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Buddhism and Politics in Uttar Pradesh: Recent Developments (Part II)

Buddhism and Politics in Uttar Pradesh: Recent Developments (Part II)



Shiv Shankar Das

( Continued from here)

shiv_shankar_das_copyThe promotion of Buddhist cultural symbols in public sphere by Mayawati led government is driven by the following three strong factors.

1. The Ideology of Kanshi Ram (1934-2006): Cultural Change is a Durable Change

Kanshi Ram’s ideology to emancipate the Bahujan Samaj is very important to understand the present nexus between Buddhism and politics. He defines three ways to emancipate the Bahujan Samaj, viz. 1. social action (awakening to induce arousal which is a short term solution), 2. political action (to strengthen an independent political party for 85% people of the country, the dalit-soshit sections, which would be a long term solution) and 3. cultural changes and control (a durable solution by which anti-caste culture should be promoted by the dalit-soshit people)12. In his own words: ‘to usher in the  Bright Age, will be the toughest task before us, before this generation or even before the coming generations. It will need a complete cultural change and an altogether different control (controlled by the victims of the present system). Only such thing can bring about a durable solution.’13

For him the meaning of cultural change is to end the discriminative culture of castes and establish equality. In fact, Buddhism has been a great source of these aspiring principles for Kanshi Ram, which inspired him to declare that he would embrace Buddhism on 14 October, 2006, on the occasion of the golden jubilee of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. But he could not do it, due to his long illness, and died on 09th October, 2006, five days before his desired date for conversion.

After his death, in 2007 UP state assembly elections, BSP under the leadership of Mayawati came to power with a miraculous absolute majority. The victory of BSP symbolizes not only a political triumph but also a cultural success.14 As Hardtman writes: ‘The Political success of the BSP has certainly challenged cultural values that historically put the SCs in invisible positions in relation to others. The BSP has given a face to SCs or Dalits in the public sphere. During her tenure in power Mayawati has worked tirelessly to capture public places symbolically.15 These public places, captured by BSP govt. in UP are primarily seen as covered with Buddhist motifs and art such as in the symbols depicted, design and structure of gates, domes, fencing walls, pillars etc.

2. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s (1891-1956) Vision of Buddhist India

Dr. Ambedkar, the most ideal leader for the BSP, as Law Minister in the first Government of independent India, in his speech at Bombay’s Buddha Temple at Worli on 29th September, 1950 declared that he would devote the rest of his life to the revival and spread of Buddhism in India.16 Publicly, he also held a conversion ceremony on 14th October, 1956, where he declared himself as a Buddhist along with lakhs of his followers, citing Buddhism as a religion through which an egalitarian society and polity in India is possible.

As India adopted democracy in the Constitution in 1950, Ambedkar suggested that to make democracy successful, the democratic prinicles i.e liberty, equality and fraternity should also be infused in Indian society.17 By embracing Buddhism, he thought that his move will also strengthen democracy. His whole political philosophy, as he claimed, is based on Buddha’s teachings. Ambedkar reiterated this point on October 3, 1954 in an All India Radio Broadcast.

Positively my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one however say that I borrowed my philosophy from the French revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political sense. I have derived them from the teachings of my master the Buddha [….]. My philosophy has a mission. I have to do the work of conversion [to Buddhism].18

That assertion clearly underlines his view that in order to become a strong democracy, India must become a Buddhist nation. But his plans came to a halt as he died soon after his conversion.

In his memorandum presented in the International Buddhist Conference at Rangoon (Yangon, Myanmar) on 04th December, 1954, he proposed many ideas to propagate Buddhism in India, such as the preparation of a Buddhist gospel,19 arranging conversion ceremonies20 and congregational worship and sermons in the vihars every sunday, building big buddhist temples, vihars, educational institutions, and inviting essays on Buddhist topics which would be rewarded with prizes.21 Interestingly, he preferred to make Buddhist temples huge, splendid structures. In his own words: ‘temples (Buddhist vihars) should be as big as to create the impression that something big is really happening.22 In Uttar Pradesh, the BSP government has created many big places of Buddhist culture as discussed in the beginning, which bring to mind Ambedkar’s ideas.23

The creation of so many big monumental parks, statues etc., celebrating an egalitarian culture, has a rationale, in the particular context of the deprived sections of the people being still largely illiterate.24 The form used, pictorial iconography and symbols, is the simplest medium to implant the desired message and ideology among the masses. Thus these symbols would help in building the mental, social, cultural and historical consciousness of the masses, subsequently working as a milestone towards making India a Buddhist country.

3. The growth rate of Buddhist Population is Unprecedented

The unprecedented growth rate of the Buddhist population in the last five censuses (1961 to 2001) also gave a boost to Mayawati’s plans to pursue the agenda of cultural transformation towards Buddhism. The decadal growth rate of Buddhist population in Uttar Pradesh surpassed the growth rate of the total population and of all the major religions. Whereas the total population growth rate never reached 25%, the Buddhists have recorded a tremendous growth rate with 316% (1961), 235% (1971), 35% (1981), 340% (1991) and 44.8% (2001).

Figure 1: The Growth Rate of Religious Communities in Uttar Pradesh, Census 1991


In the last two decades, for example, as recorded in the 1991 and 2001 censuses, the Buddhists have the highest growth rate in comparison with other communities. In 1991, as shown in the Figure 1 the Buddhists have 340% growth rate while Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Jains recorded 17%, 34%, 23%, 51%, and 23% growth rates respectively. In 2001 census, the Buddhists’ growth rate with 44.8% has surpassed the growth rates of all others: Hindus (24%), Muslims (31%), Christians (19%), Sikhs (35%) and Jains (22%).

