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.
Amazing post Siddhartha. I think I will add a couple of footnotes to this otherwise comprehensive summary.
Ambedkar was a truly great leader and played an indispensible role in the birth of the Indian nation. However he was not a person of the masses like other leaders of the independence movement. This along with the fact that he was percieved to be not very anti-british(he was a member of pre 1947, quasi independent governments, which Congress stayed out of demanding complete independence instead) gives some of his critics ammunition against him.
Regarding the anti-conversion bill, the attempt to classify Buddism and Jainism as sub sets of Hinduism is not born purely out of an attempt to repress the lower castes. Its a widely held opinion among Hindus as evidenced by the extent to which Buddha is worshipped among the pantheon of Gods.
I think these are conversions are very important because it provides an opportunity for debate and speedens the process of eliminating the role of caste that is taking place in India right now.
There is a lot more I want to say, but its time to go out drinking 🙂 Be back tomorrow.
Thanks for this post. One of the greatest Indians, indeed.
btw, Columbia Uinversity’s School of International and Public Affairs has only one persons bust on it’s premises…Ambedkar’s.
ambedkar’s story is inspiring because of his social background (though his family was not, from what i can gather, the poorest of the poor as many dalits are). one thing about the buddhist or christian angle: i think that conversion of communities like the chamars and mahars to a religion with large non-indian following is important in that it does allow them to have allies internationally in their fight for a higher status. japan is after all one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and it has a large buddhist population.
Ambedkar, Gandhi and Tagore are the three key figures in understanding the nature, form and challenges of indian modernization. Each one has left an enormous corpus of work, from which one can learn an enormous amount. How each faced the various challenges of their lives is also quite significant.
Siddhartha I’m really happy to see this post. Dr Ambedkar’s teachings and philosophy had a huge presence in my maternal home when I was growing up. In fact my grand parents were at one time very close to him and took part in many demonstrations with him. They also converted to Buddhism symbolically though for the most part have always lived as atheists. My grandfather passed away some years ago and I am lucky to have heard a lot of stories about Dr Ambedkar from him. I wish in hindsight I had recorded some of them. My grandmother still has a picture of him in her home with his arm around my grandfather. I recently found out that my parents were married in a Buddhist ceremony presided by a picture of Dr Ambedkar. This post is better than Wikipedia. Thank you for posting it.
siddhartha–with your name, how could you not post about this 😉
thanks for the most comprehensive summary and great writing..
i learned a lot..
Thanks for the post, Siddhartha.
It was really eye-opening, informative, comprehensive…and it reminded me how important it is to remember the continuing discrimination that exists in India through social vehicles such as the caste system.
This quote really got to me…
I think as migrants it’s easier to believe that such feelings only exist for South Asians in western countries we’ve moved to…but to feel invisible in your own homeland must be so demoralising I can’t even imagine it, and knowing that it still exists in India to this day is a sobering truth…although I’m studying the similar institutionally discriminatory treatment of indigenous people in New Zealand at the moment and this post gave me my own way into trying to empathise and gauge what that particular invisibility must feel like, although I guess I’ll never understand.
Big ups for connecting Ambedkar’s story with those of African nationalists, that’s a brave thing to do on a site where some commenters see no hypocrisy in denouncing anti-South Asian sentiments while hating on other cultures, particularly people of African descent, in the same paragraph.
Great post Siddhartha. What an inspiring man !
If any of you need reminding of the reality of caste in India today (and it’s easy to forget… for some of us, at least), here’s a little video from Shivam Vij’s site : http://www.shivamvij.com/2006/10/i-am-a-dalit-how-are-you.html
Thanks also for your comment JOAT. Very interesting.
I just read about this today on BBC – thanks for the post. I want to know more about the laws that restrict conversion – does it have to do with the religion-specific family codes? Isn’t it unconstitutional to limit this?
Ashvin, thanks for the link. That was one of the most moving pieces I have seen in a long long time. Times are a changing, but unfortunately, a little too slowly.
that was an incredible link. everyone watch it.
For a contradictory view of Ambedkar, read ‘Worshipping False Gods’ by Arun Shourie. Check out an excerpt here.
Couple of quick points:
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.
Yes. But, he was an Indian Nationalist as much as a Dalit leader.
1) He advocated the partition of India, because he did not think Hindus could not live with Muslims.
