The Dalit Buddhist movement began after 1890s under Iyothee Thass, Anagarika Dharmapala, Col. H. S. Olcott and Madam Blavatsky. They did not get much fame in Tamil Nadu but they did the work of sowing a seed again. After 50 years, Bodhisattva Dr. B. R. Ambedkar along with 5 lakh people mainly from Mahar community converted at Nagpur and Chandrapur. But this was successful only in Maharashtra. Babasaheb had said, “I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion. To get human treatment, convert yourselves”. But since his time there have been certain obstacles in these conversion movements.
The first drawback was that Babasaheb Ambedkar did not find leaders like himself from non-Mahar castes, so conversion remained confined to Mahars. If the leaders of Mang, Dhor, Chamar, etc. of Maharashtra had joined this campaign, it might have spread to other castes by now. After Babasaheb’s Parinirvana, ‘The Buddhist Society of India’ also paid little attention outside Maharashtra; even today their reach is negligible in other states. Apart from that, the later generation of Buddhists became assertive rather than accepting Buddhism by heart as Babasaheb did. Instead of making a Buddhist society they still believe in shaming Hindu culture and tradition which has nothing to do with Buddhists.
After 1980, Saheb Kanshi Ram had organized many Dhammacharchas and Dhammakranti programmes through the Buddhist Research Center which was established by him at Nagpur. Karnataka, UP, MP, Delhi and Rajasthan were the main places where conversions started and by 2001 a small Buddhist community had formed there. But because of the formation of a political organization, BSP, from the non-political organizations, e.g, BAMCEF & DS4, the pace of conversion slowed down by the year 2011, the rate of growth of Buddhist population started declining. The saddest incident was the plan to convert 5 crore of his followers into Buddhism, which was a large-scale conversion drive that he had planned on 14 April 2006, failed due to his sudden demise, five days prior to the conversion date. And after that, his successors did not give any importance to his dream. Now no non-political organization works on the ground, either in Maharashtra or in UP, which is making Dalits drift away from Buddhist movement.
The third mistake was the rejection of our saints, e.g, Raidas, Kabir, etc. which not only caused a feeling of dissatisfaction among the non-Mahar castes, but also drove them away from Buddhism. This was the reason that apart from Ajivikas and Ravidassis, Deras like Sacha Sauda, Nirankari, Radhasoomi, etc., made inroads into our society and the Dalits started becoming more and more divided. Dera culture has made them a special kind of vote bank; the supporters of the party whose people run the Deras have made their followers voters of that party. Our society has been changed from lions into herds of sheep.
The fourth and biggest mistake was: even today the converted Buddhists do not separate themselves from Dalits. Babasaheb did not arrange any reservation for the converted Buddhists. In 1960, the Maharashtra Government amended the policy and gave them the right of reservation and from 1990 it was implemented in Central schemes too. But if any community gets designated under the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950, that means, it is a socially backward society. If Buddhists start being grouped among the socially backward communities, then the very purpose of conversion will be lost. Even if you want, you will not be able to distance yourself from the word ‘Dalit’, which will not only raise questions on the Buddhist society, but it will also make them a new untouchable class among Buddhists. Constitutionally, Buddhists are also considered to be Hindus as Hindu Code Bill is also applicable to them. If Buddhist society does not take the right decision for themselves, then conversion will be just a ritual and in the coming time people will start forgetting Babasaheb’s mission of social change. They will be left adopting that lower position in the Hindu society and stop seeing conversion as a mean of emancipation for untouchables.
Mrinal Kumar is from Jharkhand and has a Diploma in Electrical Engg. from PSBTEIT (Chandigarh) and Bachelors in History from BBMKU (Dhanbad). He is a podcaster and host of Ambedkarite Central Podcast and also the founding member of Maitri – The Mental Wellness Corner, a mental health support & facilitation group for SC/ST youth.