The recent conversion to Hinduism of almost 250 people part of an estimated 30-40 Muslim families in Haryana's Hisar district, is at first glance related to systemic stigmatisation of Muslims in the wake of the Tablighi Jamaat incident. But at the deeper level, the incident is connected to the long-standing and unaddressed plight of those at the lowest level of the Muslim social pyramid.
Recent Conversions to Hinduism
Almost a fortnight prior to this incident in Bithmara village of Uklana block of Hisar, there had been another, albeit smaller, occurrence of Muslim families converting to Hinduism. In this incident in Danoda Kalan village in Jind district, all members of the families of six brothers converted to Hinduism. One of the brothers, when asked, regarding the immediate provocation, asserted that the "Tablighi Jamaat episode pained them and they decided to convert for good. 'We are feeling greatly relieved after embracing Hinduism,' he said."
This decision was not endorsed by the majority of Muslims in the Jind village and they remain loyal to their faith. Although the village has a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sarpanch, he was quoted by the media as saying that Muslims were under no pressure. The absence of comprehensive reportage makes it difficult to conclude if this claim is true or not.
Despite the absence of comprehensive information, these incidents are ironic as the conversions are from a community which is noted for its “fluid religious identity…..(and) ought to be celebrated as part of India’s inclusive celebration of diversity: They are Muslim performers who sing Hindu hymns.”
Mirasi Muslims & Their Complicated Religious Identity
The families that converted in the two villages in Jind and Hisar are from the Doom community and are called Mirasi Muslims. They are known as folk singers and play folk musical instruments like the Rabaab. They are spread across Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan. In the initial years, before his fame spread far and wide, Guru Nanak was always accompanied by a person called Bhai Mardana, a Mirasi Muslim who played the instrument while Nanak recited hymns. This is considered the beginning of the Sikh Rababi or Kirtanee tradition of singing Shabad Kirtan.
At a theatre festival in February 2020 in Jammu, a play, Bhanwarya Kallet, was performed and it was directed by theatre artist Sikandar Khan, of Mirasi descent. The play depicts the distressful life of community members and Khan is on record saying that due to societal pressure, he initially disowned his Mirasi identity, but later dug deeper into the community's ancestry. Like many communities in India, the Mirasis have a dual, even triple, religious identity. As a result, Mirasis can be Hindus, Muslims, and even Sikhs.
There is the interesting case of Punjabi folk singer Mohammad Sadique who was elected member of Lok Sabha in May 2019 from the Faridkot constituency reserved for Scheduled Castes. A Mirasi and also member of the Doom caste, he was born in a non-practising Muslim family and at a certain point in his life, he veered towards Sikhism, and converted to the faith.
He successfully contested for the Assembly in 2012 but his election was challenged in the Punjab and Haryana High Court on grounds that being a Muslim, he was not eligible to fight elections from a reserved constituency. He was unseated by the HC but on appeal in the Supreme Court, he was reinstated as MLA. The apex court had observed that “a person can change his religion or faith, but not the caste to which he belongs to, as caste has linkage to birth.”
Non-Recognition of Dalit Muslims Leading to Conversions
In the Haryana villages where the conversions have taken place, there are several other communities which are noted for dual or multiple religious identities. Communities like Teli and Lohar like the Mirasi, too have people who are either Hindus or Muslims. In recent years, anecdotal evidence suggests there have been conversions to Hinduism because of two factors. First, there has been increasing campaign against Muslims as a result of which these rural communities where there was previously no polarisation on religious lines, too, have got fractured.
The second important reason is that while Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist Scheduled Castes are entitled to avail of reservations under law, Dalit Muslims are not recognised. Although this demand has been listed for long and the problem of this community was dealt at length by the Sachar Commission, Dalit Muslims have not been extended reservations because of fear of backlash from Hindu SCs who will have to share the quota with Muslim Dalits.
Notably, when neo-Buddhists were brought under this law and reservations were extended for them in 1990, there was no protest. Even earlier, in 1956 when "Article 341 was amended to extend the same benefits that Hindu Dalits enjoy to Sikh Dalits," there had been no objection.
As a religious community, Muslims are the least developed in comparison with other religious groups. Within the Muslims, the Dalit Muslims are at the lowest rung of the socio-economic hierarchy. This is ironic because most SC Muslims were originally Dalit Hindus and abandoned their religious identity because of the absence of social hierarchy in Islam. But they were confronted with a social hierarchy within Islam in India too with the Ashrafs being at the top of the pyramid as the dominating community or ‘caste’, followed by the Ajlaf (backward) and Arzal (Dalit) Muslims.
The Sachar Committee concluded that "there is a strong case for according Scheduled Caste status to Dalit Muslims and Christians."
Some Muslim communities have been included in the OBC list, but this does not benefit the weakest among Muslims. The Sachar Committee argued: "In refusing SC status to Dalit Muslims and Christians the State violates Articles 14, 15 and 25 of the Constitution that guarantees equality before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion."
The Lobby For & Against Legal Recognition of Dalit Muslims
The Post-Sachar Evaluation Committee, headed by Prof Amitabh Kundu, presented its final report to Dr Najma Heptullah, the then Union Minister for Minority Affairs, in October 2014 after the Modi government had assumed office. It recommended that Dalit Muslims who were part of the OBC list should be taken out and "incorporated in the SC list."
Furthermore, it made a case for some Muslim artisanal communities to be given Most Backward Castes sub-category status within the OBC list.
This government and its supporters dispute the existence of Dalit Muslims, preferring to depict the community as a monolith because this enables them to en bloc stigmatise and vilify the community.
Mass conversion of Muslims is considered as the 'final solution' to India's religious plurality and continued existence of minorities.
Granting same rights and privileges to Dalit Muslims (and Dalit Christians) as being given to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists Scheduled Castes would halt the process of conversions like those witnessed in the two Haryana villages.
Denial of these rights is seen as an important part of the overall Hindutva strategy. But given the significant presence of Muslims in India, it would be wiser now to reach out to the community and recognise social stratification in Muslims society.
After having run a polarising campaign for three decades, it is time, especially in the wake of new challenges facing India where reviving the economy will be most vital for national reconstruction, to allow social harmony to flourish.
India is seeking to woo companies intending to leave China in the wake of the pandemic. High levels of social strife and a polarised polity perpetually on the brink of eruption will stick out like a sore thumb in risk-evaluations that potential investors will conduct.
It would be wise for the ruling regime to instruct cadre to actively discourage mass or even limited conversions as it may alarm the global community. After the Gulf backlash, this is another risk that is best avoided.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)