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Politics Of Conversion

By Rashid Salim Adil and Yoginder Sikand

'Islam Gave Me Self Respect' Rashid Salim Adil, a Delhi-based advocate,
social activist and politician, is a Dalit convert to Islam. Here he talks
to Yoginder Sikand on Dalits, social liberation and Islam.

Q: What made you convert to Islam?

A: I see my conversion to Islam as the culmination of a long search for
liberation from the caste system and as the answer to my quest for
self-respect. I was born in a poor Chamar (Dalit) family, who are
hereditary leather-workers, in a small village near Delhi. We were
considered as untouchables by the uppercastes. My illiterate father had a
small shop which catered to the Dalits, and it was with great difficulty
that he managed to send me to school. I failed the high school
examinations, and came to Delhi looking for a job. It was in Delhi that I
was exposed to a totally different world of ideas. I was an atheist
initially, but later turned to religion. I first joined the Arya Samaj
enamoured by their slogan of social equality. The Aryas present themselves
as very radical, but if you closely examine their writings, and, even
more, their attitudes, you will discover that in matters of caste there is
little to distinguish them from the other Hindus. I soon gave up the
membership in the Arya Samaj and became a Buddhist. The passionate
Buddhist that I was, I took to reading all of Ambedkar's books and doing
an M.Phil. in Buddhist Studies, after which I took a degree in law. Later
while working as a law officer in the Delhi Development Authority, I
became actively engaged in the Buddhist movement among the Dalits. I
helped set up a number of Buddhist viharas (temples) in the slums.

It was in 1981, shortly after the conversion to Islam of several hundred
Dalit families in the village of Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu, that an
event took place that totally altered my perception of social realities in
India. One day, as I was going to office, I saw a team of bulldozers of
the Delhi Development Authority tearing down a Dalit Buddhist vihara which
had been illegally built on government land. However, they spared a Hindu
temple standing nearby from similar destruction, although it, too, was an
illegal construction. It struck me that the only reason that they
destroyed our vihara was because we are Dalits. Even after converting to
Buddhism, I realised, we were still treated as untouchables. Buddhism had,
it dawned on me, not helped us at all in our quest for empowerment. If it
had, do you think that they would have had the courage to raze the vihara
like that?

Q: How did you veer round to the opinion that Islam could help you and
your people in your quest for empowerment?

A: When the Dalits of Meenakshipuram converted to Islam, there was a
sudden change in the attitude of the local so-called upper castes towards
them. Now they could enter village tea-shop, could wear shoes, something
that was not possible earlier. This was because the Hindus knew that the
Muslims would not let them carry on treating our people who had become
Muslims as they had been treating them before. In this way, Islam gave
these Dalits a new sense of identity and pride. The news about the
Meenakshipuram conversions spread like wild fire and soon even in the
North many Dalits began thinking about Islam. Judging by the panic that
struck the upper castes, and even the Indian State, I realised what a
powerful tool of emancipation Islam really was. I now began studying Islam
myself to see what it was in that religion that has drawn oppressed people
to its fold over the centuries, and I found what particularly attracted
them was Islam's stress on justice and equality and the sovereignty of God
alone. All man-made masters, all priests, pundits and moulvis, are denied
completely. And so, after a detailed study of Islam, I decided to convert.
I recited the kalima [the Islamic creed of confession] at the historic
Jamia Masjid in Old Delhi, on December 6, 1981, the 25th death anniversary
of Dr. Ambedkar, and was given my new Islamic name.

Q: How was your conversion received by your people?

A: By that time I was quite active in the Dalit movement. Several Dalit
activists had come to congratulate me on my bold decision. My radical
Dalit colleagues agreed with me in private that the step I had taken was
the only way out for the Dalits to seek their liberation, but many of them
could not muster the courage to take the same decision. Some of them were
scared of what their relatives would say or do, or of how the upper castes
would react, and others feared losing their jobs if they were to become
Muslim. But deep down in their hearts they knew that the only solution to
the plight of the Dalits was through conversion to Islam.