Figure 2: Caste wise Percentage Share in Buddhist Population of U.P in Census 2001

dalit_buddhistsThus the growth rate of Buddhists is highest in the 20th century. Here, it is also to be noticed, as shown in the Figure 2, that in the state, 69.82% of Buddhist population belongs to the Scheduled Castes, 30.14% belongs to other communities and the rest 0.04% belongs to Scheduled Tribes. Therefore, most of the Buddhists are from the Scheduled Castes. In 2001 census, though the total number of Buddhists in Uttar Pradesh is 302,031, it has a larger appeal due to the current ruling party which has created a conducive environment, splendid growth rate and historicity, and prospects for the future. In fact, this community seems to have much political stake, in the near future.


In a nutshell, as discussed above, the three potential reasons which seem to have an inspirational impact on the BSP government’s agenda for Buddhist culture are first, Kanshi Ram’s ideology of cultural change, second, Ambedkar’s idea of making India a Buddhist country, and finally the impressive growth rate of the Buddhist community in the state. Noting the above three important reasons behind UP government’s much talked about monumental projects to propagate Buddhism in the masses, it is certain that future history cannot ignore this. Though, the monumental politics of Buddhism at this juncture may be relevant but the ethical inspirations rejuvenated by this in the masses are also important. Despite some recent positive economic trends, the image of the state as a sick state has not been completely washed away. In the near future, the main research question for the social scientists, and researchers should be to locate qualitatively, how the UP governments’s efforts to revive Buddhism and inculcate its history has had the desired positive results on the masses, especially on the deprived sections of society. Moreover, the new relationship between Buddhism and politics should not be limited only for political mobilization and idols but also to usher in the ideal Prabudh Bharat (Enlightened India).


(Please read the first part of ‘Buddhism and Politics in Uttar Pradesh: Recent Developmentshere.)


[12] Kanshi Ram, 1982. The Chamcha Age [An Era of Stooges]. Delhi.

[13] Ibid, 131.

[14] On 18th August, 2002 in a rally in Rajkot (Gujarat), Kanshi Ram described his three important plans sequentially i.e. first of all to capture the power in Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state of India. Secondly, to make Bahujan Samaj as a ruling class in the whole country, and thirdly to make this country as a Buddhist. (Source: Satnam Singh, Manyawar Kanshiram Aur Baudh Dharam, 2008, Samyak Prakshan: Delhi, p.17.).

[15] Eva-Maria Hardtmann, 2009. Dalit Movement in India: Local Practices, Global Connections. New Delhi: Oxford. p. 129.

[16] See. Writings & Speeches,vol. 17(iii), p. 410.

[17] It is also important to note that Buddhism and Dhamma should not be seen as other religions and to understand this Dr. Ambedkar’s ‘Buddha and His Dhamma‘ would be an appropriate text, in which he separates anglophone meaning of ‘religion’ from Dhamma. He says that while many people consider religion as personal with belief in God and soul and which is based on immutable laws, Dhamma on the other hand, negates God or soul which is not personal but it is essentially and fundamentally social.

[18] Quoted in C. Jaffrelot (2005), India’s Silent Revolution; the Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics. Delhi: Permanent Black. p. 133.

[19] Dr. Ambedkar’s posthumously published book ‘Buddha and His Dhamma‘ is regarded as a Buddhist gospel by Ambedkar-Buddhist community throughout the world.

[20] In his speech in Rangoon 1954, he also emphasized on a ceremony similar to Baptism in Christianity though different in many senses (W&S,Vol. 17(iii),p-509). He had also sspoken about the indispensability of the ceremony to become a Buddhist in his letter on 16th Feburary, 1955, to D. Wali Sinha, General Secretary of Maha Bodhi Society, Calcutta (W&S, Vol. 17(i), p-430).

[21] Writings & Speeches,vol. 17(iii), p-509-510.

[22] Writings & Speeches, Vol. 17(iii), p 509-510.

[23] On the issue of constructing big monuments of Buddhist culture, the Bahujan Samaj Party government is very adamant despite a stiff opposition from other political parties such as Congress, Bhartiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party. In the organization and political activities of BSP, the chief architect of Indian constitution and great admirer of Buddha’s Dhamma, Dr. Ambedkar’s ideology is most important. Nowadays, according to some writers such as Sudha Pai, who writes in her book, ‘Dalit Assertion and the Unfinished Democratic Revolution: the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh‘ (Sage publication, 2002), that BSP has lost its fundamental track of social transformation after coming to power. She says that in the earlier decades BSP represented the ideology of social change but with the coming of 21st century it has totally confined itself to power and political ideology and as a result it has joined hands with upper castes and also formed a political coalition with the Hindu fundamentalist parties like BJP. The analysis of Pai does not seem valid at the present stage as BSP has formed government on its own in 2007 (despite political alliance with the Brahmins) and is also pursuing the agenda of socio-cultural changes which can be seen in the development of the Buddhist iconography across the state.

[24] According to non-detailed census report 2011, in Uttar Pradesh the overall literacy rate is 69.7%. Whereas among Scheduled Castes (the most deprived section) the literacy rate in 2001 census report mentioned merely 46% (Female 30%, and Male 60%).



Shiv Shankar Das is a researcher at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.