I learned one thing in my eight years’ experience with the Dalit movement through Dalit Camera assignments, and my research on caste for the last 14 years. Babasaheb Ambedkar was right when he said that leaving Hinduism is the only way to fight caste.
Dalit Camera is a digital platform that documents voices of Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans, and minorities through a website and a YouTube channel by the same name.
Following his footsteps, I chose to leave Hinduism and embrace Islam on 30 January 2020 in Kodungallur, a historical town in Kerala’s Thrissur district. Kodungallur is where the first Indian mosque was built. I am now Raees Mohammed.
The date is significant. It is the day when the first Hindutva terrorist Nathuram Godse assassinated Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. It is also the day when our beloved brother Rohith Vemula, who fought against caste discrimination in Hinduism, was born.
A religion for emancipation
In my childhood, as a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, I had been to Kodungallur six times. It is also where CPI-ML (undivided) Kerala state secretary Najmal Babu embraced Islam in 2015. Rationalist Thanthai Periyar (father) had said that if one wanted to annihilate caste in 15 minutes and live with self-respect, then Islam is the only solution. Periyar had also suggested to Babasaheb Ambedkar to choose Islam as a religion for emancipation.
In my years of research, I too found Islam to be the only religion in India with the strength to annihilate the caste system.
The anti-caste movement has been the longest ongoing socio-cultural movement in India. The main demand is to consider ‘untouchables’ as equal citizens in Hindu society, and to be located under the ambit of the Constitution rather than Hindu religion. But I was curious why this easy solution to annihilate caste via Islam has never been even a reference point in Dalit movement and Dalit literature.
Fight for equality
In January, I was invited to Kodungallur to address a gathering on the dangers of fascism, and against the proposed National Register of Citizens, the National Population Register, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.
Muslims are battling for their citizenship rights in Narendra Modi’s India today. But theirs is a battle different from the struggle of Dalits. The former is for justice and citizenship. The latter is for something as basic as self-respect, to be treated as an equal human being. In that sense, Dalits have it much worse.
This is when I embraced Islam and buried my Hindu identity as Ravichandran Bathran. I do not want to refer to my Hindu name because if you dive deep, all Hindu names only indirectly refer to caste, and I don’t want this Raees Mohammed to carry the old baggage. The name is not the real problem. After all, my parents named me with so much love. But the problem comes when the Hindu society attaches that name to a caste and instils a stereotype of the hereditary occupation of scavenging. My father was treated badly because the Hindu society said he did a job that was considered filthy. This is hypocrisy of the highest order. First, you enforce a traditional occupation on some groups, treat their members badly, and then blame the people rather than the caste system.
My parents chose a Sanskrit name, an unusual practice among my relatives, who always chose names that are easily identified with Chakkiliyars or untouchables. But like my parents, I too experienced unequal treatment.
My education and earnings did not change my identity, and never will. But we are fed with this lie by none other than the Dalit movements.
My father worked as a sanitary worker and my mother was a sweeper in a local school. For the last 15 years, I worked to address the discrimination and untouchability faced by my parents and tens of thousands like them because of their work — sanitation workers/sweepers/scavengers.
We belong to Chakkiliyar/Arunthathiyar caste in Tamil Nadu, who are called, especially by fellow untouchables, as migrants or outsiders. The reason being that Arunthathiyars’ first language is close to Telugu. During my research in undivided Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, and Karnataka, I found that in all these states, the sanitation workers were addressed as outsiders. It doesn’t matter whether they had migrated from other states. Interestingly, in all south Indian states, except in undivided Andhra Pradesh, sanitation workers speak Telugu. In Andhra Pradesh, they speak Hindi and a dialect closer to Odiya.
Scavengers and sweepers are not allowed inside the homes of upper-caste Hindus. Even the toilets are constructed outside the homes. Indian sociologists and anthropologists have a problematic understanding of caste and Indian homes, where Dalits have a separate entrance (as is visible from most buildings). Things are changing slowly in rural areas.
On the contrary, mosques have toilets within their premises. A toilet is not considered unholy. This is where I fell in love with mosques. I do not find any good reason why Dalits should continue to carry Hinduism on their shoulders.
Who’s a Dalit?
Many people request me to drop the word ‘Dalit’ form Dalit Camera. Dalit is not a term to refer to the physical body of untouchables, it’s a revolutionary concept that Dalit Panthers conceived of. Now, I don’t have a caste. But being part of Dalit Camera is a sign of solidarity I show to Dalit Panthers, and to my beloved Muslim brothers and sisters.
For us, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s image itself is enough. It conveys his ideology and idea of justice.
So, Dalits and Muslims have a battle to fight. The fight of Muslims is constitutional in nature, but the fight of Dalits is social, which is more difficult. Many Dalits still do not know that they are being treated unequally because of Hinduism. It’s for this reason Dalits are not aware that they too might find themselves without citizenship one day.
Raees Mohammed, formerly known as Ravichandran Bathran, is the founder of Dalit Camera @dalitcamera. Views are personal.
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