Monday, August 17, 2015
Will Islam ‘liberate’ Dalits of Bhagana ?
It was around 11 am on August 8th when the ‘Bhagana Kand Dalit Sangharsh Samiti’ had called a meeting at Jantar mantar, in Delhi where they have been camping in protest against their boycott by the Hindus led by the Jats in their village Bhagana of district Hisar, Haryana, about 150 kilometer from Delhi for the past two years. The message that came to me was to come in solidarity with the Bhagana’s struggling Dalits and express your solidarity. Due to my prior engagements outside Delhi, I had to skip the programme and thought would speak to friends about the outcome of it. Little did I realize that 150 odd families at Jantar-Mantar would take a religious route to get their ‘problem’ ‘resolved’ during the ceremony? In the evening, I saw a Facebook post of a friend who mentioned it to me but I was not sure whether the incident was from Bhagana but next day when I scanned various newspapers, I came to know about the ‘conversion’ of our friends to Islam on August 8th which sparked a furious reaction from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindutva organisations blaming the Muslims for instigating the Dalits and convert to Islam.
Since 1981 Meenakshipuram’s conversion where Dalits embraced Islam to save themselves from the clutches of untouchability and caste atrocities, Bhagana’s conversion at Jantar-Mantar is a slap on the face of those who wanted to suppress Dalits at ‘home’ by denying even right to convert to the faith of their ‘choice’. I had visited Meenakshipuram and met the families of former Dalits who are now enjoying their lives as equal citizen of society. I asked one such gentleman as what does he think when Hindu organizations blame you converting for ‘huge wealth’ coming from ‘middle east’. He responded, ‘Sir, I can’t live life of humiliation on daily basis. What can be a bigger thing than this that we rejected your reservation and all the ‘allurement’ that you give us to be in the caste Hindu fold and face discrimination and untouchability. Frankly speaking sir, what is our value for them? Can there be any bigger sacrifice than this fact that we are not interested in any material monitory thing as for us the biggest thing of life is to get respect and live life of equality’. I could find the difference that the people are mingling and have no complain from what they have done. I wish to add here that I visited Meenakshipuram nearly 4 years ago and by that time those who were kids during this conversion ceremony have now grown up and living a life of satisfaction.
It is not my point here to discuss whether they should have converted or not. Given the nature of violence against Dalits in Tamilnadu, the result from Meenakshipuram actually did shake the Hindu fundamentalists all over the country yet they refused to change and violence against Dalits remained as usual whenever the Dalits asserted for their rights apart from their attempt to enter in any temples were resisted by them. Those of us who have seen the Bhagana’s struggle from close quarters and were associated with it in some way or others understand well how at each level the Dalits were betrayed by the forces who could have provided justice to them. First, the entire village of Jats turned against them since May 2012 when they were being threatened to move out of the Shamlat land i.e. village communal land. Over the years, Harayana’s powerful Jats have benefitted highly from the soaring land prices as agricultural land fast turned into booming real estate land. Therefore, the landshark in the villages, with active support of the powerful politicians were grabbing ‘Shamlat lands’ meant to be distributed to Dalits and other landless people of the region. Bhagana had over 250 acres of Shamlat land which was promised to the Dalits once upon a time but the Jats felt that once the land is gone to the Dalits they would assert and will not work on their fields as landless laborers. What can one do when none of the state apparatus ever ready to support when justice is needed. There are many implications of this including anarchy, disturbance and absolute cultural slaughtering of the community. For over two years the community living in camps at Jantar Mantar lost everything yet no tears for them. Government of India offered Kashmiri Pandits land in Jammu and in Delhi but Haryana government as well as government of India failed to make a promise to the Dalits of Haryana. Where do people go when all the roads are blocked for them? Let us see the turn of events in Bhagana for the past three years.
In May 2012 the whole 450 odd Dalit families of Bhagana were forced to leave their village by the land owning jats who never wanted them at the first place. Most of these families were living at the Hisar’s mini secretariat while nearly 150 of them walked bare chested in the extremely difficult circumstances when the temperature was rising to nearly 45 degree Celsius, to Jantar Mantar, Delhi. That time, they were demanding redistribution of land and action against those who wanted to evict them. At Delhi, we were together and saw them meeting various leaders, ministers, Members of Parliament but nothing happened. Most of them remained at their tents and some time would go back to their place and work. Nearly one year later on March 23, 2013 four minor girls of the communities were gang raped in the village. They were abducted in a Maruti car when they had gone out to defecate in the evening, and taken to Bhatinda, a city in Punjab nearly 100 kilometer away. They were drugged and raped. As the community people came to know about it they approached one panchayat leader who happened to know about it and accompanied the families to Bhatinda. While coming back he threatened them not to reveal about the incident to the family. There was outrage in the village and families protested in both Hisar and Delhi. They met officials, NHRC, Scheduled Castes Commission and National Commission for Women and yet nothing happened. We protested in front of the Parliament so many times, we had candle light marches and whatever was possible to claim as a ‘peaceful democratic protest’ yet the end result was nothing. It became a good photo-op for many but others only lost their energy in the sloganeering. I have mentioned many times that Jantar Mantar is an‘illusion’ of ‘democracy’ in this country. It only gives a false image that our government is ‘ready’ to face ‘criticism’, but that does not hurt the government or those in power.
