On Sunday, members of a Dalit family that had been targeted by cow vigilantes in Una, Gujarat, in July 2016, and nearly 300 other Dalits converted to Buddhism at Mota Samadhiyala village, where they had been allegedly beaten by the gaurakshaks. Pradip Parmar, a Dalit MLA from the BJP who attended the function, told The Indian Express: “I am a BJP worker, but had Babasaheb not given the Constitution and the provision of reservation, I would not have become an MLA.”
Is it common for Dalits to convert to Buddhism?
There have been numerous instances in recent years where Dalits, individually, families and in large groups, have embraced Buddhism. For instance, 30 Dalit youth converted to Buddhism at Sankalp Bhoomi in Vadodara, a place connected with B R Ambedkar, last October. Every year, people visit Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur where Ambedkar embraced Buddhism along with over 3 lakh followers on October 14, 1956, and take vows to follow the Buddha’s faith. Ambedkar’s “cremation ceremony in Bombay”, according to social historian Eleanor Zelliot, “was the occasion of another conversion, administered to a lakh of people by bhikku Anand Kausalyayan”. Zelliot writes that “on December 16, crowds gathered for prayer at the Diksha ground in Nagpur, and for conversion rites in Nasik and Bombay. Conversion ceremonies were held across the face of Maharashtra in the next two months”. The 1961 Census recorded 32.50 lakh Buddhists, with 27.89 lakh in Maharashtra; in 2011, these numbers were 84.43 lakh and over 65 lakh.
But why would Dalits want to convert to Buddhism?
Buddhism was the faith Ambedkar chose when he decided to leave Hinduism. On October 13, 1935, Babasaheb told a gathering of 10,000 people in Yeola that “I will not die a Hindu”. In the preceding years, he had hoped that Hinduism could be rid of untouchability and the caste system itself, and had supported reformist initiatives including temple entry movements. Zelliot recounts that in 1929 at Jalgaon, he stated that Untouchables should embrace other religions if their disabilities were not lifted, and within a month, 12 Mahars in the area had embraced Islam. Ambedkar’s own decision to convert “seems to have been made on intellectual and emotional grounds, a stab at the religion, which denied him equality and self-respect”, says Zelliot. “But it (also)… served as a threat, both to the reputation of Hinduism for tolerance and to Hindus as a political entity”.
Through the 1930s, Ambedkar stressed that conversion alone was the way for Dalit emancipation. Speaking at the All-Bombay District Mahar Conference in Dadar (May 30-31, 1936), he explained why he saw conversion as a political and spiritual act for Dalits. He identified sympathy, equality and liberty as the three factors required for the uplift of an individual in a religion, and said these were non-existent in Hinduism. “Conversion”, he said, “is necessary to the Untouchables as self-government is necessary to India. The ultimate object of both conversion and self-government is the same… This ultimate aim is to attain freedom.” Though he would convert to Buddhism only two decades later, Ambedkar concluded his speech by recalling a conversation between the Buddha and his disciple Ananda. He said, “I also take refuge in the words of the Buddha. Be your own guide. Take refuge in your own reason. Do not listen to the advice of others. Do not succumb to others. Be truthful. Take refuge in truth. Never surrender to anything.” To Ambedkar, self-respect and individual freedom were key categories, and Buddhism, he felt, was closest to his idea of a true religion.
Did this practice start with Ambedkar?
The modern use of conversion as a political tool started with Ambedkar, but the revolt against caste and the Brahminical order goes back to the Buddha himself. Islam, Christianity and Sikhism found converts among the oppressed Hindu castes. The Bhakti Movement posed a major challenge to Brahminism, and upheld anti-caste ideals and foregrounded the languages of ordinary people above Sanskrit. Basava, who established the Lingayat order as an egalitarian community in the 12th century for example, preferred Kannada as the language of communication.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, radical intellectuals, especially those from oppressed castes, started to challenge prevailing histories that privileged the rights of caste elites. For instance, Iyothee Thasar in the Tamil region imagined a Dravidian identity with roots in a Buddhist past for the Untouchable Pariah caste. Reformist leaders in Malayalam-speaking areas like Mitavadi Krishnan and Sahodaran Ayyappan proposed conversion out of Hinduism and as a political tool to negotiate the rights of the lower castes with the ruling elite. Several caste/ethnic/linguistic communities in the subcontinent produced similar leaders who rejected the social, political and religious leadership of Hindus who wished to replicate the caste hierarchy supported by Brahminical Hinduism. The threat of conversion played a seminal role in temple entry, right of way, anti-untouchability legislation and finally, the promotion of inter-dining and inter-caste marriages.
Is the conversion only to Buddhism?
No. In states like Tamil Nadu, Dalits see Islam and Christianity as options. In 1981, 150 Dalit families in Meenakshipuram, a village in southern Tamil Nadu, embraced Islam citing oppression by caste Hindus.
What is the political message in the Una conversions?
It undermines the BJP’s political project of building a Hindu vote encompassing all communities. The recent spate of atrocities against Dalits has exposed the contradictions in the Hindutva agenda, which valourises the past in uncritical terms and celebrates Brahminical values. The new Dalit, schooled in Ambedkarite thought, is unwilling to accept old hierarchies and value systems. The Sangh Parivar’s attempt to patronise and assume guardianship of Hinduism also has pitted Dalits against the religion. The Dalit revolt against Hindutva is increasingly being manifested as Dalits leaving Hinduism.