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
circlefrom 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
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."