If the macabre dalit killings at Jhajjar were the "action", the "reaction" had to follow. Over a hundred Dalits converted to other religions in a "conversion mela" organised by a group of Dalit organisations on Saturday, in Gurgaon.
And the statement was made defiantly. While the majority converted to Buddhism, the first was the most dramatic. Veer Shankar Lal Kharalia chose to convert to Islam and rename himself Saddam Hussein. Mohammad Rafiq Azad read out the kalma -- the mandatory declaration for embracing Islam -- and rechristened him .
After the short ceremony, Saddam sounded as fiery and defiant as his famous namesake. "I challenge the VHP to reconvert me. Even if my life is in danger, I don’t care."
Obviously, the name had been chosen with care, but he said that he had chosen it only because he liked the name, and that it had nothing to do with the persona of the Iraqi president.
Chandra Bhan Mehra was the next to follow. He embraced Christianity.
And the whole brouhaha on conversions made by amma and VHP was easily rebutted by Satya Prakash, who charged: "Giriraj Kishore (the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader) is responsible for my conversion, not Christian or Muslim leaders."
23-year-old Harsh Kumar Kadipur, who became a Buddhist, said: "I want to take revenge for the Duleena (Jhajjar) killings."
About 20 relations of the lynched Dalits were among those who converted to Buddhism, including the five-year-old Vipin, whose uncle Dayachand was one of the hapless victims.
The child wouldn't obviously have understood the full import of what was happening around him, or what he had done as the barber shaved his head after soaking his hair with bottles of mineral water and Dalit activists scribbled "Jai Bhim" on his scalp with a ballpoint pen. But even he could sense that this was not an ordinary event, as he sat silent with moist eyes as the monk read out 22 pledges for the neo-converts to repeat. He did not utter a word.
The numbers may have been far less than expected, against the outrage perpetrated on the Dalits at Jhajjar but those present did manage to convey how strongly they felt. The organisers warned that this ceremony was only symbolic, and that en masse conversions at the block and district levels would follow later.
Dalit leader Udit Raj, who is also the chairman of the Confederation of SC/ST Organisations said: "Cows are left uncared for, starving and forced to feed on garbage and polythene bags, and when they grow old and useless, sold to slaughter houses. No one sells his mother. Why do they wear shoes made of cow’s hide?"
But all present were not in agreement. "What is the use of this conversion? Will a Muslim girl marry us if we convert? They are emotional," said a youth watching the ceremony. "I spit on them," said another Dalit youth. And of course there were allegations of "politics" behind the conversions too.
One after another, speaker after speaker, addressed the, well, un-converted sections, exhorting them to quit a religion and a social system that gives more importance to a cow than a human being.
A cow covered with placards saying "Cow is more important than Dalits: Giriraj Kishore", "You burn us according to Manu rites", "Don’t wear footwear made of mother’s (cow) skin", "Don’t sell holy mother" was paraded around the dais.
Dalits, Muslims and Christian leaders were not the only ones present. The controversial film director Mahesh Bhatt was there too as a "concerned citizen".
Perhaps he summed up the feelings of a large section of the absent urban intelligentsia: "The solution does not lie in conversion. It is a tool of protest," he said. "I feel outraged. I came to express outrage, to deepen that sense of outrage."
"I belong to a dream world. More often we don’t see things. We close our eyes. Salman Khan got more media coverage than the Dalit killings ... We should ask those we vote for, how long it will continue?"
Catherine Philips of the London Times asked Udit Raj if he was "trying to exploit the sentiments of Dalits by converting them", a stern-looking Bhatt butted in: "Has not George (W.) Bush exploited the WTC (World Trade Center) attack?"
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