The prevailing assumption about religion in India is that missionaries, both Muslim and Christian, have been luring the oppressed into their fold with the sly promise of material benefits. But could it be so simple? Could greed explain the radical step taken by so many that affects not only their wellbeing but also their spiritual outlook and social belonging?
A new documentary by Al Jazeera, “Dalit Muslims of India”, offers a nuanced picture of conversions by dalits. It not only highlights the alienating social context from which the decision to convert springs forth, but also emphasises the spiritual journey entailed. It argues that converts do not face any less challenges on changing their name and religion. Though freed from some forms of ritual discrimination, dalit Muslims and Christians lose their right to reserved places in education and government jobs. Furthermore, the stigma is often carried forward into the newly adopted religious communities as well.
So why do dalits convert even if they know that this invites trouble of another kind and won’t completely ease the old ones? The answer to this may be found in the history of how caste and religion came to be framed in colonial times, which some might find missing from this Al Jazeera video.
Of course, one documentary cannot cover all aspects. Reason why you could read Rupa Viswanath’s just published work, The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India, which looks at the caste–state–reformist nexus during the colonial period that conceived of dalit oppression as primarily a religious issue. The strategy allowed those in power to continue exploiting dalit labour and to avoid the necessity of political empowerment. At the same time, religion became the site of struggle for dalit assertion.