Congress’s Jat chief minister of Haryana Bhupinder Singh Hooda was the real villain in this case as refused to take any action. The Dalit leadership in the party was absolutely weak. The other political parties rarely visited them. For some time a few of the ‘emerging’ leaders visited but after winning the elections in May 2014 they too disappeared. People felt that a new government that has taken over in Delhi would do justice to them. Both in Delhi and Haryana also had new government and Congress had lost the elections. Bhagana’s Dalit felt that a non-Jat chief minister would listen to them more carefully but alas their hopes were dashed to ground. None heard them. In the aftermath of the elections, we had an opportunity to meet a senior member of a National Commission in Delhi who hailed from Punjab and promised that he would take stringent action against the culprits. In fact, the Member called the crew of local Punjab TV channel and spoke in front of them but still nothing happened.
The desperation was clear. The villagers did not want to go back to the village where they are unwanted and their life security was threatened hence they called a meeting on August 8th in Delhi and very few of us knew that they are embracing Islam. According to Jagdish Kajla, nearly 150 people embraced Islam here at Jantar Mantar while others have done in Hisar though there is no independent verification of it as that is not a question for us to discuss here. We defend people’s right to embrace the faith of their choice or have no faith even when we may disagree with their action. It is a political battle and have to be fought politically. When I ask Virendra Bagoria, the leader of Bhagana Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, who led the conversion movement, he said, ‘ What was left for us in the varna-dharma as we tried every effort to get justice through peaceful democratic means for the past three years. What else do you want us to do? We approached ministers, members of different political parties, social activists, lawyers, courts, media and yet we did not get justice that is why we collectively decided to embrace Islam and we realize what difference it makes in our life. After the conversion leaders are coming to us and asking for ‘gharwapasi’ but I asked them whether they are ready to hand over two of their holiest ‘mutths’ to us.
'Why didn’t you convert to Buddhism, as guided by Baba Saheb Ambedkar', I ask to Bagoria and he said,’ Baba Saheb might have done right thing that time but today after so many years we feel that Buddhism has not been able to protect the Dalits. It has failed. Only Islam can give a befitting answer to these caste forces.’
Bagoria’s apprehensions may not substantiate but there is definitely an important message in it. Buddhism has attracted Ambedkarites all over the world and many of them question those who do not embrace Buddhism as not really the followers of Baba Saheb but it is also a fact that a number of Dalits who have been victim of the caste violence feel that only Islam can protect them. Perhaps, this is because of the failure to protect by the state and any support from the Ambedkarite Buddhists. May be it is time to really analyse as why people embrace other faiths and still follow Baba Saheb Ambedkar.
When I speak to Jagadish Kajla who has been camping at the Jantar Mantar for the past three years along with his family member he says, ‘all the Dalit groups came to us, expressed their solidarity and we followed everything that is given to us under the constitution and at the end of it we get nothing. What should we do now’, All of us felt that Islam is the only way out to protect ourselves and fight against the injustice of the brahmanical forces. We want to make it clear that Buddhists cannot save us from the oppression. Muslims are resisting and we will fight our battle.’
Speaking to all those people here at the Jantar Mantar and remembering the cries of women who were here including young girls who have been violated against their will, it is no doubt a fact that the battle of the Dalits is not just for their dignity and self respect but more than that. It need to be understood why the people of Bhagana or Meenakshipuram opted for Islam when they wanted to give a slap on the face of caste Hindus? As Jagdish Kajla said that Buddhists and Christians were unable to take head on the caste Hindus, perhaps the sacrificial spirit of Islam became the biggest influence on the psyche of the Dalits who have been
oppressed, humiliated and violated by the dominant castes.