2) He rejected both Christianity and Islam as a solution to the Dalit problem, becasue he felt that a large scale conversion to the Abrahamic faiths would be existentially disruptive for India.
3) Which makes the appropriation of Ambedkar by Christian groups like the Dalit Freedom Network kind of amusing. But then, times have changed, and new coalitions form all of the time.
4) Ambedkarite Buddhism owes little to Indian Buddhism or the extant Buddhisms in Asia; its more Deweyan rationalism dressed up in Buddhist symbology, confirmed by twenty-two tough oaths which leave no doubt that he wanted Dalits to have nothing to do with Hindu practices.
5) However, sociological studies demonstrate over and over that Dalit Buddhists retain many of their pre-conversion practices. They might be called Buddhists in name only. The Indian Nationalist definition of Hinduism includes Buddhism as one of its branches. This offends many people, but strangely, it reflects the way Buddhism exists in India today. That, however, makes for very bad protest politics, hence, I think, the uproar.
6) Mayavati is wooing Brahmins right now, which is why she has toned down the anti-Hindu rheoric. The elctoral calculus in UP shows the upper caste vote is up for grabs and that it will be crucial if she is to win back power from the Samajwadi Party, so her sloganeering is suddenly pro-Brahmin.
7) I am all for the Dalits wresting themselves free from the oppressive Brahmanic ideology. I agree with Ambedkar’s reasoning, and prefer Buddhism over Christianity or Islam.
8) Ambedkar did not popularize the term Dalit. That was the work of the Dalit panthers, an Indian political party modelled on the Black panthers. Another seminal event in the popularization of the term was a literary supplement on Dalit literature published in the Times of India in the 70s. While Dalit is the preferred term used in western discourse and among intellectuals, the former untouchable castes tend to refer to themselves by their caste names, like Valmiki or Jatav, or in South india, adi-dravidas, or adi-andhras, adi meaning “first,” because they believe that they were the indigineous subjugated peoples of those regions.
..and incidentally, Mayawati is no heroine. She has been one of the most corrupt politicians in India, along with that other “paragon of ‘social justice'” Laloo Yadav. I loved the parody on her in ‘Bunty and Babli’ (the ‘Taj for sale’ scene).
Solid post. I don’t think I could put together something like this if given an entire semester. Well done, sir, well done.
Risible (or anyone else who can speak to this point),
Lots of interesting additional points there; thank you. A quick reaction to the first one. You said:
But in the Wiki article it says this:
Is that not an accurate characterization? Did his thinking on Partition evolve from one view to the other?
I have nothing to add. I just came home, put on some Ali Farka Toure, poured a glass or Jim Beam neat, and thouroghly enjoyed your writing. I see I’m not the only one.
Thanks for the nightcap.
I found myself writing about Ambedkar tonight, too, in anniversary of the mass conversions that took place on the 14th. My interest was mainly with the city of Nagpur, where my parents come from, where all of my relatives still live, and the site where Ambedkar and thousands of his followers converted to Buddhism (as you mention). Nagpur is also where K. B. Hedgewar formed the RSS, 31 years before Ambedkar’s conversion, and where Gandhi’s murderer Nathuram Bodse, an RSS member, traveled to frequently (He sometimes stayed with my grandparents). I found it interesting that the city could both birth and sustain modern Hindu fundamentalism (the BJP came from the RSS) while being the location for the liberation of Dalits from the Hindu hierarchy.
I concur that the Wikipedia entry is quite extensive, and I also concur with others who enjoyed your post, Siddhartha. Thanks.
Wow, this is the quality of work I aimed at doing when I decided it was a good idea to stay in and study. My idea was a total waste of a Saturday night, but to quote the now infamous Red Snapper line, “Sepia Mutiny does not waste your time.” Solid thoughtful post, Siddhartha. And thanks to risible for #13.
On this point,
I always wonder what exactly conversion does for Dalits. One day they’re destitute Hindus and the next day they’re Buddhists moving on up? Your point indicates that it’s not so much a cultural change for them as it is a political one, but how does it even help them politically? If for all practical purposes, the society around them still recognizes them as the lowest rung, can it really help the common Dalit who has little to no economic agency? Is it more of a demonstration in solidarity?
