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India makes it difficult for Dalits to convert to Buddhism

Dalit Buddhists are called ‘Ambedkarites,’ a term that instantly describes their faith and their ideology
A vendor sells pictures of the Buddha and Dalit leader Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on his 50th death anniversary in Mumbai on Dec. 6, 2006. Ambedkar regarded Buddhism as a revolution, calling it 'as great a revolution as the French Revolution.'

A vendor sells pictures of the Buddha and Dalit leader Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on his 50th death anniversary in Mumbai on Dec. 6, 2006. Ambedkar regarded Buddhism as a revolution, calling it 'as great a revolution as the French Revolution.' (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 12, 2024 12:22 PM GMT
Updated: April 15, 2024 03:34 AM GMT

In the middle of India’s ongoing general elections, the state government of Gujarat has moved swiftly to prevent parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (meaning party of majority people) and the Congress, from luring away the state’s Dalits or former “untouchable” castes, and their votes.

The Dalits may have been turned off by the heavy Hindu agenda in the electoral campaign of the Bhartiya Janata Party, which controls the federal as well as state administration.

The Gujarat government has released a circular clarifying the recognition of Buddhism as a separate religion. It said that conversions from Hinduism to Buddhism, Jainism, or Sikhism must receive prior approval from the relevant district magistrate under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2003.

Although the preamble of the constitution upfront declares India’s secularism and guarantees liberty of faith, students of the constitutional history of religion in independent India cannot fail to notice the unabashed political exercise to protect the demographic and political strength of the Hindu religion.

“The Hindu is in Danger” has been a political slogan right from partition and independence in 1947.

This has been so irrespective of which political party was in power and who was the prime minister of the country. Even the Congress, a century-old movement that led the anti-colonial struggle, and represented people irrespective of religion, caste, or economic status, has a strong presence of an orthodox core from both the northern and southern states.

This core could force even the iconic freedom fighter and first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to succumb and bring in many laws that marked clear favoritism towards Hinduism and the parallel theologies of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. They were called “Indic,” native to the soil of the country.

Islam and Christianity, with roots going back 2,000 and 1,500 years, were deemed Abrahamic, alien faiths brought in by invading or colonial powers from West Asia or Europe.

Ironically, Judaism, with roots even older than Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, which can also claim an existence in India of more than half a millennium, have been left untouched by government laws. Both are minuscule, and both are very well off, with the Parsees controlling a large chunk of the metallurgical, manufacturing and aviation sectors.

The first law that sought to insulate the Hindu faith from sheep stealing by Christian missionaries or Islamic madrasas was the notorious Presidential Order of 1960, now given permanent status in the constitution as Part 3 of Article 341. The law provided affirmative action and protection to communities once deemed untouchable. The law was upheld by the Supreme Court but has been challenged again before a constitutional bench.

The former “untouchables” are now politely called lower castes. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijan, meaning children of god. But the term was vehemently rejected by the people, who now prefer to call themselves Dalits. The government calls them “scheduled castes.”

Dalits roughly translate as broken people — a term coined by Human Rights Watch as the title of its revelatory report on the social condition of Dalits in the country. Manual scavenging of dry latrines, and cleaning of deep sewers of untreated human fecal material, continue despite popular outrage, and deaths in the sewers.

Dalits also top in numbers of people in prison — now Muslim young men have joined them — as well as in victims of rape, lynching, and suicide.

The death by suicide of a doctoral scholar in Andhra Pradesh has cast a dark shadow on the administration of higher education in the county. The same state earlier had seen a Dalit village attacked and many killed and burnt.

The constitution was amended to stop anyone from fleeing this travesty of justice to a people traumatized by three millennia of structured subjugation under an ancient religious fiat.

Article 341, Part 3, effectively took away the freedom of religion — including the freedom to reject religion or change it by converting to another faith — from approximately 20 percent of the Hindu population.

They could lose jobs, scholarships, and even their reserved seats in state legislatures if they left Hinduism. In later decades, the rules were relaxed to legalize conversion to Buddhism and Sikhism, which were thought of as part of the larger Hindu fold.

Hinduism has transformed into Hindutva, which minorities look at with apprehension, if not fear. The Supreme Court declared it “a Way of Life.” But for the Dalits, this was a cosmetic definition.

Ironically, the main Islamic and Christian communities have imbibed caste into their structures. As petitions in the Supreme Court described the phenomenon, “caste has migrated across boundaries on religion.”

Conversions have been a way of protest by Dalits across the county, but especially so in Maharashtra and Gujarat — once part of the Bombay state.

Buddhism grew in response to the orthodoxy of the prevailing Vedic religion. Academic L P Gomes, in The Encyclopaedia of Religion, traced the roots of Buddhism in the “shramanic” movement of the sixth century BCE that was in direct opposition to the religious and social order of the Brahmanas. Jainism had already emerged in a similar social setting.

Buddhism rejected the institution of caste that formed the backbone of Vedic society. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote: “Buddhism was a revolution. It was as great a revolution as the French Revolution.”

Buddhism eventually declined in India. The landscape is littered with the ruins of Buddhist stupas and monasteries. Gaya, where the Buddha achieved nirvana, now has modern hotels financed by the Koreans and the Japanese.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, radical intellectuals from oppressed castes once again started to harken to Buddhism in their bid to challenge the Brahmanical hegemony.

Ambedkar was a Dalit who earned doctorates from Harvard and Oxford, chaired the writing of the constitution, and was a key minister for a few years in the first cabinet ministry of Nehru. He has immortalized himself as the global symbol of this protest. He wrote books such as Annihilation of Caste, challenged Mahatma Gandhi himself, and declared he would not die a Hindu.

Ambedkar studied the life and philosophy of Lord Buddha, his rejection of the tenets of Vedic theology and practice, and evolved a thesis of equality, reason and rationality. He crystallized his own political view of the faith as a radically anti-caste, rationalist religious movement.

He had also made a study of Christianity and Islam as they were practiced in India. He finally settled on Buddhism.

Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on Oct. 14, 1956, along with over 3.6 lakh followers. He died on Dec. 6, 1956, in New Delhi.

After Ambedkar’s death, the practice of the former outcastes, or untouchable castes, converting to Buddhism became prevalent across the country, not only seen as an avenue for emancipation but also as the path taken by Ambedkar.

For his followers, he gave a list of instructions on how they would take the movement forward in growth with social and economic emancipation.

The scholar listed the core tenet to follow as “Organise, Educate, Agitate.” He went on to explain “What we must do is not to be content with mere political democracy. We must make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy.”

His final words, so to say, are “Don't take my word for it; see and test for yourself.”

Conversions to Buddhism peak in December and in years of political turmoil, atrocities against Dalits, or when solidarity is sought to be seen by the community.

In April 2023, nearly 50,000 Dalits and Adivasis converted to Buddhism to mark Ambedkar’s 132nd birth anniversary. The Indian Express newspaper reported that some 2,000 people, mostly Dalits, converted to Buddhism in Gujarat in 2023.

Ironically, the traditional Buddhists, who mostly exist in communities in the Himalayan region along the Chinese and Nepal borders from Ladakh to across the northeastern states, have maintained their distinct identity.

So have the Tibetan Buddhists who came with the Dalai Lama when he fled from the Chinese, leaving his monastery in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama settled in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, but there are two other major Tibetan communities in Delhi and Bengaluru (now Bangalore).

The Dalit Buddhists have their own monasteries and temples. And they, commonly, are called “Ambedkarite,” a term that instantly describes their faith and their ideology.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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