It is a well-known factor that the issues of the Dalits of Bhagana will not die down with this conversion. Bagoria and others might feel that after the conversion they have slapped in the face of caste Hindus but at the end of the day the question to be asked is what are the Dalits of Bhagana getting out of it. Bagoria and his team says that they have tried everything and now their limitation has crossed the limit hence they converted to Islam but the fact remain whether the social and economic isolation of the Dalits in Haryana will end? By converting to Islam they have already lost their right to get other benefits, which they know the people of the village and the state were not interested in providing to them. The VHP and other Hindutva organisations have already threatened them not to enter the village unless come back to Hindu fold.
At their tiny spot of protest in Jantar Mantar one can find the number of Muslim growing as they come to show their solidarity. I see bearded leaders taking selfies with the newly convert. A group of Muslims sits with them and discuss their issues and promise them that, ‘whenever they are in trouble ‘we’ are a ‘phone call’ away.’ One is amazed at this unity but as a human rights defender it is disappointing too. How many of these people were there in the past three years when the Dalits were at the receiving end. Did they ever participate in the protests? Why is that the solidarity only coming when they have converted to Islam? There is no denial of fact that Islam does not have caste system in theory but the fact is that Indian Muslims have castes and there are Dalit Muslims like Hellas and Halalkhors who are treated as untouchables. When I ask this question to Bagoria, he says that he is not bothered about that and would fight back and that Muslims are ‘good’ people.
One is not sure how things will change for the people who are displaced and aren’t welcome back their home as Muslims themselves are a persecuted minority here and all reports suggest that in many areas their conditions are worst than Dalits. My point here is to just find out whether this conversion is going to help any one including the Muslims whose conditions are difficult and need not be mentioned here.
Religion is a personal faith and we defend the right to have faith as we will stand with people and would like faithful to side with those who don’t believe in God or any ‘Almighty’ in their fight for human rights. It is important to maintain unity of the movement and our faiths and change of faiths should not be allowed to divide the movement on the ‘religious’ lines now which is very much possible. We should not forget how the Hindutva gangs divided Dalits and Aadivasis in Kandhamal on the basis of their religious identities. It is easier to say that nothing would happen and we are ‘united’ but the ground realities are difficult. We know that division start creeping in with the faith when some people change while a number of others don’t and therefore dividing line are created.
The dust of conversion was not even settled that District Session Judge of Hisar, Alka Malik acquitted all the accused of the Bhagana Rape case on August 12th. It was shocking incident but given the nature of police and investigating agencies, we know that caste card work and police let the case loose with enough gaps giving opportunity to the lawyers to misuse those and end of the day provide way towards ‘honorable acquittal’.
There is no doubt that Indian state has miserably failed in doing justice to Dalits and aadivasis despite stringent laws for their protection in the form of ‘ Prevention of Atrocities on SC-ST Act’ for the past three decades. There are numerous stories of violence against Dalits and Aadivasis in the country, which cannot be narrated here for the paucity of time and space but not a single case of conviction so far from Bathani Tola to Shankar Bigaha, Kumher to Tsunduru which suffered due to Let the government’s agencies give us details of a single case of atrocity on SC-ST where a complete rehabilitation has taken place and culprits have brought to justice. We are celebrating how Lok Sabha has passed amendment and officers are congratulating but in a few cases of individual violence, I can bet this law will not be able to bring any justice to people unless India bring Communal Violence Bill to Parliament, discuss the whole issues of administrative failures and punish the officials as well as the communities which are engaged in violence. We know in the cases of group violence, which is majoritarian oppression of the minorities in the villages, you don’t find any culprit in the ‘absence’ of witness. Whether Khap killings for honor or witch-hunting or caste killings or communal violence, we have reached nowhere in taking on the mobs and telling them to behave through severe punishments.
How will Dalits of Bhagana get justice by converting to Islam, when Muslims in Mujaffarnagar and Gujarat waiting for the same, is a million dollar question, however one fact is simple, that Bhagana’s Dalits who embraced Islam may not know many things but the only thing they know is that perhaps through Islam they can fight back both at the personal level as well as at the constitutional level where they are already challenging the Session Court’s judgment. At the academic level, we may have our own understanding including biases but perhaps the most striking element for the millions of people tortured with caste violence seems to be the Islamic spirit of fighting back with their head high. Its not for us to decide what is the choice of people as a faith but for people like us the fight for justice of Bhagana Dalits has not ended with the conversion and the movement for it should be prepared to accept all those people along with it who might not have converted. Religion has always divided people let the Dalits not divided by religious identities and respect people right to choice of their faith and fight back the battle with bigger vitality through constitutional means even when we all know that they have been failed by the Indian state controlled by the brahmanical forces.