Here are some interesting links:
India’s Untouchables turn to Buddhism in protest at discrimination by Hindus
“Across India this month, thousands of Hindus from the former Untouchable castes are converting to Buddhism in protest at the continuing discrimination they face. Mass conversion ceremonies are being held throughout the month, from Delhi in the north, to Hyderabad in the south. Organisers are claiming that more than 100,000 people have already converted.”
A hundred thousand Dalits gather in Maharashtra to burn anti-conversion laws
100,000 to Become Buddhists in Hydrabad on 14th October
An Overview of IndiaÂ’s Buddhist Movement
And Finally…. the blog of Ambedkar 2006
^ Damn, just realized the links don’t work 🙂
Just go to http://www.buddhistchannel.tv – they have a whole focus on the issue at the moment.
I am surprised that you choose to discuss a wikipedia discussion on Ambedkar and Pakistan rather than read the document here http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/ambedkar_partition/. One of the unfortunate consequences of Ambedkar idolisation (a post 80s practice) is that people have stopped reading him – critically or otherwise – and have simply taken his statements for the value as polemic.
As Ambedkar says in this paper,
The paper was published in 1945 about 9 years before he died. Shortly after this paper came the Constituent Assembly and thanks to the efforts of Gandhi, Ambedkar found a place in it as the chair of its drafting committee. Ambedkar’s views on the Constitution of India have not been studied with care. And given the Indian “scholar’s” fondness for combing texts for quotes and trotting them out as the points of view of the person in question, almost all that is written on this subject is worthless. A lot of anecdotal evidence might be already lost. In between 1945 and 1956 came the Kashmir problem and then the fall of Tibet, both of which worried Ambedkar greatly. Interestingly when Ambedkar invited another famous activist of his time (he was not a dalit) to join him in embracing Buddhism, the latter tartly responded that unlike Ambedkar he wasn’t ready to give up on Hinduism and even if he did not believe in its tenets would rather die a Hindu. Another (again not a dalit) commented that Ambedkar was simply achieving a high jump rather than a long jump.
Considering that Ambedkar thought that caste has no biological basis it is surprising that he thought these to be unchanging categories. Varna and to a lesser extent jati are both constantly changing categories. There are a few powerful communities within the Hindu fold today that were untouchable in Phule and even Ambedkar’s time. Social mobility rather than unchangeable classes is the feature that stands out. Which is why communal configurations have tended to break up.
Well if “varna” and “jati” are “constantly changing” does that mean “untouchables” should just wile away their time hoping it would change so that they would (finally) be able lead a life with dignity? I can’t help but notice that some Hindus are annoyed by this conversion out of Hinduism and into Buddhism. But it wouldn’t be happening if Hindu society wasn’t so repressive of the so-called “untouchables.”
Well said. And there is something phoney about being accorded ‘dignity’ after demand. These are not mere civil rights but are at the core of a person’s identity. Ambedkar says that Hinduism is beyond reform as it is inherently unequal and unjust. Even then Hindu reformers continued to invite Ambedkar to speak at their conferences through the 30s. Ambedkar of course was far from being clannish or even striedent. He was married to a Brahmin (his 2nd marriage IIANM) and had friends from all communities.
Here’s the link to Thoughts on Pakistan. The one in the earlier post doesn’t work. Please do at least browse through the document, although it is meant for a more serious read. From the preface
Great post Siddhartha. The video from ashvin was extremely depressing. It sure sucks to be a Dalit (maybe the understatement of the year)
I’m infamous now??
Great post Siddhartha
I think it is empowering. Generations of oppression being rejected in a symbolic act. The arrogant classifying of Buddhism as ‘just another branch’ or Hinduism in Gujarat must be especially obnoxious to them.
red snapper.. you have always been infamous 🙂
just like the chick pea 😉
Siddhartha, rock-star post.
This is a great post.
This conversion doesn’t do anything to help them. This is just a false hope given to them for getting more votes and more people in their religion(Christianity). Changing religions is not going to help them go up in life. If the OBCs,BCs,SCs,STs make up 70-80% of the population then i still don’t get it why they are called minorities. They have to voice their opinion when someone puts them down or treats them bad(This will not happen just by changing religions, but becoming a strong person). The laws and enforcement of laws should be more strict and swift.
