tamil Nadu Dalits have played the Islam card. According to reports, it was some local leaders of the Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), a prominent Dalit political party, who had managed to include the threat of conversion in the petition presented to the district collector, whereas the community at large was not contemplating any such move.
The Tauheed Jamaat had done its bit and even circulated some pictures on Whatsapp of the interaction, and then it was all over the media.
But Tauheed thought better of it, apparently reminded of MGR’s response. After all, his disciple makes no bones of her ‘piety’ and actively takes part in all kinds of rituals. Not to forget she would like to be seen close to Narendra Modi. All that apart, the Tauheed itself is politically close to her. In the circumstances they didn’t want to invite trouble for themselves and quickly withdrew from the scene.
In the Nagapattinam village the upper caste locked in the struggle are a Pillaimar sect – technically not the better known Saiva Pillai sect, reputed for their Saiva Siddhanta scholarship and hostility to Brahmins as well. This sect is more properly called Sozhiya Vellalars, a farming community, which seldom gets into any controversies.
And the Dalits in the Thanjavur region – in which Nagapattinam falls – are more assertive and less ill-treated thanks to the yeoman work of the communists in the 40s and 50s. But as the movement failed to sustain its momentum, the Dalits also had to suffer exclusion, though still better off than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.
Against such a backdrop, being refused the right to have a festival day for themselves to celebrate the Kali deity, by the Sozhiya Vellalars at that, is a disturbing sign of the times.
While the local VCK functionaries might have been behind the conversion threat, the party itself is against it. Most Dalit parties pay lip service to conversion – to Buddhism, that is – as an option, by way of demonstrating their loyalty to Ambedkar, but they actually discourage the idea in their own self-interest – only so long as the SC tag is there, they are assured of a vote-bank, so why would they lose it?
Conversion or no, why shouldn’t they ask their followers to boycott the gods that condemn them to a life of indignity? “Well that’s a tough task…ingrained in the minds of our folks for centuries….” Easier is posturing and making money in the process.
Even otherwise, conversion to a totally different way of life is difficult for many. For all the noise made about Meenakshipuram, there are only 200-odd Muslim families. Those this writer met a couple of years ago were happy with their move and said they had gained a measure of dignity.
“Nobody calls me by name, Thevar youngsters don’t use ‘daa’ (pejorative Tamil singular) when addressing me. I am always a bhai for everyone,” said one 50-year-old man who had returned with some sufficient savings from Saudi Arabia. Not everyone was equally well-off, but they had no regrets. They also said there was perfect harmony in the region and no issues with their non-converted neighbours.
But why was it that others didn’t follow suit? “Well, possibly rigours of Islam,” the man started to say, but before he could elaborate, some others closed in, and he clammed up.
There are also claims that there is no intermarriage between the “original converts” and the later ones. Even a novel has been written on that, provoking sharp criticism in Meenakshipuram. How far it is true, it is difficult to guess, but the novel Karuppayi endra Noorjehan, written by a Muslim, cannot all be fantasy.
Besides, I have seen women in the houses of the newly converted being very uneasy about purdah and having to remain at home, unable to go for agricultural work and supplement family welcome.
These factors too, apart from government crackdown, should have come in the way of more conversions in the state.
In the circumstances, the Dalit outfits could do better than issuing empty threats and focus on agitating against the various disabilities heaped on them – 70 years after Independence, they are kept out of the pale of the village, condemned to cheris or colonies. No attempt to fight this outrageous segregation.
But unlikely any of them would care, given that they have learnt how to feather their nests through electoral politics.
Barring the CPM, the other mainstream political parties would of course care much less. So there will be more Pazhangkallimedus in the future, creating a media hubbub. The government will briefly intervene to see there are no festivals and hence no clashes, and then things will be back to square one.