A number of people are attending a unique marriage ceremony, being held in a public space in a remote village in central Bihar. The bride and the bridegroom move around the fire, a Hindu religious symbol, supervised by a Pandit who recites Vedic mantras. The relatives and friends of the couple are seated around them. As soon as the bride and the bridegroom complete the seventh round of movement of fire, the priest declares, `Now you are attached with the unbreakable bond of marriage. You are now a couple according to the Hindu religion`.
But shortly after, the situation takes a new turn and the environment changes like a scene from a traditional Indian drama. The same bride and the bridegroom are seated clandestinely in a locked house with only a few near relatives with them, under the supervision of a Qazi, a Muslim priest who is responsible for performing Muslim marriage ceremonies. The Qazi recites some verses of the Quran and then asks the bridegroom in the presence of three witnesses, `Do you accept this girl as your life partner`? The bridegroom replies, `Yes, I accept`. The Qazi declares the nikah, the Muslim marriage, to have been completed and the couple to have been legally married under Islamic law.
Is it possible for a person to be follower of Hinduism and Islam at the same time, particularly in such a society like India, where one`s religious identity is given such importance? Why did this couple follow the marital rituals of both religions?
In fact, as it emerged, the family of the bride and bridegroom used to be Muslim. However, they found that certain constitutional rights and benefits are reserved by law for Dalits or members of `low` caste or socially marginalised communities, like themselves, only if they declare themselves officially as Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. Hence, in order to be able to access these rights, the couple had a formal Hindu marriage, declaring themselves as `Hindus`. The head of the family, who is in his early sixties, also changed his Islamic name, and adopted a Hindu name. His wife did so too, after formally declaring herself a Hindu. She keeps pictures of Hindu deities in her sitting room, so that outsiders think of her family as Hindu, which she says she is not. If the officials come to know that she is wrongly claiming to be a Hindu, the family will be denied all Scheduled Caste-related benefits.
A vital question is that if they have declared themselves as `Hindus`, why did they follow the Hindu as well as the Islamic way of marriage? Why did they not follow only the Hindu way, as they had declared themselves `Hindu`? Why did they follow the Islamic way of marriage clandestinely, whereas they got married the Hindu way in public? I asked this question to Dr Ejaz Ali, head of the All-India Muslim Morcha, a Patna-based organisation working for marginalized Muslims. He explained it as a result of economic compulsion, although, he said, the couple still were emotionally attached to Islam, evidence of which was the fact that they had also married the Muslim way clandestinely. As he put it, "By officially declaring themselves as Hindu Dalits in public, although still retaining their affection for Islam, these poor people can get special constitutional rights to government employment and reservations. But as Muslims they cannot`.
This family belongs to the Nat caste. The Nats are considered to be `untouchables` by caste Hindus. They are an impoverished nomadic community. Many of them survive through begging. There are both Muslim as well as Hindu Nats. The Nats were traditionally treated as `untouchables` and so many of them converted to Islam over the centuries, to escape caste oppression and in search of social equality. After embracing Islam, the Muslim Nats changed only marginally, in terms of religious beliefs, but their social, economical as well as educational background remained the same.
As a Muslim, the Nat groom referred to above had been observing various Islamic rituals. But one day he formally declared himself a `Hindu`, because unlike Muslim Nats, Hindu Nats are recognised as a Scheduled Caste by the state and can, accordingly, benefit from various government programmes and schemes, which Muslim Nats are legally denied, simply because of their religion .Hence, the groom`s conversion was tactical, not because of any religious reason, but simply in the hope of some economic advancement. The man`s wife thinks that the law is iniquitous. `If our brethren, the Hindu Nats, can get special constitutional rights and on that basis can get employment, then why not fellow Nats who are Muslims?. We are equally, if not more, poor than them`, she asserts.
According to a special provision in article 341 of the Indian Constitution, `untouchable` or Dalit communities, termed as Scheduled Castes (SCs), get several special rights, including reservations in education, employment and membership of Parliament as well as states assemblies. But this special right has been extended to only those who declare themselves to be Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs, while Muslim and Christian Dalits are denied these rights.
As Ejaz Ali argues, "This constitutional provision compels Hindu Dalits not to embrace Islam or Christianity. If they do they would lose the special constitutional rights as well as several other benefits given by the states and the union government." On the other hand, as the case of the Nat couple shows, many Dalits who had historically converted to Islam feel that it is better to declare themselves as Hindus and thereby access special constitutional rights for Scheduled Castes`. As Ali Anwar, a veteran journalist and member of the Rajya Sabha, who has written several books on the socio-economic condition of marginalized Muslims, puts it, "This constitutional provision is a violation of the Constitutional principle of secularism`.
Irshadul Haque is a social activist and writer based in Bihar.