Fifty years ago, on October 14, 1956 — and a mere two months before his death — Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the scholar and political leader who was principally responsible for the drafting of India’s Constitution, converted to Buddhism in a public ceremony in Nagpur. Somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 of his Dalit followers — the accounts vary — embraced Buddhism in the immediate wake of his conversion. For Dr. Ambedkar, nothing in his long, distinguished career could convince him that the socio-cultural dynamics of Hinduism would ever offer Dalits a way out of “untouchability,” disenfranchisement, poverty and social stigma.
Each year on October 14, conversion ceremonies take place at which Dalits embrace Buddhism or Christianity. This year they have extra poignance, not only because it is the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar’s act, but also because several states ruled by the BJP have recently adopted or strengthened laws limiting conversion. On top of all this, a principal follower of Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, who founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which is the main political vehicle for the Dalit movement now, passed away earlier this month.
From accounts in the press so far, there were major conversion ceremonies today in Nagpur and also in Gulbarga in Karnataka:
Hundreds of Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a mass conversion programme in Nagpur, in which copies of Gujarat government’s anti-conversion bill were also put to fire.
The mass conversion, organised by the All India Conference of SC/ST Organisations and the All India Christian Council on the occasion of World Religious Freedom Day, was attended by Dalits from Orissa, Karnataka and Gujarat states, organisers said.
The conversion of Dalits to Buddhism was performed by priests, while a group of Christian pastors from the Council led by President Dr Joseph D’Souza baptised the Dalits. [Link]
GULBARGA (Karnataka): More than 3,000 Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism at an impressive ceremony here on Saturday, synchronising with the golden jubilee of Dr B R Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism.
Marking the change of faith, the Dalits were administered the oath by Bante Bodhi Dhama, a Buddhist monk from Japan.
Preceding the ceremony, “Buddha Dharma Deeksha Pratigne”, a huge procession led by more than 500 monks, was taken out through the city streets. [Link]
There are some very interesting present-day political angles here, not least the controversy over the anti-conversion laws, and the fact that the leader of the BSP, Mayawati, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, has said she will not convert to Buddhism yet. She said this at today’s Nagpur rally, while announcing that Kanshi Ram’s funeral rites were performed in the Buddhist tradition, even though he had not converted; and while expressing her hope that Buddhism would spread further among Dalits. The mixed message clearly reflects the political complexity of the Dalit leadership’s position.
In the larger historical frame, perusing the day’s news and doing a little background research reminds me how shamefully little I know about Dr. Ambedkar’s story, let alone more obscure yet significant figures like Kanshi Ram. I hope that comments and debate on this post will help me, and surely others, remedy this lacuna.One question I realized I had about Ambedkar was, how was he able to get his education in the first place? The answer, per the rather extensive Wikipedia entry, blends several classic ingredients that are common to stories of escape from deep-seated social injustice the world over. Ambedkar benefited from the advocacy of a determined parent, himself empowered by his military career; from a family move to the big city; from the kindness of a benevolent aristocratic patron; and of course, from his own hard work and academic excellence:
Ramji Sakpal encouraged his children to read the Hindu classics, especially the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. He used his position in the army to lobby for his children to study at the government school, as they faced resistance owing to their caste. Although able to attend school, Ambedkar and other Untouchable children were segregated and given no attention or assistance from the teachers. Ramji Sakpal retired in 1894 and the family moved to Satara two years later. Shortly after their move, Ambedkar’s mother died. The children were cared for by their paternal aunt, and lived in difficult circumstances. Only three sons Â— Balaram, Anandrao and Bhimrao Â— and two daughters Â— Manjula and Tulasa Â— of the Ambedkars would go on to survive them. Of his brothers and sisters, only Ambedkar succeeded in passing his examinations and graduate to a bigger school. His native village name was “Ambavade” in Ratnagiri District so he changed his name from “Sakpal” to “Ambedkar” with the recommendation and faith of a Brahmin teacher that believed in Bhimrao.
Ramji Sakpal remarried in 1898, and the family moved to Mumbai (then Bombay), where Ambedkar became the first untouchable student at the Government High School near Elphinstone Road. Although excelling in his studies, Ambedkar was increasingly disturbed by his segregation and discrimination. In 1907, he passed his matriculation examination and entered the University of Mumbai, becoming one of the first persons of untouchable origin to enter college in India. This success provoked celebrations amongst his community, and after a public ceremony, he was given a biography of the Buddha by his teacher Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar also known as Dada Keluskar a Maratha caste scholar. Ambedkar’s marriage had been arranged the previous year as per Hindu custom, to Ramabai, a nine-year old girl from Dapoli. In 1908, he entered the Elphinstone College and obtained a scholarship of Rs. 25 a month from the Gaekwad ruler of Baroda, Sahyaji Rao III for higher studies in USA.
