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Embracing Budhism

By Darshan Desai

Outlook Magazine
08 June, 2003

"When they need us to kill the Muslims, they ask us to shout 'Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain!' Once their dubious purpose is served, we are once again reminded that we are Dalits, the untouchables. Last month, five members of a Dalit family committed suicide at Rampir Tekra in Ahmedabad, compelled by starvation, but not a single saffron cap came to see their dead bodies. I will convert to Buddhism at the first opportunity."
—Sanjay Parmar in Danilimda, Ahmedabad

Sanjay's anguish is shared by many disillusioned Dalits in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat in Gujarat. Their angry voices can be heard in the urban ghettos as also in their isolated village enclaves. Many of those who responded to the VHP's post-Godhra call last year are doing a serious rethink. They are now realising that it was a grave mistake they made when they attacked innocent Muslims and bloodied their hands in the post-Godhra carnage. From a bloodthirsty mob to flagbearers of peace and moksha, the Dalits of Gujarat seem to be going around in a strange circle—from unreason to reason.

Sensing the rebellious mood among the Dalits, the Vishwa Boudh Sangh (VBS) is organising mass conversions to Buddhism this week in the state. This is a direct challenge to the VHP and chief minister Narendra Modi, who has turned his anti-conversion plank into a major Hindutva trump card. The VBS claims it will convert one lakh Dalits of Gujarat on June 15. However, a fresh round of conversions started in Vadodara on May 16 and has been continuing without too much publicity. All this has reportedly upset Modi. The police and the state intelligence have been asked to keep track of all conversions. The entire administration is on its toes.

VBS national general secretary Bhante Sangpriya told Outlook that his organisation has converted 5,300 persons in May in Vadodara, Bharuch, Jamnagar and Surat. The conversions took place in batches of 150 to 250 persons. He claims that their main event on June 15 would be a grand success and that he already has 55,000 forms signed by people who are willing to convert. Says he: "Due to the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, we need the district collector's permission and an undertaking by those converting that they are doing so on their own accord. We have sought the permission, but we will go ahead with our plan even if we are refused the right to convert."

Sangpriya alleges that the BJP government in Gujarat is extremely uncomfortable with the conversion campaign, while, predictably, the VHP is openly opposing it. VHP workers recently attacked a VBS press conference in Vadodara. Says Sangpriya: "They were threatening us with dire consequences if we go ahead with our June 15 function. I am being threatened. This is strange, doesn't the VHP brand the Buddhists and Jains as Hindus?" Says VHP joint general secretary Dilip Trivedi: "Buddhists are Hindus and we have no objection to the conversion."

Outlook spoke to several Dalits who had actively participated in the communal riots last year. Most of them felt they were attracted to the idea of embracing Buddhism. Says Raju Parmar, an autorickshaw driver from Ahmedabad's Gomtipur-Rajpur area: "When we went to fight the Muslims, we were told we are Hindus. But after that they have treated us as second-class citizens. At least Buddhism does not have a caste system." Adds Rajnikant, who runs a provision store in Danilimda: "I was offered the post of president, Danilimda ward by the VHP. I decided to join. But when I went for the first meeting two months ago, I felt they were treating me with contempt because I am a Dalit." Rajnikant, with a group of 100 people in Danilimda, is seriously thinking of embracing Buddhism.

However, senior VHP leaders are not reacting too sharply, as yet.They do not believe that Buddhism can become a major movement that can actually challenge the VHP in Gujarat. Also, they argue, the Hindu population will not decline in real terms because those who have converted to Buddhism in the past have registered themselves as Hindus during the census to avail of reservation benefits. However, should the VBS movement pick up speed then the VHP will feel threatened.

Points out political scientist Achyut Yagnik: "Looking at the past, I feel, Buddhism may not become a major movement. That is why the VHP is not reacting strongly to the conversions. But, at the same time, there is no doubt the VHP used the Dalits on a massive scale during the riots and the Dalits have realised that they were exploited."

According to Yagnik, the VHP started largescale recruitment of Dalits after the anti-reservation riots of 1985, realising that major inroads was possible only if they inducted them as their cadre. During the 1981 anti-reservation agitation, the Sangh parivar was aligned with the higher castes; it had opposed reservation for Dalits. Later, they changed their strategy. "The trishul and their recognition as VHP members seemed to the Dalits as an end to their quest for a positive social identity. They were given designations of presidents and vice-presidents of mohallas, which provided the Dalits a sense of empowerment," he says.

The post-riots alienation of Dalits within the VHP has proved to be an eye-opener for secular political observers in the state. That's the reason activists of the VBS have stepped up their campaign. And what is their message to the community? That conversion to Buddhism is the only tool with which they can mentally unshackle themselves from the deep-rooted caste system and their "slave consciousness". The caste system disallows Dalits from entering temples, getting educated and using common water utilities or public spaces; it treats them as untouchables and second-class citizens, and this is unacceptable in modern times.

"In Gujarat, despite all the promises made by Narendra Modi, Dalits are no better off than in other parts of the country," says Yogesh Maitrak, a Buddhist researcher, who converted to Buddhism many years ago. Adds Surendra Singh Kaloria, who converted to Buddhism in Vadodara on May 16 with 200 others: "I feel relieved and ready to take on this oppressive society. The Hindus have never considered us as part of them."

Can the VBS organise the grand show of conversion to Buddhism as a symbolic and collective action of defiance against the VHP? We shall know soon. But there is no doubt that a slow and strong current of radical change is evident in the Dalit consciousness in the interiors of Gujarat. A year ago, especially in the post-Godhra carnage, they were taken in by the hardline rhetoric of the Sangh Parivar; but today, they have begun to question the wisdom of indulging in arson, looting and killing to prove their pseudo-social identity. As Rajnikant puts it: "Finally on June 15 we might convert. But even if we don't, my group of 100 Dalits will never again participate or support what happened after the Godhra tragedy. That is one act of bad faith that will remain ethched on our minds."