Priya Ranjan Sahu
On September 14, a 19-year-old Valmiki Dalit girl was abducted, gang raped and murdered in a village in Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. It hit national headlines as the state government handled the case in utter insensitivity.
Instead of providing justice to the grieving family, the state machinery was hell-bent on humiliating and intimidating the grieving family. The accused persons belonged to the upper caste.
Just a month later, on October 14, at least 236 persons belonging to around 50 families from Valmiki community of Karera village in Ghaziabad district of the state converted to Buddhism to escape from “caste oppression”. Those who converted told reporters that the way the Uttar Pradesh government dealt with the Hathras case was like the last nail on the coffin for them.
The day of their conversion was important. B.R. Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism along with around 4 lakh supporters on the same day 64 years back. Incidentally, his great-grandson Rajratna Ambedkar supervised the ceremony.
According to reports, the Dalits who converted said that they were always at the mercy of the upper caste people who treat them like dirt. Converting to Buddhism might hopefully give dignity to them and empower their community, they said.
The state government headed by Adityanath, who flaunts his Hindutva ideology, was rattled. Always in denial mode, it rubbished the reported conversion as rumour. On October 15, the state police filed an FIR against “unknown persons” for allegedly spreading rumours about the conversion.
The police called one of the organisers to the police station and forced him to confess on camera in the presence of a magistrate that no such conversion took place. The man later said that he did not make the confession as desired by the police and could come out of the police station because all of those who had converted gathered outside.
But considering the brazen style of functioning of the Uttar Pradesh government, the matter may not end here and the hapless people may await more harassment from the government as well as upper caste people.
None of the so-called national TV news channels covered this development, which was a direct fallout of Hathras incident. Many news portals however covered it, albeit a few days later.
This is not the first instance of Dalits embracing Buddhism in protest against indignities heaped on them by upper caste people. There have been several such instances across the country.
In 2016, over 300 Dalits in Una town of Gujarat converted to Buddhism after some members of their community were flogged by the Hindutva brigade’s cow vigilantes for skinning a dead cow. In 2017, 180 Dalits converted to Buddhism following caste violence in Saharanpur Uttar Pradesh. In 2019, 500 Dalits in different parts of Gujarat embraced the religion on the occasion of Vijayadasami.
Over the years, Buddhism has become a popular and most viable option for Dalits, who feel suffocated under the oppression by caste Hindus. Converting to Islam or Christianity is complicated and, in some states, attracts prosecution. There is also the danger of violent backlash from right wing organisations. On the other hand, under Article 25 of the Constitution, Buddhism is considered a “sub-sect” of Hinduism.
Also, what has helped such conversions is the fact that the bigoted right wing organisations probably have not yet seen Buddhism as a threat, though the latter’s philosophy is diametrically opposite to what the former preaches. Hindutva brigade’s entire focus is on subjugating Muslims and to some extent on Christians.
However, at the same time it is also a fact that Dalits, and even Adivasis, do not exactly fit into the hegemonic Hindutva worldview where the upper castes have pride of place. Hindutva brigade does not mind Adivasis being uprooted from their homes and hearth due to mining, industrial and infrastructural projects.
On the other hand, ‘untouchable” Dalits are mostly at the receiving end of their hatred. In fact, as recent reports indicate, Dalits come only second to Muslims when it comes to vicious attacks on communities by right wing elements.
Though Buddhists are negligible in India – 0.7% of our population and 84 lakhs in number, according to the 2011 Census – Dalits’ conversion to Buddhism is a silent social and political revolution.
Will the Hindutva brigade attack them too when they become more visible, in terms of population and as a divergent political, social and cultural force?
The writer is a senior journalist based in Bhubaneswar.