The most annoying thing about this is how 70% of the media and other important positions are held by people from not lower castes. Mainly because nobody cares to EDUCATE the lower castes. They just do this sort of stupid mass conversions which helps them get votes. Unless the government strictly enforce education of lower castes all over India by either free mid day meals and as such, the lower castes are not going to hold positions in media or wherever they want to. Because no private company is going to look at castes, they are just going to look at your education, if you have no skills you are still going to be holding a janitorial or unskilled labor where you will not be making decisions. So education is the main tool to “EMPOWER” people not religious ceremonies and conversions. It might give a dose of euphoria to those people and make them vote but heck they are still going to be where they are for another 50 years unless educated.
Thanks for this great post. This is an individual I know very little about and your article gives me a great starting point.
yup – let them convert to buddhism all they want
only thing is though, this is not what actually happens, if you read about the conversions that recently happened, although most converted to buddhism, there were a significant amount who converted to christianity
Yes, I would have to echo this rock-star business, Siddhartha. I have learned so much this morning!
I have nothing to add except that I’m pleased to see a higher level of maturity in the comments of this post than one might expect, given the intense nature of the subject. Thank you everyone for sharing personal information and links, etc. It’s making for a rich (no pun intended) lesson.
Is there any link on what Dr.Ambedkar advocated on education for lower castes. He was given the post of writing the constitution mainly because of the education he got not because of his caste. I am really surprised he did not do more for education of the oppressed. Yes there might still be some educated racists but it would be like the US then. US has its fair share of racists but they dont stop anyone on their tracks to become successful. In this age no education means no success, no matter what caste or religion.
In conversations with my grandpa…the symbolic act was more of a rejection of Hindu laws that separated people and kept the Dalits down. It was more of an empowerment act of not being a dalit any more and less about actually being Buddhist though he did follow Buddhist philosophies and encouraged the converts to follow them as well. However because culture is so strongly bound to religion in India many converts continued to practice Hinduism in some form of the other.
My grandfathers household was a perfect example. They practiced Buddhism in daily life and it permeated into a lot of things my grandfather did and how he lived. But his children all ended up devout Hindus and my grandparents did not prevent them from being so. The temple in his house contained a statue of Buddha, a conch & Ganesha & a picture of Ambedkar. He was a moderate man and practiced the middle way a philosophy that was the core of what Gautam Buddha taught, it meant being non extreme and tolerant of everyone and for the the era when Ambedkar was a renegade it appealed to the Gandhi believers. If you compare Gandhi’s teachings to his they have much in common.
So it was more of a symbolic act of defiance however remember it also meant not identifying yourself by caste in so many aspects and forms in your daily life. It meant not being a dalit when you applied for employment or education etc etc. It was also psychologically allowing the dalits to believe they were better than before and they could aspire to be better. Also Buddhists were persecuted all thru South Asia for centuries by several Zorastrians, Persians and Muslim rulers so the religion had a ‘perseverence’ label attached to it.
yeah, I was writing quickly, I agree with Shiva that things are more nuanced than bullet points allow, that views change over time (as with gandhi’s views) and like all things debatable. But to quote from the book which you referenced and he found a link to:
“What is the unity the Hindu sees between Pakistan and Hindustan? If it is geographical unity, then that is no unity. Geographical unity is unity intended by nature. In building up a nationality on geographical unity, it must be remembered that it is a case where Nature proposes and Man disposes. If it is unity in external things, such as ways and habits of life, that is no unity. Such unity is the result of exposure to a common environment. If it is administrative unity, that again is no unity. The instance of Burma is in point. Arakan and Tenasserim were annexed in 1826 by the treaty of Yendabu. Pegu and Martaban were annexed in 1852. Upper Burma was annexed in 1886. The administrative unity between India and Burma was forged in 1826. For over 110 years that administrative unity continued to exist. In 1937, the knot that tied the two together was cut asunder and nobody shed a tear over it. The unity between India and Burma was not less fundamental. If unity is to be of an abiding character, it must be founded on a sense of kinship, in the feeling of being kindred. In short, it must be spiritual. Judged in the light of these considerations, the unity between Pakistan and Hindustan is a myth. Indeed, there is more spiritual unity between Hindustan and Burma than there is between Pakistan and Hindustan. And if the Hindus did not object to the severance of Burma from India, it is difficult to understand how the Hindus can object to the severance of an area like Pakistan, which, to repeat, is politically detachable from, socially hostile and spiritually alien to, the rest of India.