Which brings us to another fascinating item. Unlike many academically successful Indians of his generation, Ambedkar didn’t go to England to study. He came to America, specifically to Columbia University in New York, where he obtained a doctorate in political science. It may well be that here in the U.S., he was more able to escape the social prejudices that might have followed him to England. The fact that he took up rooms with a Parsi could be used to argue the point either way:
Arriving in New York City, Ambedkar was admitted for graduate studies at the political science department. After a brief stay at the dormitory, he moved to a housing club run by Indian students and took up rooms with a Parsi friend, Naval Bhathena. In 1916, he was awarded a Ph.D. for a thesis which he eventually published in book form as The Evolution of Provincial Finance in British India. His first published work, however, was a paper on Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. Winning his degree and doctorate, he travelled to London and enrolled at Gray’s Inn and the London School of Economics, studying law and preparing a doctoral thesis in economics. The expiration of his scholarship the following year forced him to temporarily abandon his studies and return to India amidst World War I.
Columbia’s page on Ambedkar suggests that his time here was transformative indeed:
At Columbia, Ambedkar studied under John Dewey, who inspired many of his ideas about equality and social justice. Ambedkar later recounted that at Columbia he experienced social equality for the first time. “The best friends I have had in my life,” he told the New York Times in 1930, “were some of my classmates at Columbia and my great professors, John Dewey, James Shotwell, Edwin Seligman, and James Harvey Robinson.”
In Ambedkar’s American sojourn I feel a foreshadowing of the experience of African nationalist leaders like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, or Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, who also came to the U.S. rather than Britain, and absorbed a very different political — and racial — environment.
The later part of Ambedkar’s career is better known. Although a nationalist, he was also fiercely opposed to the Gandhian faction in the Indian National Congress; Ambedkar wanted a separate electorate for “untouchables,” which Gandhi felt was a bad idea. When the British supported Ambedkar’s idea, it could well have been classic colonial divide-and-conquer rather than any great sympathy for the Dalits. Ambedkar also opposed Gandhi’s naming of untouchables “Harijans,” or children of God. Perhaps he felt it was a hypocritical term; that the Dalit condition simply could not be reconciled with the social structures of Hinduism. However, despite these differences, Ambedkar was invited to become the first law minister of independent India, and chairman of the committee that drafted the constitution. If India’s constitution was remarkably liberal and democratic for its context and time, we have at least in part Dr. Ambedkar to thank. I don’t think it’s a stretch either to say that some of the similarities in spirit and substance between the Indian and American constitutions may have been his contribution as well.
In a sense, Ambedkar was a separatist figure: he had long given up on achieving Dalit equality within the Hindu framework, and his conversion to Buddhism at the end of his life only confirmed this. He also wanted to use the tools of the secular state to limit the power of Hindu institutions: when he resigned from the government in 1951, it was over a Hindu Code bill that would have established gender equality in many areas; he and Nehru supported the bill, but it did not make it past opposition in parliament. He also contested the treatment of women in Islam. It is not surprising that he remains a controversial figure fifty years after his death.
Kanshi Ram, who founded the BSP in 1984, embraced a somewhat different approach, perhaps indicative of changed times as much as anything else. From a valedictory article by S. Anand in Outlook:
Kanshi Ram, unarguably the biggest leader to emerge from among Dalits in the post-Ambedkar period, and someone who succeeded in the realm of parliamentary democracy in which Ambedkar repeatedly failed, drew heavily from AmbedkarÂ’s political resources. However, he decided to deploy a different strategy at the ground level. …
Kanshi Ram realized that if the Dalits had to wrest their share in political power on their own terms, they needed allies. In this sense, he was more a follower of Jotiba Phule (1827Â–1890). At the heart of Kanshi RamÂ’s politics was the concept of the Â‘bahujanÂ’Â—the oppressed majority, a quintessential Phule formulation that believed in the organic unity of the Sudras (BCs and BCS) and Atisudras (Dalits and Adivasis); (something with which Ambedkar differed since he saw the Sudras as essentially erstwhile khsatriyas and the untouchables as fallen Buddhists). Following Phule, Kanshi Ram believed that the Sudras and Atisudras needed to join hands with Muslims and other minorities to combat the Brahmin-Baniya-Rajput combine. The logic that drove this postulation was that if democracy was the rule of the majoritarian voice, then why was it that in Indian democracy only the voice of the dwija castes was heard? In the early phase of his political career, Kanshi Ram believed that the Dalits and their immediate tormentors in the rural landscapeÂ—OBCsÂ—could join hands.
