Today is a very special day for millions of former untouchables in India. It was exactly 53 years ago on this very day i.e., on 14 October 1956, that Babasaheb Ambedkar ceremoniously led his 500,000 followers assembled in Nagpur to convert from Hinduism to Buddhism. This historic initiative was unique. History is of course replete with episodes of mass conversion. Yet, this was probably the only one that took place without any threat or promise of material gain. This conversion from the Hindu religion to Buddhism was based entirely on their unswerving faith in Ambedkar as a saviour and it changed the lives of millions of erstwhile untouchables forever.
Since I was barely three years old when my parents embraced Buddhism in that ceremony, I became a Buddhist at that tender age and grew up as a Buddhist. On this day of the anniversary of the conversion to Buddhism, I would like to share some thoughts on how millions of Ambedkarites like me feel looking back at this momentous transition.
To my mind, Ambedkar’s historic initiative must be seen in the broader context of his role as the leading champion of human rights and his mission to ensure human dignity and social justice to the millions of the oppressed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
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To fully appreciate the context, one must make a distinction between two issues: Why did Ambedkar decide to shun Hinduism—which he announced in 1935—and then why did he choose Buddhism and get himself and his followers converted in 1956.
In a conference held in Yeola, a small town near Nashik, in October 1935, Ambedkar described to his followers how their struggle over the preceding decade to secure basic human rights and equal human status within Hindu society had failed. He was referring to the first public agitation of untouchables demanding to drink water from a public reservoir and denouncing Manusmruti in 1927 (Mahad, Konkan region of Maharashtra) and the Temple Entry Agitation at Kala Ram Temple in Nashik (1930-35).
For the first decade or so of his public life, Ambedkar had chosen to reform the Hindu religion by fighting it from within. He had tried to create a legitimate place for Dalits in Hindu society, but the upper castes had not budged. Out of sheer frustration, he said he was contemplating a change of religion. “Would it not be better to give up Hinduism and embrace another faith that would unreservedly give Dalits an equal status,” he asked. A moment later, he came out with his famous assertion: “Unfortunately, I was born a Hindu untouchable—there was nothing I could do to prevent it. However, it is well within my power to refuse to live under ignoble and humiliating conditions. I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu.”
Ambedkar exhorted his followers to stop wasting their energy on fruitless endeavours, such as fighting for entry into Hindu temples, and redirect their efforts toward securing respect, independence, and equality with others through education.
His speech sent shock waves throughout the country. Some called it a bluff and a political stunt. Others, who knew the strength of his character, could not doubt his determination. Some called him a messiah; others felt it was a suicidal step.
All eyes were on Mahatma Gandhi for his reaction, which was not long in coming: “Religion is not like a house or a clock which can be changed at will. It is an integral part of one’s own self, rather than of the body. I am convinced that a change of faith will not serve the cause which they have at heart.” Gandhi also predicted that the millions of illiterate and unsophisticated Dalits would not renounce their faith, for they were concerned with day-to-day survival rather than Babasaheb’s “attention-seeking stunts”.
Gandhi’s pronouncements, however, did not convince other religious minorities such as the Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. They saw this as a great opportunity to convert Dalits and gain strength for their own faith. Whereas most of them waxed eloquent about the reasons their religion was superior, some offered tangible rewards.
Ambedkar’s attack on the caste system was not merely aimed at challenging the hegemony of the so-called upper castes, but had a broader connotation of economic growth and development.
Ambedkar argued that the caste system reduces the mobility of labour as well as capital. He said, “Social and individual efficiency requires us to develop the capacity of an individual to the point of competency to choose and to make his own career. This principle is violated in the caste system insofar as it involves an attempt to appoint tasks to individuals in advance, selected not on the basis of trained original capacities, but on that of the social status of the parents.”
Ambedkar’s philosophy was couched in social, religious and moral considerations. The focal point of this philosophy was the oppressed and the depressed. This economic philosophy underscored liberty, equality and fraternity in connotations. The philosophy aimed at giving life to those who are disowned, at elevating those who are suppressed, at ennobling those who are downtrodden and at granting liberty, equality and justice to all, irrespective of their caste and creed. The establishment of a casteless democratic society based on pradnya (intellect), sheel (character) and karuna (compassion) is the essence of this philosophy. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism was thus, the logical culmination of his vision for an egalitarian society.
Within two months after the conversion ceremony, Ambedkar passed away. However, the religious movement that he set in motion has thrived, and it now includes around four million Buddhists.
What have Dalits gained from the conversion? In my view, we have gained a new identity and self dignity. It is important to note that there were two distinct aspects to the problem of untouchability. One, of course, was that others looked down on them. This phenomenon took place for so long that Dalits had begun looking down on themselves—a sort of collective inferiority complex.
What Ambedkar achieved through the conversion is no less than a complete metamorphosis. A large and growing educated Dalit middle class that has now emerged is no longer apologetic about their caste origins and they are working shoulder to shoulder with others to carve out a life of dignity for themselves and in the process, contributing to the re-emerging India today.
Do I consider myself a Buddhist? Yes, of course. By law I am a Buddhist. In what ways do I practice Buddhism? Well, when I married a so-called high caste Hindu woman, I insisted—despite a lot of opposition—that the marriage must take place according to Buddhist rites.
At home and in vihars, we regularly hold Buddhist prayers. How much do I follow Buddhism? I think Buddhism is essentially a religion of good ethical behaviour. Frankly, even if I were not a Buddhist, I would have followed the broader notions of Buddhism.
Narendra Jadhav, an Indian national (born in 1953) is a leading educationist, eminent economist and policymaker, well-known social scientist and a best-selling author. He is currently a member of the Planning Commission.
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Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint