Every year, the day of Dussehra is also celebrated as Ashoka Vijayadashami, especially by people belonging to the Dalit community across India, to commemorate the Buddhist conversion day. The tradition has its origin in 14 October 1956 when B.R. Ambedkar, independent India’s first law minister and a critic of the caste system in Hindu society, along with lakhs of people, had embraced Buddhism in Nagpur.
From Delhi in the north to Yadgir in south, mass Dalit conversion to Buddhism has riled up many Hindu groups. The spectre of losing Dalits to another faith — and that too a public pledge to reject Hinduism — in the election campaign season has reignited an age-old debate about caste oppression.
The conversion event attended by the Aam Aadmi Party’s Rajendra Pal Gautam was the latest in a long series of similar Dalit mobilisation that Ambedkar started in 1956. But Gautam’s subsequent resignation from the Delhi government shows that Indian politics still bristles when religious conversions occur.
This is why mass Dalit conversions to Buddhism is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Also read: Kejriwal, Rahul, Mamata’s silence on Muslims’ flogging shows deeper crisis in Opposition camp
On 5 October, coinciding with the day of Dussehra, a public event was held in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, organised by the Buddhist Society of India and an NGO named Mission Jai Bheem. It was attended by Rajendra Pal Gautam, a minister in the AAP government in Delhi. At the event, Gautam, alongside Ambedkar’s great-grandnephew Rajratna Ambedkar, could be seen repeating the ‘22 vows’ that B.R. Ambedkar had prescribed to his followers in 1956.
Gautam’s presence at the event led to a controversy, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) training guns at the AAP, accusing it of hurting religious sentiments of Hindus – and brought Gautam’s resignation from his ministerial position. Gautam, who follows Buddhism and happens to be a Dalit face in the AAP, had charge of the social welfare and SC/ST welfare portfolios.
“Taking the 22 Ambedkar vows is a routine event that happens every year across India, often coinciding with Vijayadashami. It has happened in Delhi before, but never been a political controversy. I have been attending such events for the last 25-30 years. Over the past few years, several BJP leaders have participated in such events… even the Government of India has published the 22 vows in its publications… Then why this hate?” Gautam told ThePrint.
Also read: Droupadi Murmu isn’t just symbolic. She is central to RSS-BJP’s Hindutva project
Ambedkar, Gandhi and conversions
Ambedkar addressed a huge gathering of Mahars in Mumbai in May 1936, where he shared his ideas on religious conversion and why he saw it as the best route toward emancipation. He spent his next 20 years contemplating which religion would best suit the requirements of marginalised communities, and ultimately zeroed in on Buddhism. Ambedkar found a critic in M K Gandhi, who believed that reforms could be brought within the varna system dominating the Hindu society.
Gandhi was of the opinion that every person “must find his salvation within his own [religious] community.” He argued that, because untouchability was a matter that concerned Hindus and their practice of Hinduism, it was pointless for the ‘untouchables’ to turn to other religions.
While the jury is still out in the Ambedkar vs Gandhi debate, mass conversions have continued.
In the 1970s, Eknath Awad, a social reformer who went on to join the Dalit Panthers movement, strongly took forward Ambedkar’s ideas on conversion to Buddhism and actively invested in it, helping organise mass conversion events in Maharashtra and other states.
Fast forward to 2007, more than one lakh people gathered at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Racecourse and embraced Buddhism at a conversion ceremony led by Laxman Mane, a writer turned politician from a nomadic community. Interestingly, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had then decided to look the other way, saying the Sangh Parivar considers Buddhism as part of the Hindu dharma.
But an April 2018 conversion event that saw four Dalit men, who were flogged for skinning a dead cow, embrace Buddhism along with 300 others, left the RSS fuming.
Also read: Becoming a Hindu is not that easy. Even if a Waseem Rizvi turns into Jitendra Tyagi
The 22 vows and the renunciation
Since 1956, the Nagpur venue at which Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism has witnessed gatherings of thousands every year to commemorate the act of the Dalit icon. In these annual gatherings, the ‘22 vows’ of Ambedkar, which are at the centre of the controversy involving Gautam, are often recited.
At least seven of Ambedkar’s 22 vows either deal with direct renunciation of Hinduism or a vow to no longer believe in Hindu gods or practices. The vows also contain criticism of the caste system and uphold Ambedkar’s devotion to Buddhism, which is consistent with his lifelong anti-caste ideology and activism work.
Y.S. Alone, professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “If one looks at the intrinsic nature of those oaths (perceived to be denouncing Hindu deities), these are against Brahminic icons.”
An analysis of Census data by IndiaSpend in 2017 showed conversions to Buddhism witnessed steady increase between 1971 and 1991 – a period that also coincides with the uprise of Dalit-centric politics and the rise of Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party.
After that, conversions evidently went on but at a dwindling rate.
On conversions happening year after year, Gautam, now a former AAP minister, says: “It is all about oppression in the name of caste. People feel suffocated.”
Most Dalit converts and scholars on Dalit issues would agree to that. Alone adds: “It is also about empowerment. On embracing Buddhism, one feels free from an oppressive system.”
Undeterred by the controversy surrounding a Buddhist “mass conversion”, Mission Jai Bheem, the organisers of the 5 October event in Delhi, is going ahead with its plan to bring 10 crore people “back to their original culture” of Buddhism by 2025, its office bearers told ThePrint.
Also read: Why Sameer Wankhede cannot be both: Muslim and an SC. Read Constituent Assembly debate
Conversions: beyond Buddhism
If one looks at incidents of mass conversions in India over the last 40 years or so, it seems that large number of Dalits are embracing not just Buddhism but also Islam and Christianity.
In 1981, hundreds of Hindus in Tamil Nadu’s Meenakshipuram converted to Islam because of caste oppression.
“The Meenakshipuram incident led to a furore in the country with the RSS taking up the issue in a big way. The VHP took the lead and an organisation by the name of Virat Hindu Samaj was set up, which organised a ‘Viral Hindu Sammelan’ in Delhi and it estimated to have been attended by five lakh people. Such conferences were organised all over the country at state and district levels. The issue was also raised in Parliament,” writes Arun Anand, research director with Delhi-based think-tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra.
“Interestingly, ‘Virat Hindu Samaj’ was headed by a senior Congress leader, Dr Karan Singh, and the general secretary was Ashok Singhal, an RSS pracharak. This movement actually laid the ground for the Ram Temple movement in 1983 by Hindu religious leaders, with the support of the VHP.”
In Punjab, the RSS and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee have been raking up the issue of Dalits – from the Hindu as well as Sikh community – embracing Christianity for several years now.
Also read: Sameer Wankhede is both Muslim and SC. He is a victim of a historical wrong
Conversion, caste and reservation
While conversions kept happening, there also seems to have been strong pushbacks from social and political individuals, groups and institutes, often as an attempt to keep the flock together.
At this point, it also becomes important to mention about caste-based reservation, which plays an important role in contemporary Indian politics and seems to have direct correlation with choices of conversion.
Currently, under the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950, only communities that practise Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism can be recognised as scheduled caste (SC) – and, hence, become eligible for reservations. While Sikh communities were included by an amendment in 1956, the Buddhists were brought under the ambit of the order in 1990.
It does not yet encompass Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians. In 1985, the Supreme Court agreed that historical discrimination may continue even after members of the SCs convert to other religions, but did not decide in favour of such converts being given SC status as it felt there was not enough material outlining their condition after conversion. Earlier this month, the Union government appointed a commission to examine the matter pertaining to whether Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity could be considered for caste-based reservations.
“For many decades since 1956, even Congress leaders would strongly criticise conversions – always not necessarily taking a public stand against it but often using the bureaucratic machinery to stop conversions from happening despite having no solution to do away with caste-based oppression. The BJP now seems to have borrowed a leaf from the same playbook” says Alone.
The current controversy concerning the 5 October event in Delhi and involving the AAP leader seems to have connection with possible electoral outcomes ahead of polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
According to Gautam, the BJP is trying to play the “Hindu victim card” in this case.
While the AAP has officially chosen silence over the subject, several of its senior leaders admit that the party is in a tight spot between Hindutva and Ambedkar politics.
On one hand, as part of its national expansion strategy, AAP has been laying a strong claim on Ambedkar’s legacy. In January, Kejriwal directed that Delhi government offices should have photographs of only Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar. After the party took over Punjab in March, Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann took the same decision. In Delhi, the party held a grand play on Ambedkar’s life in February and set aside Rs 10 crore for organising programmes based on Ambedkar’s life.
On the other hand, the party has been including core Hindu elements in its politics, such as the worship of Hanuman and organising grand events on Diwali with structures that replicated the under-construction Ram temple in Ayodhya, and as part of a larger strategy, maintaining distance from issues concerning Muslims.