Conversion to Islam in contemporary India encompasses several themes. It is undoubtedly a form of protest and rebellion the lower castes adopt against the oppression of the higher castes. It is, simultaneously, a plea to the custodians of Hinduism to reform the religion and render it egalitarian. It is a battle the convert seeks to wage on behalf of others, conveying through his or her proselytization that those sharing his or her caste position might emulate him or her in rejecting the hierarchical Hinduism.

But conversion to Islam is also deployed as a threat, a bargaining chip. It is used as a tactic to demand enforcement of constitutionally mandated rights, or extract concessions from the powerful. Demands are articulated and deadlines set for their acceptance, failing which those voicing them declare they will convert.

Those who threaten to convert implicitly assume that the custodians of Hinduism, essentially the hegemonic higher castes, have a deep distrust, even dislike, for Islam. They think their demands will be met because the higher castes will not want Islam to grow demographically or acquire popular validity in this era of Islamophobia.

Their assumption is not wrong. Consider the media frenzy every time an incident of conversion occurs, or the vociferous opposition of Hindutva leaders to the idea of proselytization. From this perspective, it might be said that there is a war of perception in which the custodians of Hinduism and Islam, often self-appointed, are engaged.

It is this which turns conversion into a weapon. Through threats of conversion, whether to protest or blackmail, the lower castes appear to be telling those higher in the hierarchy: “Listen to us or we will defect to the enemy camp.”

Crossing over to a rival

Conversion consequently reinforces the Hindutva imagining of Islam as “the other”. This is true of Christianity as well. But conversion to it is often spread over time through evangelism. Atrocities provoke Dalits to usually embrace Islam rather than Christianity, largely because the long history of communal conflict involving Hindus and Muslims injects their proselytization with a deep political meaning.

It’s also true that Dalits switch from Hinduism to Buddhism, at times in a spectacular display of mass rejection of Hinduism. Yet conversion to Buddhism doesn’t invite hostile reactions because Hindutva ideologues consider that religion indigenous, even as reformed or pure or, to quote sociologist Gail Omvedt, Protestant Hinduism.

Since conversion to Buddhism doesn’t rattle the custodians of Hinduism, its use for political purposes doesn’t have the same political significance as Islam has. This is perhaps why Umrao Salodia, a 1978 Rajasthan cadre IAS officer, recently chose to become Muslim than Buddhist. Overlooked for the post of chief secretary, Salodia claimed it was because he belonged to the Dalit community.

So Salodia called the media, declared he was opting for voluntary retirement, and disclosed he had converted to Islam. His explanation for the decision framed it as a protest – he said he had become Muslim because of the equality Islam offers to its followers, in contrast to Hinduism which discriminates on the basis of caste. He said he was to now call himself Umrao Khan.

His statement surprised Jaipur because it was unexpected – he hadn’t, as is usually the norm, issued a prior threat to convert in case he was denied the post of chief secretary. The very absence of threat has given his protest a sharp edge. For one, he wasn’t willing to use conversion instrumentally, that is, to bargain with the Rajasthan government of the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose project is to become the unchallenged custodian of Hinduism. For another, it sought to reject the moral authority of the government, and portrayed, at least to the Dalits, its caste prejudices.

Nevertheless, Salodia’s rhetoric pitted Islam against Hinduism. His conversion is akin to a crossing-over to that religion which Hindutva perceives as a rival. It is a rebuff to the proponents of ghar wapsi who argue that the forefathers of Muslims were Hindus who were forced to embrace Islam and should now be brought back into Hinduism. Against this political backdrop, Salodia’s decision to leave his original ghar indicts both Hindutva and Hinduism.

Threat of conversion

But conversion to Islam is also used to blackmail politicians, not just of the Hindutva kind. For instance, last April, when 55 houses in Topkhana basti in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, were marked for demolition, some 800 Valmikis there threatened to convert to Islam. They even contacted Islamic clerics who, however, refused to convert them, arguing that their proselytization would be un-Islamic as the Valmikis were engaged in, yes, blackmailing civic authorities. Unmindful of the rebuff, they continued their protests wearing skull caps, popularly regarded as a marker of Muslim identity.

Decoding their protest is more complicated than analysing Salodia’s. Did the Valmikis believe their houses were marked for demolition because of them being Dalit and, therefore, powerless? It is also possible they were exploiting the popular perception of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav being partial to Muslims to their advantage. Their threat to convert could be construed as telling Yadav that they would become Muslim and his voters if their houses were not demolished.

It is also possible that the Valmikis were stirring a controversy in the hope their cause would be adopted by those politicians who are focused on stopping desertions from Hinduism. This is exactly what eventually happened in Rampur, testifying that conversion is used as a blackmail tactic for survival or to protect their interests.

The blackmail tactic is also used to have rights guaranteed in the Constitution to be enforced. This was palpable in the response of 10 Valmiki families of Meerut who were denied entry into the Valmiki Ashram near Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, on January 8, 2015. They told the media that they would embrace Islam unless the Ashram allowed them entry by January 26, the Republic Day.

