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DECEMBER 2000

MONTHLY    *    Vol 14-12 No:168    *   DECEMBER 2000 / RAMADAN 1421H
  email: editor@islamicvoice.com

FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT


'Islam Gave Me Self Respect'

Interview with former Dalit Rashid Salim Adil

'Islam Gave Me Self Respect'

Rashid Salim Adil, a Delhi-based advocate, social activist and politician, is a Dalit convert to Islam. Author of numerous books, he is also the Secretary of the Sab Jan Party. 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 Ambedkarís 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.

Some section of upper castes in the Congress and Hindu Mahasabha killed two birds with a single stone of Partition. First they removed a sizeable chunk of Muslims from India and secondly they turned the remaining Muslims into a persecuted minority. By provoking anti-Muslim hatred they told the Dalits of what fate would befall them if they thought of converting to Islam

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 them 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 Islamís 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 Muslim?

A: Oh yes, I had more than my share of that! My wife and children too had converted along with me. When my wifeís 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 alternative.

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 Hinduism.

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 giving 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 community.

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

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 Peopleís Party, which is still in its infancy. Through this party we are trying to bring all oppressed groups on a common plane. 

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