Q: But surely you must have faced some hostile reaction to your turning

A: Oh yes, I had more than my share of that! My wife and children too had
converted along with me. When my wife's parents came to know about this,
they instigated her against me, and our marriage ended in a divorce. Then,
of course, I had to face opposition from many upper castes who naturally
did not take too kindly to my conversion. A team of Arya propagandists
came to meet me to persuade me to renounce Islam and enter the Arya fold,
saying that the Arya Samaj, which they claim is true Hinduism, preaches
social equality and brotherhood. They did not know that I had been in the
Arya Samaj myself at one time, so when I quoted Sanskrit verses from their
scriptures that sanctify the caste and racial prejudice they were shocked.

Q: Dalits are today looking at various alternative paths in their struggle
for liberation, religious conversion being only one option. Why do you
feel that conversion is so important for the Dalits?

A: Well, in order to address this question one would have to go way back
to the earliest periods of Indian history. You see, the Dalits were the
original inhabitants of this land, and some three thousand years ago, the
fair-skinned Aryans invaded India from the north-west, subduing the
original inhabitants, the Dravidians, and turning them into slaves. Now to
keep them subjugated, physical force had to be supplemented with
ideological and cultural force, and so you had the development of
Brahminism and all its scriptures and superstitions. The real basis of
Brahminism, which is really what Hinduism is all about, is the caste
system, based as it is on the supremacy of the Brahmins and the
degradation of the Dalits, treating them worse than animals. Cows, snakes
and monkeys are worshipped in Hinduism, while the Dalits are treated worse
than vermin. Thus, in order to be liberated from the caste system, the
Dalits first need to liberate themselves from Hinduism. That Brahminism
spells eternal mental slavery for the Dalits is something that all
thinking Dalits are well aware of. That is why Dr. Ambedkar himself
announced in 1935 that conversion was a must for Dalit liberation. He
himself renounced Hinduism, along with some 400,000 of his followers at a
mass ceremony in 1956.

Q: But Ambedkar himself converted to Buddhism, not to Islam?

A: I consider this as the biggest blunder by Ambedkar. But in a sense he
was forced into it. You see, I am convinced that Ambedkar was aware that
the most effective means for Dalit liberation was through converting to
Islam. In this he was following in the tradition of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule,
who argued that by becoming Muslims, the Dalits could overcome the stigma
of untouchability that the upper castes branded them with. In 1935, in a
public address to his fellow Mahars, Ambedkar first spoke out on the need
for the Dalits to renounce Hinduism and to convert to another religion. He
said that the Dalits could choose from between Sikhism, Christianity or
Islam, but added that Islam seemed to offer the Dalits the best deal. He
commented on how Muslims are so closely united, and how the bond of
Islamic brotherhood has no parallels in any other religious community or
tradition. It is revealing to note that at this time he made no mention at
all of Buddhism.

Q: Why then did he not convert to Islam himself?

A: I think he was gradually moving in that direction and then the
Partition took place in 1947, which made him change his plans. As I see
it, he was increasingly co-operating with Muslims on the political plane.
The Nizam of Hyderabad granted him a huge sum of money for his educational
projects and Muslims in East Bengal helped him get elected to the
Constituent Assembly in the face of stiff Hindu opposition. Ordinary
Muslim villagers went out of their way to support him in his struggles for
justice for the Dalits, as in the case of the well-known Mahar tank
agitation to allow Dalits use of village tanks. Ambedkar was also
increasingly co-operating with Jinnah and the Muslim League in opposing
upper caste hegemony. I think he was quite clear that if the Dalits
embraced Islam en masse, then the Muslims would have become the single
largest community. He clearly saw how this could empower the Dalits in
their struggle.