Keep in mind that the Hindu Mahasanha (the precursors of todays Hindu parties) were largely against partition. They wanted “akhand bharat.” undivided India.
I always wonder what exactly conversion does for Dalits. One day they’re destitute Hindus and the next day they’re Buddhists moving on up? Your point indicates that it’s not so much a cultural change for them as it is a political one, but how does it even help them politically?
In Maharastra, “baudh” has become synonomyous with Mahar, so the discriminators still know who the Dalits are. The same goes with Christian dalits and Sikh Dalits and Muslim dalits. The Dalit Buddhists I know tell me its psychological liberation, like having a burden removed. Besides retaining Hindu practices, many have taken up meditation, SN Goenka’s vipassana meditation is very popular among them, though he is a Burma raised Marwari, not a Dalit, and some Dalits are wary of that. Quite a bit of literature has emerged in Marathi especially, but also other languuages.
In Mumbai, a popular dance is the “Jai Bhim” dance, where they lift one hand up and gyrate, probably after a famous picture of Ambedkar. “Jai Bhim” is the greeting Dalits use with one another (Bhim being Ambedkar). Dalit arts are entering popular culture as well, in Tamil, there is usually a track in every film that has the ‘Pariayar’ drum beat, and there was a CD put out called Dalit Drums.
There is an annual book festival for navayana books (a Dalit Buddhist imprint), and thousands of dalits turn up. Politically, Kanshi ram, Mayavati, the whole BSP ideology, is struck from Ambedkar, though his own political party was unsuccessful.
Keep in mind that a few thousand conversions in India is not an earth shaking event. Many popular Hindu festivals are dominated by Dalits as well…
My perpective, as you can probably guess, is unabashedly Indian nationalist, though I don’t agree with alot of what passes for nationalism today.
Thank you, Siddhartha, for this excellent post. I’m not knowledgeable enough to add to the factual content here. But I do recommend the site http://www.ambedkar.org, which has a pretty extensive section on the great man himself.
Bhupinder Singh has a nice post on Ambedkar and Sikhism.
Is the background song on ashvins’ video Gaddars song
I’m very sympathetic to the Dalit cause and have a high regard for Buddhism. However, as I have observed in my ancestral corner of Tamil Nadu, the biggest agent of change will be increased competition for Dalit labor. It wasn’t until the textile mills & machining plants opened up that the local Dalits (i.e. Chakkliars) had an alternative to their hereditary role as agricultural serfs and started asserting themselves. I would also hope that the non-elected segments of the central government (e.g. IPS) would show some balls and aggressively prosecute some of the more atavistic elements of the feudal landowning community, but I won’t hold my breath.
While I don’t care for the BJP/VHP (they are co-opting the intolerance that is central to certain faiths that I will not identify in this post), I agree that the Hindu/Buddhist divide is bogus. All you have to do is travel to “Buddhist” Thailand where people still pray to Ganesh & Shiva. They understand that “Hindu” is a catch-all that does not make sense outside of the Indian context and use the term Brahminism in museum placards/literature to identify that particular belief system that holds the Vedas as central and the Manu smrti as the basis for society. Anyone who knows anything about Hinduism beyond what they teach in Ivy League Comp Religion 101 knows that by equating Hinduism with Brahminism you put 80% of South Indian Hindus outside the fold. My point is that Vedic Hinduism, is just one of many “Hinduisms” along with Jainism/Buddhism/Tamil Muruga worship etc. It just happens to be the sect with the most political power, something that needs to change if we are to be a more equitable society. I’m all for the adoption of Buddhism, it’s a rejection of the Manu smrti not “Hinduism” as a whole.
it does nothing – the only true way for progress, as many have already pointed out, is through education
Thank you for this post – particularly the much-needed last sentence. Some comments:
The mixed message clearly reflects the political complexity of the Dalit leadershipÂ’s position.
