Conversion Ordinance   


SIXTY-FOUR years after Dr. B. R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism at Deeksha Bhoomi in Nagpur, the Uttar Pradesh government has introduced an ordinance to prevent the conversion of Hindu women to Islam. Though the ordinance technically applies to all women, it specifies women belonging to the schedule castes and schedule tribes.

Dr. Ambedkar belonged to the Mahar caste in Maharashtra. Before his conversion, he gave the matter a serious thought and came to the conclusion that Vedic Hinduism was inherently caste-based. No amount of reform, Gandhian or otherwise, would succeed in liberating the erstwhile untouchables from social discrimination, according to him. The Manu Smriti, using the metaphor of the human body, compared untouchables to the feet, while Brahmins were said to be the head, and Kshatriyas the chest.

Shortly before his death, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, but not before considering the rival claims of both Islam and Christianity that promised him a less degrading existence than Hinduism offered. In the end, he opted for Buddhism because it was an indigenous religion, known for its rationality and its belief in equality. Lakhs of Mahars followed Ambedkar’s example and converted to Buddhism. Their system of Buddhism is known today as Navayana Buddhism.

The upper caste Yogi Adityanath government’s ordinance came hours after the ruling of a division bench of the Allahabad High Court, comprising Justice Pankaj Naqvi and Justice Vivek Agarwal. Junking the notion of ‘Love Jihad’ in a case that it was hearing, the judgment said that it violated a woman’s fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The UP government’s ordinance shows, firstly, a scant respect for judicial pronouncements. What is ironic, however, is that it chooses to overlook that it was Ambedkar himself, one of the founding fathers of the Constitution, who converted from the Hindu faith into which he was born, thus endorsing the idea of conversion.

The ordinance singles out women of the schedule castes and scheduled tribes, saying they would need the prior permission of the District Magistrate to change their religion, even if the conversion is voluntary. This reeks of sheer patriarchal, misogynist, casteist and sexist mindset. Upper caste and upper class women with education and financial backing have agency on account of their privilege. They can be ambivalent about their religion, dodging all outward signs, symbols and aspects of worship that reveal whether they have converted or not. This subterfuge is unavailable to women of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, steeped as they are in tradition.

It is well-known that women of the schedule castes and schedule tribes are victims of a double bind—that of caste as well as gender. In that sense, they are amongst the most marginalised of people anywhere in the world. The power differential between a hyper-masculine upper caste government, and the women it seeks to rein in, is so wide as to be obscene. One has only to read the autobiography of Malika Amar Shaikh, wife of Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, to get an idea of what subaltern women suffer at the hands of society, as well as at the hands of their men folk. Similar sentiments have been expressed by other Dalit women writers like Hira Bansode.

Phoolan Devi who operated in the ravines of the Chambal, also in Uttar Pradesh, was born into a poverty-stricken low-caste family of many children. Circumstances forced her to take to dacoity. As Mala Sen’s biography of Phoolan Devi shows, the upper caste thakurs who paraded her naked through the village were so cruel to her, that she saw aligning with Muslims as the only way out of her predicament. Certainly, the Muslims whom Phoolan Devi befriended in the Chambal treated her more humanely than the thakurs ever did.

The case histories of a number of women like Malika Amar Shaikh and Phoolan Devi, if properly researched, would prove that conversion does not necessarily imply compulsion. On the contrary, it might imply liberation. Not just from caste and gender oppression, but also often from evils like dowry and bride burning, for inter-faith marriages are most likely to be love marriages rather than arranged marriages, where the alliance is between individuals and not between families. To a woman, low on literacy and financially dependent on her husband, marrying within the faith is far less important than marrying a man who loves her and provides for her and her children.

The UP government’s diktat, which governments of other BJP-ruled states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh may soon follow, isn’t just a case of Islamophobia. Rather, it is a case of the surveillance state once again making inroads into the lives of ordinary citizens with a view to gaining control over us.

Last November, it was the introduction of the CAA and NRC bills that polarized the nation. This year, it is the conversion ordinance, with the Congress’s Ashok Gehlot and the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut both questioning the need for it and declaring that they would never issue such an ordinance in their states.

At a time when the government should be tackling the Covid-19 crisis on a war footing, does it wish to see more Jamia Milia and Shaheen Baug type agitations over absurd issues like Love Jihad?

Views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect that of Kashmir Observer

Dr. R. Raj Rao is an internationally known Indian English novelist, poet and critic. He was Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of Pune in Maharashtra. He has also been a Visiting Professor at universities in Canada and Germany

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