IN THE year since July 11, 2016, when four Dalits were publicly flogged in Una on the allegation of killing a cow, there has been at least a three-fold increase in the number of Dalits convering to Buddhism in Gujarat, estimates the Buddhist Society of India, founded by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.
The chairman of the society, P G Jyotikar, one of the first Dalits to convert to Buddhism in Gujarat, says around 1,500-1,600 Dalits have embraced Buddhism in the state since the Una incident, and that nearly 500 of them went to Nagpur for the conversion. Before Una, he adds, Gujarat would see 400-500 conversions a year.
In Manjipura area of Nadiad in Kheda district, a kuchcha lane with fresh rainwater gathered in puddles leads to a settlement of close to 500 Scheduled Caste families. At the farthest end lives 56-year-old Suresh Maheriya with his family of five.
On Dussehra last year, Maheriya and a few other families of Kheda converted to Buddhism, the first in the district since Una.
Recently, when his elder son, an executive with a construction company, and his upper-caste wife, who has also converted, had a child, they named her Kanishka — after the Emperor who patronised Buddhism. Maheriya’s younger son Bipin, a software engineer from Pune, is planning to adopt a Buddhist name like his father.
Maheriya, who is now called ‘Samyak Bauddh’, is an Assistant Social Welfare officer with the Anand district administration. Sitting under posters of Dr Ambedkar and the Buddha, he talks about how despite being a government servant, he couldn’t escape “the mindset of discrimination”, and how he isn’t surprised that Dalits who may have been contemplating conversion earlier are “actually taking that step” since Una.
“I had mentally turned a Buddhist and renounced Hinduism many years ago. But the formal conversion happened only last October, when my entire family, including my daughter-in-law, converted at a shibir (camp) in Nagpur,” Maheriya says. “We find peace in Buddhism, where everyone is alike. There are no gods here who carry weapons, which are a sign of war and destruction. Buddhism teaches only peace and compassion. It gives you inner satisfaction that you are no longer looked down upon by those whose mindset gets polluted as they climb up the caste ladder.”
Maheriya says this Dussehra, as many as 400 families from Central Gujarat will travel to Nagpur to renounce Hinduism, at a function presided over by Buddhist monks from Haryana.
Confirming the surge in conversions, Jyotikar says, “It is an expression of anger among the community.” Dalits have converted all across Gujarat, including Junagadh, Surendranagar, Palanpur, Bhiloda of Sabarkantha, Ahmedabad, Kalol of Gandhinagar, and Kodinar in Saurashtra.
Kirit Solanki, a senior BJP Dalit leader and its MP from Ahmedabad (West), says, “I think the Gujarat government had taken prompt action in the Una case. But after it, a lot of politics is being done.”
Also chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for the Welfare of SC/ST communities, he adds, “Dalits do convert to Buddhism. Even Dr Ambedkar had embraced Buddhism. But I doubt if Dalit conversions have increased a lot. Many times people produce inflated figures to exaggerate facts.”
When informed that the figures of conversion are from Jyotikar, the head of the Buddhist Society of India, Solanki said, “He (Jyotikar) is my friend… but I do not want to enter into any controversy (over the issue).”
Sangeeta Parmar, 26, of Ahmedabad converted to Buddhism at a function in Kalol in October last year. “The Una incident cleared our doubts,” she says.
In Anand district, Dharmaj village of Petlad taluka is sometimes called the richest village of Asia, for its NRI remittances. The Dalit anger or the Patidar movement reverberated a little here, despite Darmaj’s history of clashes with the dominant Patidars. However, among the affluent homes here, the locality of Dalit Faliya stands out in contrast.
The people in this part of the village now have a role model: ‘Siddharth Buddh’. Formerly Kantibhai Makwana, his was the first among the 250-odd Dalit families here to embrace Buddhism in October last year. Now the entire Dalit Faliya is Buddhist.
Makwana says his three children, the youngest 16, inspired him to take the step, and he hopes it will “liberate” him from “the clutches of an abusive Hindu caste system”. “We have been Hindus all our life but we have never been addressed as Hindu. People call us Dalit, Shudra and other such derogatory words. In other religions like Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, there is no caste system. People do not read your surname and tag you to a particular caste. So I decided to liberate myself from the daily insults by walking the path that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar has shown us. We have been following the teachings of Babasaheb and Buddha for many years, but after the Una incident, we decided that it was time to embrace the Buddhist way of life.”
Ramesh Banker, secretary of the Gujarat Buddhist Academy, disagrees with conversions “done as an expression of anger”. “I think people should decide with a calm mind. Only then does it serve its purpose.”
Maheriya’s close friend Narendrakumar Nakum, a former manager of a nationalised bank, says he did think long and hard. While he had decided long ago to convert, he spent years learning the tenets of Buddhism. “While people have shown immense respect towards me during my career as a bank manager, I still have friends who are awkward sharing a cup of tea with me. There have been educated colleagues who have asked me to write ‘Harijan’ next to my surname in brackets during my career. These things caused much hurt,” adds Nakum.
Still, “I wanted to be sure I knew the faith before I converted”, he admits.
Finally, this Dussehra, he will renounce Hinduism. “I am 67 years old,” says Nakum. “If at this age, I want to convert to Buddhism, there must be something really wrong with this Hindu caste system.”