Believe it or not, societal prejudice against Dalits was a significant factor behind the decision of former Pakistani cricket star Yousuf Youhana to convert from Christianity to Islam and adopt the name of Mohammad Yousuf, so writes former diplomat Shaharyar M Khan in his book, Cricket Cauldron: The turbulent politics of sport in Pakistan. Khan was the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, between 2003 and 2006, precisely the period in which the Pakistani batsman became Muslim and began to grow his beard.
In his book, Khan says Yousuf probably converted because he wished to overcome the psychologically debilitating stigma of being a Dalit. Though a Christian, his forefathers belonged to the Dalit caste of sweepers and, as is true of millions, converted to Christianity in search of dignity and equality, hoping to rid themselves of the social stigma associated with jobs considered polluting. But this quest for respectability was belied for most as conversion did not liberate them from performing menial tasks linked to their caste.
Yousuf’s father was a sweeper at a railway station and he himself was apprenticing at a tailor’s shop until, because of a twist in fate, burst upon Pakistan cricket, smashing centuries and amassing wealth. Yet, beyond his own community, his lowly social origin was not forgotten. There were reports, Khan says, of “Yousuf stepping onto the cricket field only to be greeted – albeit by a small section of the home crowd – by taunts of ‘choora aa gaya, bhangi aa gaya. (The sweeper has arrived).”
The barracking crowds comprised Muslims, whose religion emphasizes on the equality of human beings, but whose community in the subcontinent too has a social stratification of which caste is an essential element, albeit without the all-encompassing severity witnessed among Hindus. Perhaps it was because of the persistence of caste among Muslims that the demeaning untouchability status of Dalits did not change at their conversion to Christianity in Muslim Pakistan.
The nomenclature of Christian became yet another marker for people employed in menial tasks. Even today, Pakistan’s three million Christians are involved in what are considered polluting jobs, barring those who are the descendants of Goan migrants, settled mostly in the port city of Karachi.
Providing a historical perspective, Khan writes, “Many such persons (Christians) adopted Muslim names to escape the daily derision, wore Muslim dress but remained Christians. Others converted to Islam, losing the sympathy and protection of the Christian Church and community without gaining a commensurate advantage with the Muslims.” The question to ask then is: in the absence of pecuniary gains accruing from conversion, why do Dalit Christians of Pakistan embrace Islam? Khan explains, “Being a member of the Scheduled Caste, even as a Christian, was a heavy cross to bear and converting to Islam was one way of escaping the stigma. Respectability was only possible through conversion.”
Thus, it seems conversion to Islam provided a modicum of respectability and promise of equal treatment to even the poor Christian, prompting him or her to forego his or her spiritual inheritance and the ‘sympathy’ of the Church.
For Yousuf, not dependent on the church as he was wealthy, social respectability was paramount. “My sense is that the third motivation – the caste factor – may have partially influenced Yousuf’s decision,” writes Khan.
Yet, it is debatable Youhana would have renounced Christianity had his team not been in thrall to Islam, courtesy the influence that the Islamic missionary group, Tablighi Jamaat, asserted through the dashing Pakistani opener Saeed Anwar, captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, spinners Mushtaq Ahmad and Saqlain Mushtaq. They prayed together, heard sermons together, but for the sole exception of Shoaib Akhtar.
It is possible in this ambience of extreme religious fervor Yousuf might have felt alienated, further aggravating his insecurities arising from his being a Dalit Christian. In what reads a bit contradictory, Khan writes, “I feel that Yousuf’s conversion was primarily due to his seeing the light as projected by his Tablighi colleagues – Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and Mushtaq Ahmed.”
Did this ‘seeing the light’ also include the trio convincing Yousuf about the respectability he would acquire in the society, the stigma he would wash-off in his leap from one faith to another? Khan doesn’t delve into this question, but he does write about the significance of Yousuf’s conversion: “Yousuf Youhana becoming Mohammad Yousuf was one of their (Tablighis) greatest prizes to date. It eclipsed the conversion of pop star Cat Stevens who changed his appearance and name (to Yusuf Islam) to become a Muslim.”
Yousuf may have liberated himself from poverty through cricket and acquired social respectability through conversion, but not the millions of Dalits, both Christians and Hindus, who clean the drains in urban sprawls and work as farm-hands in rural Pakistan in exploitative conditions. Might it be too much to ask Mohammad Yousuf and Tablighi mentors to bat for Pakistan’s Dalit population?
This article first appeared in Nepali Times, a leading Nepali publication.