Actually, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati’s ambiguity over Buddhism is for me a cause for cheer: I don’t know about Kanshi Ram but Mayawati in her speeches has left no doubt about her atheism. For a movement against religion-sanctioned caste, atheism is the most progressive way forward, in my view, notwithstanding the appealing reasons Ambedkar gave for choosing Buddhism. He linked Buddhism and Dalits historically; be that as it may, any harking back to the past for me compromises a movement’s forward, progressive direction. Having said that, I fully understand Buddhism’s appeal, as it stands completely in contrast with Hinduism and against caste. (I do become a little unsure about my views as an atheist when I see a Dalit wish another ‘Happy Dhamma Dushera’ on Orkut!) Mayaywati and Kanshi Ram were concerned with solely the pursuit of power, and may have seen Buddhism as an unnecessary distraction. It could also have come in their way for creating a pan-opprssed movement, as they sought to create a movement that united disparate Dalit communities with disparate OBCs and Muslims – the prjoect of unity between the three has met with little success but is still worth the try, despite the anti-OBC venom that the megalomaniac Chandrabhan Prasad spews: http://www.shivamvij.com/2006/09/chandrabhan-prasad-and-the-other-backward-classes.html
In the larger historical frame, perusing the dayÂ’s news and doing a little background research reminds me how shamefully little I know about Dr. AmbedkarÂ’s story.
That’s true for most Indians including me, and has to do with the shameful neglect of Ambedkar in school books in India, which makes me wonder… The state recognises Ambedkar as an architect of the Constitution in a mai-baap way, wherein the fact that the Constitution’s architect was a great Dalit becomes nithing but lip-sympathy for Dalits; Ambedkar’s views on Hiduism are to be ignored because Gandhi has to be put on a pedestal.
Ambedkar also opposed GandhiÂ’s naming of untouchables Â“Harijans,Â” 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.
This point needs to be made more strongly. I once wrote a rant about this: http://www.countercurrents.org/dalit-vij061204.htm
Gandhi’s ‘Harijan’ talk was condescending not just in its content but also for the fact that it was like an upper caste person giving alms: Ambedkarites argue that Dalits have to be led by their own leader, their own ideology. Gandhi was too much in the Hindu mould, as you rightly say.
As with much else in Indian politics, where this leaves anyone is ambiguous. ItÂ’s hard to see how the Mandal II mess over expanding the OBC reservations can have advanced the Dalit cause, whatever the outcome.
Mandal II helps bring Dalits and OBCs a little closer; many of those arguing for OBC reservations were Dalit leaders this summer. This is despite the fact that Dalits and OBCs are in violent conflict on the ground all over India because OBCs own small pieces of land where they ill-treat Dalits who work as landless labouers, even as the Indian state continues to live the lie of land reforms. I recently interviewed Dalit intellectual Gopal Guru (the article will be published later) who said that most farmers committing suicide are OBCs, and that their increasing alienation from the state could bring them closer to Dalits, given some hard political mobilisation.
That hard political mobilisation may well happen because of new Dalit parties coming up in UP and elsewhere:  http://www.ibnlive.com/news/kanshi-rams-brother-to-launch-new-party/23991-4.html  http://tehelka.com/story_main20.asp?filename=Ne1021200The_King.asp
What the BSP needs is some free market competition; this could help Dalits and OBCs with the trickle down process in the development game.
risible wrote: “7) I am all for the Dalits wresting themselves free from the oppressive Brahmanic ideology. I agree with Ambedkar’s reasoning, and prefer Buddhism over Christianity or Islam.”
The reality on the ground is that there is no powerful brahmanic ideology anymore. In fact, brahmins were never ever in positions of economic or military power; those were in the hands of kshatriyas and vaishyas. [Yes, there was/is a strong brahmanic presence and discrimination in places of religious worship.].
Even now, the largest number of atrocities are committed by the so-called lower castes against other lower castes. Open any newspaper and note the atrocities committed by Yadavs/Rajputs against Dalits in Bihar, or the Gounder atrocities in TN, the Kamma/Reddy discrimination in Andhra. Do note that all these economically powerful (with muscle power) are classified as backward classes.
The less said about the conditions about the adivasis, the better. They are not even in the same league as the other oppressed classes, but they are not a vote bank, and hence, very few care about them.
Incidentally, the most militant Hindu organizations are headed by non-brahmins (specifically by those classified as Vaishyas and OBCs). There was an article in The Week or Outlook India about this curious phenomenon some years back. VHP and Bajranj Dal were two prominent orgs. I can’t seem to find the article through google since I may not have the correct keywords. Anybody else have luck with that?
