The conversion of tens of thousands of lower caste Hindus to Buddhism earlier this week in Gujarat state, which local authorities say they plan to investigate, may only be the beginning of a much larger mass conversion, according to one of the organizers of the conversion event. Devendra Govindbhai Vanvi, himself a Dalit convert to Buddhism, said that the event on Sunday, which saw the conversion of an estimated 60,000 Dalits, was an attempt to break out of India’s oppressive caste system. Though officially abolished, it still influences the thinking of many in India, who Vanvi says continue to look on Dalits as “social slaves”. Gujarat state officials have announced an investigation into the conversions, which took place in Junagadh district, as potential violations of the state’s Freedom of Religion rules passed in 2008 to restrict conversions mainly to Christianity and Islam. Under the rules, prospective converts must obtain permission from district authorities before changing their religion. Any violation of the rules could invite legal action against the convert and anyone involved in the conversion. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs the Gujarat government, is investigating whether the Dalits petitioned for such permission. District Collector Alok Pandey, Junagadh’s highest government official, told local media that the organizers of the conversion event – Baudh Diksha Mahotsava Samiti – had not obtained “proper permission”. But Vanvi dismissed the claim, saying that he received permission and that authorities were attempting to exert political pressure on the converts. He said the BJP feels threatened by the Buddhist movement in the state because it could in the long run have an impact on voter demographics in a state where the BJP has remained in power for three consecutive terms. Vanvi added that his organization has plans for similar conversion events in coming days, and that the state government’s investigation is aimed at pre-empting any future events. Balkrishna Anand, a Buddhist missionary, said thousands of Dalits have been educated in the last several decades, which has created greater awareness among them of the lingering effects of the former caste system. He added that the conversions “will result in the Dalit population coming down and the Buddhist population going up”. India has about 8 million Buddhists, less than one percent of the total population, according to 2001 census data, the latest available official count. The largest concentration is in Maharashtra state, where 73 percent of the total Buddhists in India reside. Dalit activist Kirit Rathod said state authorities have tried to stop conversions to Buddhism in the past, largely to maintain their political foothold. “The BJP will be the only loser in political terms, and this is why they are using the administration to discourage conversion activities,” Rathod said.
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But BJP leader and former minister Girish Parmar said conversion rules are in place as a check against fraudulent conversion activities that target poor people and to protect the uneducated. “Conversion to Buddhism is no solution to the problems of social inequality that Dalits face,” Parmar said, though he acknowledged that the mass conversions indicate “a kind of unrest among Dalits to get rid of social, physical and emotional disabilities”.