Later, as the BSP gained clout and for a time political control in Uttar Pradesh under Mayawati — a Dalit female Chief Minister — its leadership found itself making political deals that one would think would have been anathema to Ambedkar. Or, as Anand argues, maybe not:
How and why did Kanshi Ram ally alternately with BJP and SP and even the CongressÂ—in other words, with BCs and OBCs, as well the Brahmin-Baniya-Thakurs? Here, we need to invoke Ambedkar on the place of minorities in the midst of communal and political majorities. He argues in his neglected, late work Thoughts on Linguistic States:
People who rely upon majority rule forget the fact that majorities are of two sorts: (1) Communal majority and (2) Political majority. A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of a political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of a communal majority are made by its own members born in it. How can a communal majority run away with the title deeds given to a political majority to rule? Â… This tyranny of the communal majority is not an idle dream. It is an experience of many minorities.
Kanshi Ram understood that what was being played out in Indian democracy was the rule of communal majority in the name of the rule of the political majority. For a communal minority like Dalits , the only way to democracy was by kneading its way into the forces that constituted political majority in electoral politics. Dalits could not join the communal majority constituted by Baniyas, Thakurs and Brahmins, for, as Ambedkar says, the door to communal majority is closed. But they sure could join the political majority, since the class and caste composition of the political majority could change. This was manageable through alliances. Under Kanshi RamÂ’s stewardship, the BSP practically demonstrated what Ambedkar had theoretically formulated. In this sense, Kanshi Ram redefined and expanded the scope of parliamentary democracy in India.
Kanshi Ram painfully realised that PhuleÂ’s bahujan concept would not work under Dalit leadership. Kanshi Ram therefore successfully wedded PhuleÂ’s advocacy of the bahujan with the Ambedkarite idea of negotiating space for a communal minority in a political majority. With this premise, within a decade he managed to build a national party that became the sole challenge to the supremacy of the Congress and the BJP in the Hindi heartland.
An appraisal of Kanshi Ram’s legacy by Shivam Vij in Tehelka is slightly less detailed but makes similar points.
As with much else in Indian politics, where this leaves anyone is ambiguous. It’s hard to see how the Mandal II mess over expanding the OBC reservations can have advanced the Dalit cause, whatever the outcome. And the daily reality of discrimination and denigration carries on for many millions of people. Hence the continued power of conversion, as Ramdeep Ramesh writes in the Guardian:
In the small one-room house on the edge of the rice bowl of India, Narasimha Cherlaguda explains why he is preparing to be reborn again as a Buddhist.
As an untouchable, the 25-year-old is at the bottom of Hinduism’s hereditary hierarchy. “The [local] priest tells me if I was a good dalit in this life, then in my next life I can be born into a better part of society. [I say] why wait?”
Like tens of thousands of other untouchables – or dalits – across India today, Mr Cherlaguda will be ritually converted to Buddhism to escape his low-caste status. The landless labourer points to a picture of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, on his wall and says it will soon be gone and replaced by an image of the Buddha.
He will not be alone. More than 70 people from the village of Kumarriguda, 40 miles outside Hyderabad, the capital of southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, will leave the Hindu religion. There are plans for a Buddhist temple and money set aside to hire a Buddhist priest – probably the first in the area for 1,500 years – to conduct prayers as well as marriage and death rites. …
In Hyderabad the first person to convert will be KRS Murthy, 70, who was the first dalit recruited into the state’s civil service in 1959.
Not being in India, I’ll leave it to others to gauge the grievances and assess the different strategies available to Dalits to address them. But here, still from the Ramesh article, is a fairly concise statement of the problem, and of the counter-arguments currently at work:
Many dalit thinkers say that what is happening in India is a “religious rebellion” against a hierarchy that condemns them to a life of suffering. “Look we make up 150m people of India.
“Yet where are the Dalit news anchors, the entrepreneurs, the professors? We are neither seen nor heard. Changing religion makes us visible,” says Chanrabhan Prasad, a dalit writer.
The Hindu right has become increasingly wary of Buddhist conversions, seeing its call for equality as exerting a powerful pull on the lowest castes. The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) government in the western state of Gujarat controversially amended an anti-conversion law to classify Buddhism and Jainism as branches of the Hindu religion, denying them status as unique religions.
“Dalits should concentrate on illiteracy and poverty rather than looking for new religions. In fact we think that there are very few differences between Buddhism and Hinduism,” says Lalit Kumar, who works for a Hindu nationalist welfare association in Andhra Pradesh.
One last thing: I appreciate that this post raises some unresolved questions in Indian politics and society that are the subject of very strongly felt disagreements. I am also no expert, nor are my sources in any way final: I am sharing what I learned today. I hope those with facts and opinions to share will do so freely, but graciously and in the spirit of pedagogy.