Conversion as an act of self-liberation: A history of the Dalit community in India

On 7 June 2020, a Dalit Christian man named Bura Singh, his wife and daughter were conducting prayers in their house in Madhya Pradesh, India, when police officials barged in and beat them up.

For Bura, his conversion to Christianity was a matter of faith. For many other Dalits like him, however, conversion to a religion other than Hinduism is not just a matter of faith, it’s also a means – the only means – to escape the centuries-old harassment and injustice meted out to them under the caste system.

Historically, and even today, Dalits who choose to convert to another religion are socially boycotted and harassed. But to understand why there is so much opposition to Dalit conversion by the upper castes, we must understand the origins of the caste system and the history of the Dalit struggle.

Who are the Dalits?

The word Dalit refers to the community of people who have been socially, economically and politically oppressed for centuries by the hierarchical social order called the caste system. This community has endured oppression more than any other because they are born into it and are branded by the stigma of ‘untouchability.’

Several names have been imposed on the community. They were initially called untouchables. Then, during the British era, they were called ‘depressed classes.’ In 1880, the word Dalit was first used by social reformer Mahatma Jotiba Phule to describe their condition as poor, broken and oppressed. (Dalit is derived from the Sanskrit word dal which means ‘crushed’) The term was later popularised by B. R. Ambedkar, the pioneer of the Dalits Rights Movement. Separately, Gandhi coined the term Harijan (children of God) to uplift them, but many members of the community found it patronising.

Today, the word ‘Dalit’ has united all the ‘depressed classes’, and most of its members choose to use the term as it best reflects their struggle and the right to choose their own identity.

How did they become Dalits?

According to the social order based on the Hindu scripture known as Manusmriti, there are four social groupings called ‘varnas.’ These varnas essentially dictate what occupation one can pursue and how one may interact with others.

At the top of the ladder is the ‘Brahmin,’ who are designated to be priests or scholars. Then comes the ‘Kshatriyas,’ who are kings, soldiers and warriors. The ‘Vaishyas’ are cattle herders, agriculturalists and merchants. The ‘Shudras’ were designated to serve the rest of the upper castes. They were later emancipated to some extent and became labourers. Dalits were considered unfit to be within this four-fold system and were grouped as ‘avarna’ (without varna) or ‘Panchama’ (fifth varna).

The Dalit struggle

The Dalits were severely oppressed for centuries. They were denied education, not allowed to live in the main village area, and considered polluted and untouchable. They were not allowed to eat with the upper castes, draw water from the same wells or even protect themselves. Their duty was to do menial jobs like manual scavenging. In a nutshell, they were crushed and trampled upon with absolutely no opportunity to climb up the ladder.

To this day it is a common practice in several villages to have separate areas for Dalits to live in and separate wells for Dalits to draw water from.

Just earlier this month, Christians from a Dalit community in West Bengal were stopped from using a particular road and they have been struggling to commute ever since. Even children from upper caste backgrounds resort to this discriminatory practice, with several reports over the last few years of upper caste children refusing to eat or throwing away the mid-day meal prepared in schools because it was prepared by Dalit cooks.

The Great Conversion

On 14 October 1956, B. R. Ambedkar officially converted to Buddhism and nearly half a million Dalits followed suit. Nearly 20 years before that, Ambedkar had already declared his intent to convert as he was still treated as an outcast at home in spite of his massive achievements.

The support of liberal Hindus didn’t make any difference. In 1927, he publicly burnt a copy of the Manusmriti, an ancient law book that states that molten lead should be poured into the ears of low castes if they accidently hear a Brahmin chant the vedas (a sacred Hindu scripture). In 1935, he made a famous speech calling for Dalits to convert if they ever want to be liberated.

Religion as a matter of choice, not destiny

Whether it was simply a matter of faith, or also an act of rebellion or a means of emancipation, the great conversion sparked many debates across the country. However, central to it was the claim that religion is a matter of personal choice and not something that one is born into and can never escape.

The liberating idea encouraged Dalits to embrace other religions over the years, mainly Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Foreign Christian missionaries also played a great role in social emancipation of the Dalits.

Today, mass conversions of Dalits continue as both an act of faith and of self-liberation. For example, in February 2020, after a tragic incident in Mettupalayam, Coimbatore, in which a wall collapsed and led to the death of 17 Dalits, close to 3,000 people from the community announced their intention to convert to Islam. Similarly, in October 2020, approximately 236 Dalits announced they had adopted Buddhism amid protests surrounding the Hathras case, in which a Dalit woman was gang-raped and murdered by four upper-caste men in September 2020.

Anti-conversion laws and ‘social order’

Oppressive higher castes soon realised that conversion to other religions could possibly set the Dalits free from the social order that bound them. For them, this meant losing people to do menial jobs for them.

This is one of the reasons why, in many parts of India even today, there is a huge opposition to conversion. It disrupts the social order which entitles the upper castes to certain privileges and they are afraid of lower castes taking these privileges from them or rising to be their equals.

Currently, so-called Freedom of Religion Acts, which are in fact anti-conversion laws, are enforced  in eight states in India — Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand. A similar law was also introduced in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2020.

These laws aim to prevent any person from ‘converting or attempting to convert, either directly or otherwise, another person, through forcible or fraudulent means, or by allurement or inducement’. Some laws provide harsher punishment if the converts are Dalits or Scheduled castes. While the lawmakers argue that this is intended to protect vulnerable individuals who may be coerced easily, critics say that this could be a threat to India’s secularism. These laws are also fundamentally opposed to the right to freedom of religion or belief, as articulated in international laws and treaties, which includes the right to change one’s religion and to adopt the religion or belief of one’s choice.

According to the anti-conversion laws, there are three acts which may be considered as an offence — inducement, fraud and force. The problem however, lies the interpretation of these laws. For instance, according to Madhya Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion law, ‘force’ includes ‘threat of divine displeasure’ and in other bills ‘allurement’ includes ‘benefits like education’. These statutes clearly contravene clauses on freedom of religion or belief in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which gives the right to freely ‘profess, practise and propagate religion.’

In the absence of political will to repeal them in the short term, these anti-conversion laws need to be defined much more strictly to avoid wrongful arrests. There have been several reports of Christian missionaries being arrested on fake charges of conversion by use of force, because force can mean just about anything without stricter definitions. It also prevents missionaries from carrying out charitable acts.

Ever since the Great Conversion, Dalits have sought the freedom to choose their religion and to escape oppression. However, they have been met with staunch opposition, both socially and through state legislation. Their struggles for emancipation, and to realise their right to freedom of religion or belief, are not yet over. 

By CSW’s India Desk