Dalits, looked down on as ‘untouchables,’ gamble on trading their faith for dignity in wake of ‘cow vigilante’ mob attack
A group of some 300 Dalits convert from Hinduism to Buddhism, which is caste-free, in the western Indian state of Gujarat on April 29. (ucanews.com photo)
Hundreds of members of the socially underprivileged Dalit caste officially became Buddhists on April 29 during a public ceremony in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Their leaders described this as the start of a much larger movement to escape the violence and social discrimination meted out by higher-caste Hindus.
At least 300 Dalits switched religions at the ceremony in the town of Una in Gir Somnath district.
They included the families and relatives of four young men who were publicly flogged and paraded naked through the streets two years ago by an upper-caste group of Hindu extremists dubbed “cow vigilantes” from the same town
“Now I feel free from the bondage of Hinduism that has always discriminated against me and the other so-called ‘untouchables,'” said Sarvaiya Vasram, one of the four men.
The attack happened on July 11, 2016 after they were accused of illegally trading cowhides.
But Dalit leaders argue that the job of removing the carcasses of dead animals is a task that has traditionally been delegated to their caste, and in the process they sometimes sell the hides for profit as the work is unpaid.
The attackers were part of a local team that monitors the slaughtering of animals and ensures there is no ill treatment of cows, a revered animal among orthodox Hindus.
“We don’t want to be part of a religion [Hinduism] that does not see us as humans,” Vasram said, adding that his parents and other relatives and friends who came to rescue him were also beaten by the monitoring team.
Many of the Dalits claim they were never fully accepted as Hindus. (Photo by ucanews.com)
The 25-year-old told ucanews.com that while only 300 of his caste have migrated to Buddhism in the past week, another 1,000 have pledged to soon follow in their footsteps.
Some 700 have already submitted the mandatory application forms that the government requires of those who wish to change religions, he added.
A local state law stipulates that district officials must be informed before such requests can be authorized.
“We have agreed to visit every Dalit village in Gujarat, and then we will visit other states to encourage our people to quit Hinduism,” Vasram said.
Ashok Sarvaiya, another victim of the Una attack, said that while switching over to a different religion may not provoke immediate social change, it would ultimately have positive consequences.
Dalit is a Sanskrit word meaning “trampled upon.” It denotes those who belong to groups outside the traditional four-tier caste system.
The Hindu social system once considered them “outcasts” and “untouchables,” a brand of social discrimination since outlawed but still in effect. As such, they find themselves forced to earn a living from menial jobs like cleaning toilets and picking litter off the streets.
Removing dead animals and skinning and selling their hides is another traditional source of income for the Dalits.
“But we have now agreed not to clean up the carcasses of dead animals or do any such menial jobs,” said Arjun Bai, one of the newly appointed Buddhists.
He said after filing his official application to migrate religions some government officials visited his home requesting he withdraw his request, saying it was a futile and meaningless move.
“But I kept insisting it was what I wanted to do and finally they didn’t object,” he said.
Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a 20th century Dalit intellectual, set a precedent for this decades ago when he converted to the caste-free Buddhist religion and advised other Dalits to do the same.
Catholic social workers in Gujarat said the growing trend does not so much reflect a change in faith as the desire to be treated with a modicum of dignity and respect in society.
“Being a part of Hinduism will not help them assert their individual identity with dignity and therefore, they are now looking for a new identity through religious conversion,” said Father Thomas Nadakkalan, who is in charge of church-run social work in Rajkot Diocese.
Official statistics show that Dalits account for a third of India’s 29 million Christians. Indigenous people make up another 30 percent.
“The Dalit people feel they have never been accepted as real Hindus,” said Bishop Jose Chittoopramabil of Rajkot.
“They want to be respected as normal members of society. That is what they are struggling for. They feel that by becoming Buddhists they can get a bit of dignity,” the Carmelite bishop added.
Government data shows that atrocities against Dalits have been increasing nationwide.
In 2015, some 707 were murdered and 2,326 of their women raped, equivalent to two murders and six rapes a day on average.