Keep in mind that the Hindu Mahasanha (the precursors of todays Hindu parties) were largely against partition.
there were fundamentalist muslims who opposed partition as well, they viewed separation of muslims and hindus as an impediment to their conversionary mission.
In fact, brahmins were never ever in positions of economic or military power; those were in the hands of kshatriyas and vaishyas.
isn’t this simplistic? the peshwas and senas are not exceptional brahminical ruling dynasties from what i gather. i think it is correct to state that elite status is not a brahmin monopoly, but certainly brahmin preeminence has extended beyond their clerical vocation quite a bit.
Even now, the largest number of atrocities are committed by the so-called lower castes against other lower castes.
That is true, but there are mutts in India that will not admit a Shudra, let alone a Dalit initiate to study the Vedas. Plus, the attitude that the panchamas are dirty, drink too much, are licentious, etc., is very common still, I’m sorry to say. Upper caste leaders have not been innocent in all of this. I would prefer reformed Hinduism over Buddhism, but understand the motivation to convert.
BTW the Congress is barely winning the adivasi vote anymore. The Sangh, for all its silliness, has done a lot of good humanitarian work among them.
Here is an account of the event from a “right of center” blog:
The dayÂ’s events in Nagpur turned out rather unexpectedly for the organizers. To begin with the event was essentially localized a motley group of individuals and its observance essentially localized to Nagpur despite its organizers attempt to give it an international spin calling it world freedom of religion day. While tall claims were made of converting 100s of thousands, in the end it was just a few hundred that showed up. It is anybodyÂ’s guess how many of these few couple of 100 were genuinely motivated and were legitimate conversions. The biggest dampener to the event was the DalitÂ’s loudest mascot and Bahujan Samaj Party President Mayawati who stormed out of the event and held her own parallel press conference. In a slap in the face to the other dalit messiahs Mayawati dodged questions on why she herself had not converted out of hinduism. Seeking to strike a political balance with an eye on the upcoming Uttar Pradesh polls, Mayawati took refuge in a rather flimsy vow that she will not convert till she became the Prime Minister of India.
razib: the peshwas and senas are not exceptional brahminical ruling dynasties from what i gather. i think it is correct to state that elite status is not a brahmin monopoly, but certainly brahmin preeminence has extended beyond their clerical vocation quite a bit.
Fair enough. But the reformation came about by Brahmins themselves. In fact, Ram Shastri launched a strong protest against the then Peshwa & his wife. My point was that using terms like “brahminic ideology” is not helpful. Ambedkar himself, as Siddharta has recognized, was helped by a Brahmin. Using vehicles like reservations are discriminatory since they do not oppose specific discriminators but label entire communities as evil. My ancestors, though Brahmins, were never prvileged. They were, in fact, singularly lower middle class. My father had to struggle to do his engineering, by working hard and getting scholarships. Even during those days, there were wealthy classmates of his, who were beneficiers of “positive discrimination”. It is similar to dismiss all white as slave owners whilst there was a strong anti-slavery movement launched by some whites, who literally died for the cause.
risible: The Sangh, for all its silliness, has done a lot of good humanitarian work among them.
Very true. Most people fail to realise that even during the pre-independence days, the RSS made it a point to involve Hindus of all castes within their fold. They also had specific lunches where members of all communities would sit together and eat. Now during the 1940s this was a big deal.
My point is that, as with all political discourse, there are nuances which need to be discussed. Unfortunately, the politicians have reduced it to a simple black and white vote bank issue. Increasingly, it is a class or a sub-caste issue rather than a upper caste vs lower caste issue. Tamil Nadu is a prime example of this phenomenon, where the people who wield economic and political power are the so-called lower castes, but haven’t done much to the lower classes. More importantly, the atrocities that take place over there are almost always done by lower castes with financial/political clout on other lower castes who do not possess it. Bihar/UP are other examples.
Thanks for the link ‘thoughts on pakistan’.. I was planning to read it for a long time but could not get it in the bookshops I looked at.
More power for the Dalits to convert to Buddhism. I’d have liked the Dalits to convert to ‘atheism/religion of rational thinking’.. But Buddhism is the closest.. In the process, if they get money from the wealthy Christian missionaries that’s a bonus too.. Christian missionary NGOs get billions of dollars in foreign aid.. 🙂