It invoked a prompt response from local Vishva Hindu Parishad leader Sudarshan Chakra, who assured them of his support and promised to register a case against the priests should they not relent by their deadline. In hindsight, it is obvious the Valmikis succeeded in exploiting the Hindu Right’s anxieties about Islam’s appeal to the oppressed castes.

The threat of conversion was unambiguously a blackmailing tactic when the Brahmins of Singhawali Ahir village, near Baghpat, issued it in September last. It had so happened that a Brahmin girl was said to have eloped with a Dalit. The Brahmins, however, claimed the Dalits had abducted her.

They threatened to convert to Islam in case the girl wasn’t located. Perched as they are on the top of the Hindu hierarchy, the Brahmins did not resort to the rhetoric of caste inequality, merely interested as they were in using the threat of conversion to prod the apathetic administration into action. Perhaps they were emulating the successful use of conversion as a political weapon by the Dalits.

Escape from discrimination

Yet it is also true that Dalit communities convert to Islam when the discrimination they are routinely subjected to eventually leads to the perpetration of ineffable atrocities on them. Take the Dalits of Baghana village, in Hisar district of Haryana. In March 2012, they organised a dharna at the district headquarters to protest against the denial of access to the village chowk, or square, and, subsequently, the illegal occupation of their land.

For nearly two years, nobody cared. Then, in March 2014, a group of boys from the dominant caste of Jats abducted four minor Dalit girls, gang-raped them, and dumped them about 170 kilometres from Hisar. The Dalits shifted their protest from Hisar to Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, where too they remained unnoticed by the media and the political class that were obsessively engaged in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

In desperation, they converted to Islam in August last, in a ceremony which a cleric conducted right there at Jantar Mantar. Their rebellion against, and rejection of, Hinduism grabbed headlines, but also provoked the police to allegedly charge them with batons in the middle of the night. The VHP leaders offered to have their grievances addressed subject to their return to Hinduism.

They refused at that time, in the manner of the Dalits of Meenakshipuram village, in Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. In 1981, these Dalits converted to Islam and rocked the nation. Leaders from the Hindu right, including Arya Samajists, visited the village and claimed the Dalits had been enticed through promises of economic benefits to convert to Islam. A government committee, however, found this allegation baseless and said they had converted in reaction to the caste discrimination the Dalits had come to bitterly resent.

It is interesting to speculate why the Dalits of Baghana or Meenakshipuram, or IAS officer Salodia, did not convert to Buddhism, to which Ambedkar converted in 1956 and set an example for other Dalits to emulate. Indeed, conversion to Buddhism did not cease with the death of Ambedkar. Even as recently as 2013, nearly 5,000 Dalits participated in the Buddhist proselytization ceremony in Junagadh, Gujarat. Two years later, 90 Dalits followed suit in Ahmedabad. There was also a large-scale influx into Buddhism in Hyderabad and Gulbarga in 2006.

In the Dalit consciousness, conversion to Buddhism is considered a return to their original religion and identity. This is because they believe they were originally Buddhists whose ascendancy the Brahmins challenged and undermined successfully. As Gail Omvedt notes in her book, Buddhism in India: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, “The conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism was seen as of the utmost interest to Dalits, because it was in the process of defeating Buddhism that the caste system was solidified, and certain specific groups were particularly degraded and classed as ‘untouchables’. Thus Ambedkar argued that Dalits were originally Buddhists who had been rendered untouchables…”

What's the intent?

From this perspective, the return of Dalits to their original religion of Buddhism is seen as natural and inevitable, a rediscovery or liberation of their older self from the caste trappings of Hinduism. This process of return is predicated on a realisation and understanding of Buddhism as a rational religion. No doubt, conversion to Buddhism still entails rejecting Hinduism, but it doesn’t in the Dalit consciousness signify rebellion in all its fury and rawness, not the least because the Hindutva ideologues are not even remotely hostile to it.

It is also true that Buddhism in India largely comprises Dalits, except the upper castes in Bengal who converted to it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In other words, for an individual to say he or she is a Buddhist is akin to saying he or she was Dalit earlier. In this sense, they may consider themselves separate from Hindus and equal to them, but caste Hindus do not consider them so.

By contrast, in converting to Islam the Dalits mingle in an existing numerous Muslim community, shed their Dalit-ness to an extent, and get a relatively better access to the public space. Media stories on Meenakshipuram do indeed show that the children of those who converted to Islam in 1981 have a better social status than those Dalits who remained in the fold of Hinduism.

It is not always easy to distinguish themes of protest and rebellion in incidents of conversion from its appropriation as a tool for bargaining, or even blackmailing, in the everyday struggle of Dalits for dignity, justice and survival. But conversion for waging caste battles fans the anxieties of Hindutva about Islam, and fuels their anger against it. It is precisely why so many Dalit activists and thinkers feel Muslims and Dalits are natural allies.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.