This is why some sections of the upper castes in the Congress and the
Hindu Mahasabha, conspired to drive Jinnah to the wall, and forced him to
come out with the demand for Pakistan by refusing to seriously consider
any measures for the protection of Muslim interests in a united India. In
doing this, they killed two birds with one stone. By creating Pakistan,
the upper castes got rid of a large chunk of the Muslim population, and
reduced the Muslims remaining in India to a persecuted minority. In
addition, by inflaming anti-Muslim prejudice and launching anti-Muslim
pogroms, the Dalits were clearly told what fate they would meet if they
dared to contemplate converting to Islam. Naturally, in this context,
Ambedkar had to change his strategy. Since converting to Islam was now
ruled out because that would have meant the mass slaughter of Dalits in
every village and town, Ambedkar took to Buddhism as the next best

Q: How do you see the Buddhist conversion movement today?

A: Very small number of Dalits, mainly among the Mahars of Maharshtra and
a section of the Chamars of western Uttar Pradesh have actually converted
to Buddhism. So, in that sense, it has not brought all the Dalits of India
within its fold. The biggest problem with conversion to Buddhism is that
because there was no pre-existing Buddhist community into which they could
merge themselves and lose their Dalitness, when Dalits went over to
Buddhism they could still be identified as Dalits. In this way, conversion
to Buddhism has not been able to rid the Dalits of their Dalit identity,
and as long as they are identified as Dalits they cannot escape from the
shackles of the caste system. Further, if you see what conversion to
Buddhism has actually meant for most Dalits, it appears that this has
entailed only a cosmetic change in some rituals. On the whole, however,
most Buddhists carry on with their pre-conversion Hindu practices and
beliefs. Little wonder then that Hindu chauvinist groups that are so
vehemently against Dalits converting to Islam argue that Dalits may, if
they like, become Buddhists, because in their view Buddhism is a branch of

Q: If conversion to Buddhism has not been successful in empowering the
Dalits, why do you feel Islam is the answer?

A: Islam and Brahminism are two diametrically opposite ideologies. This
comes out strikingly if you compare their views on social affairs.
Brahminism is based on extreme hierarchy, the caste system, the supremacy
of one priestly caste and the slavery of the Dalits. Rama, whom Hindu
chauvinists claim as their supreme god, lopped off the head of a Shudra
for spiritual austerities that would have taken him to heaven. Contrast
this with Islam, which is based on social equality, on the oneness of
humanity, of us all as children of Adam and Eve. No religion gives such
importance to justice and social equality as Islam does. So, in that sense
I see Islam as offering the Dalits a powerful means to challenge the
oppression of caste, providing a new social order, a sense of self-respect
and a feeling of being accepted as fully human for the Dalits, which
Hinduism, of course, cannot provide. In addition, there is this massive
Muslim population in India. If the Dalits were to convert to Islam, they
could easily be absorbed into the Muslim community, shedding off their
Dalit-ness, in the process empowered by joining the fold of a large

Q: But surely there is the problem of caste within the Indian Muslim

A: Yes, Muslim society in India is characterised by caste-like features.
But this is entirely because of the result of living in a largely Hindu
environment. Since Islam is fiercely opposed to caste, as Islamic
movements for reform gather strength, these distinctions would gradually
give way. In my own case, for instance, I was able to marry into a Sayyed
family after my divorce. My children, too, have married Muslims who come
from so-called upper caste families. That has been no problem at all.

Q: How, as a Muslim, do you see your role in the Dalit liberation project?
Do you see any role for Dalit-Muslim dialogue that is not predicated on
Dalit conversion to Islam?

A: I am closely involved with various Dalit groups. We have set up a
publishing house to bring out literature to show how Islam can offer the
Dalits a means to their salvation, freeing them from caste slavery.
Further, we have also set up a political party, the Sab Jan Party, All
People's Party, which is still in its infancy. Through this party we are
trying to bring all oppressed groups on a common plane.