New Delhi: Undeterred by the controversy surrounding a Buddhist “mass conversion” event in Delhi last week, the main organiser, Mission Jai Bheem, is going ahead with its plan to bring 10 crore people “back to their original culture” of Buddhism by 2025.
A team of Buddhist monks from across the country is being formed to lead the mission, with an all-India “mega event” set to take place on 14 September 2025, according to the group’s website.
The organisation, founded in August last year, held a Deeksha Samaroh (initiation ceremony) in Delhi on 5 October. It’s claimed that 10,000 people attended. The ensuing controversy over Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Rajendra Pal Gautam’s participation in the event — with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alleging that he was “denouncing” Hinduism — led to him resigning as a minister in the Delhi government.
However, Mission Jai Bheem’s national secretary, Ishwar Singh, told ThePrint that such large-scale conversion events happen every year across various cities in India.
“These events have also been attended by BJP leaders,” Singh claimed.
The event in Delhi last week was co-organised by the Buddhist Society of India, an organisation founded by B. R. Ambedkar in 1955 and currently headed by his great-grandnephew, Rajratna Ambedkar.
The Buddhist Society of India’s Delhi president, C.S. Bhandari, told ThePrint that several Ambedkarite bodies organise these deeksha events, but Buddhist Society is the apex body that provides certificates. They provided certificates during the Delhi event as well.
During the event, the attendees, including Gautam, took 22 vows including an oath renouncing Hinduism. The 22 vows in question are a list of pledges Ambedkar had prescribed to his followers after converting to Buddhism from Hinduism.
Bhandari said the number of people taking deeksha had increased over the years. While unable to provide exact numbers, he said that Delhi alone has seen lakhs of converts over the years.
However, he added that the reported number of attendees for last week’s event doesn’t truly reflect the actual number of people who converted to Buddhism during the said event.
“During these annual events, previous years’ converts also participate and revise their oaths. So the actual number of people who took deeksha of Buddhism during the Delhi event must be between 3,000 and 4,000”, Bhandari said.
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Increase in population share
According to census figures, the Buddhist population in India increased to 84 lakh in 2011 from 64 lakh in 1991.
Under the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950, Dalits who belong to Hindu, Sikh & Buddhist faiths are considered members of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and can access the benefits of reservation.
A 2016 report by the Indian Express, quoting government data, said the number of SC people under the Buddhism category had increased by 38 per cent between 2001 and 2011, while the total SC population had increased by just 21.3 per cent.
Over 90 per cent of SC people practising Buddhism live in Maharashtra, with a growth rate of over 60 per cent, according to the same report.
Maharashtra is the birthplace of the Neo-Buddhist movement as B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism with lakhs of his followers at Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi on 14 October 1956. Every year, at the same place, people embrace Buddhism and take the 22 vows.
Also Read: ‘Gandhiji, I have no homeland’—When Ambedkar said Dalits can’t depend on Congress
Bhikkhu Sangh disapproves
The All India Bhikkhu Sangha, a Bodh Gaya-based pan-India religious society of Bhikkhus (Buddhist monks), raised an objection to these pledges and conversions on their basis.
“The tradition of conversion to Buddhism has been going on from the time of the Buddha, but the conversion should happen on the basis of Panch Sheela (5 precepts),” Bhikkhu Pragyadeep, general secretary of the Sangha, told ThePrint.
The five precepts are commitments to abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication
“These kinds of conversion events are not harmonious in nature. They pit religions against each other. Hindu and Bauddha culture are the two pillars of India. When these pillars were here, the country progressed, and when other religions took over it was destroyed. We have to tread forward very carefully,” said Pragyadeep.
Udit Raj, Congress leader and national chairman of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organizations, said these conversion events are not uncommon.
“Why such hue and cry? Gautam should not have apologised and stepped down. He is the architect of the whole thing, he was not just there as an individual to participate. Why has Arvind Kejriwal not allowed other ministers involved in controversies to resign too? This means he is discriminatory,” he alleged.
He also claimed that the Buddhist population in India is increasing, and that this may not be reflected in the census due to cases of Buddhists being recorded as Hindus.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)
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