Once a Dalit, always a Dalit

 

by Chandrakant Naidu - courtesy Firstpost.com

 

Badami Devi, 34, of Puravas village in Morena district of Madhya Pradesh has been a sarpanch of the Panchayat for a couple of years. Her biggest achievement? She was able to hoist the national flag for the first time this Independence Day. The state government is patting itself for affording her this opportunity, courtesy Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Badami Devi, being a Dalit was prevented all these years from the privilege due pressure from upper caste Hindus. Independence has started making sense to her now. In the euphoria of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first I-Day speech, Badami Devi could breach the upper caste bastion after media outcry over the denial of her rights.

 

So acute is the caste discrimination in Puravas that despite the allotment of land for a school building four year ago no school has been built. The reason? The land happens to be close to a Dalit settlement, and people from the upper castes don't like the idea of their children walking that area.

 

The National Human Rights Commission took cognisance of a media report that a Dalit bridegroom was forced to dismount a horse during his wedding procession, and beaten up by an upper caste group in Sadwa village of Chhatarpur district on June 7. No punishment was handed to the perpetrators of the crime despite the NHRC notice.

 

These are just a few samples of discrimination faced by the Dalits who form a sizeable 22 percent of the state’s population. The region was back in the news last week following the arrest of nine persons for religious conversions in Shivpuri district. Protests by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal led to their reconversion. The administration expectedly acted with alacrity to invoke the anti-conversion law for the first time in the state to arrest them and ensure their reconversion.

 

What remains unaddressed though is the government’s utter failure to check discrimination that drove Dalits to the other faiths.

 

Maniram Jatav’s fateful religious journey has seen quite a few U-turns over the past 14 months. He can’t decide what is good for him; conversion to Islam to avoid daily humiliation within the community, or reconversion to Hindu fold. In the Hindu caste hierarchy, he still remains on the lowest rung as a Jatav--- part of the 30 percent population that is pessimistic about a change coming about any time soon.

 

Maniram of Chhirwaha village embraced Islam last year, changed his name to Abdullah and started a small business. His wife Makhobai and two sons also converted without completing any legal formalities. Then he convinced his brother-in-law Tularam of Bukarra village to convert. Tularam changed his name to Abdul Kareem in 2013. However, his family disowned him. Tularam’s wife refused to accept Islam and reported the matter to her family who got a complaint registered against him.

 

"Maniram, the convert was caught on the wrong foot as convertor. Both had violated the law," says SS Jadon, station house officer (SHO) of Khanidana police station that covers the two villages. The issue was not conversion but the failure of the duo to intimate the administration about it. Jadoun claimed that during the investigations Tularam alias Abdul Kareem submitted an affidavit seeking to be a Hindu again.

 

Now he claims the reconversion was under pressure. The only positive drawn from the reconversion was that Dalits were seen together with upper caste Hindus in the temple after the rituals of ‘Shuddhikaran’ or purification.

 

On September 2, VHP leader Ashutosh Sharma had an argument with Maniram’s son about reconversion. Maniram told the media that the police had tried to establish they were lured into Islam for money. Maniram’s sons have refused to be reconverted. Sharma denies coercion or watch on the family. Bajrang Dal activist Manoj Kumar who welcomed the reconverts with a promise of better treatment might do well to ensure the Dalits become office-bearers in the Dal and VHP.

 

Those who converted to Islam earlier seem to have no regret. Economically, they are marginally better off. Some have gone to the Gulf countries for jobs. But more than the economic prosperity, they seem to cherish their social liberation. Even the Hindus are getting jobs in the Gulf.

 

Before the last assembly elections, the BJP government had proposed the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2013 to supersede the 1968 legislation mandating prior permission and prescribing stringent jail term for forcible conversions. While the 1968 legislation provided a jail term of one year for forcible conversions, the proposed Bill stipulates a jail term of up to three years or a fine up to Rs 50,000, or both.

 

The government has, however, not shown the same zeal in punishing those committing atrocities on Dalits. The bill has not become an act. The ministry of social justice and empowerment data shows Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh – account for nearly 70 percent of registered crimes against Dalits in India. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh topped in atrocities against the tribal population as well. Of the 5,880 cases registered, 60 percent (3,505 cases) were from these states.

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