14 October 1956. Nagpur. At dawn, the city was agleam with Babasaheb Ambedkar’s followers dressed in white, pouring towards the open ground near the Vaccine Institute at Shraddhanand Peth. About a week earlier, more than half a million people had set out for Nagpur from all parts of Maharashtra. Some trekked there from other states too. By the end of the week before the ceremony, an estimated 400,000 people had reached Nagpur. In 1935, at the Depressed Classes Conference, Ambedkar had declared that it was his misfortune to have been born a Hindu but that he shall not die one. Twenty-one years later, in what was the largest ever mass conversion in human history, he kept his promise as he converted to Buddhism en masse.
Sangharakshita, a British-born monk and long time correspondent of Ambedkar, was not able to attend the event, but recounted in his book Ambedkar and Buddhism:
Having awoken early, Ambedkar asked Rattu to arrange for a hot bath and then go and see if arrangements for the forthcoming ceremony were complete. On his return, the faithful secretary reported that all was well and that vast crowds of white-clad people could be seen streaming towards the Diksha Bhumi or Initiation Ground from every part of the city.
By 8:30 a.m., when Ambedkar, his wife Savita, and secretary Rattu, mounted the marquee constructed in the shape of the Sanchi Stupa, the streets echoed with the words Bhagwan Buddha ki jai and Babasaheb Ambedkar ki jai. Ambedkar, tired and weighed down by a lifelong struggle for equality and justice, eased himself into his allotted seat supported by a cane on one side and his secretary on the other. U. Chandramani, the senior-most bikkhu in India at the time, chanted the three jewels (tritiya ratna)—to seek refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. This was followed by the five precepts and concluded with the 22 oaths that Ambedkar had drawn up which focused mainly on distancing the new converts from Hindu practices and vowing to follow good conduct.
Most accounts oscillate between regarding the conversion to be Ambedkar’s insightful political move or a spontaneous, mythical event in the life of a person who was already regarded as a saint. Eleanor Zelliot’s Ambedkar’s World stresses that the decision to convert came as a threat to the caste Hindus, following years of negotiations on whether the Hindu order could accommodate the “Depressed Classes”. Ambedkar had rhetorically claimed that if a Dalit—K.K. Sakat, considered an exemplary Hindu by Tilak’s newspaper Kesari—would be appointed as Shankaracharya for a year, then the mass exodus of Dalits from Hinduism would be averted. Everyone knew this was an implausible event.
The chosen site for the conversion was shifted to Nagpur from Bombay, to “honour those living outside of the regional capital”. Twenty-one years had passed since the Nasik declaration of 13 October 1935. When Ambedkar declared that he would not die a Hindu, Gandhi dismissed it with a comment on how religion was “not like a house or cloth which can be changed at will.” At the time, the newspapers carried Ambedkar’s rejoinder stating that the decision had not been made in a huff but after due deliberation leading to the conclusion that Hinduism was not good for the Depressed Classes.
After the Nasik announcement, representatives of most religions approached Ambedkar with interest, trying to draw the would-be converts into their fold. Apart from religious concern, the different representatives factored in the political advantage of including such large numbers of converts into their ranks. Demographics was at the heart of contestation around representation.
During this commotion, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, a ‘radical’ offshoot of the Arya Samaj invited Ambedkar to deliver their annual lecture with the aim to dissuade him from his decision to change his religion. However, things did not go as planned. When the luminaries of the Mandal and of the Arya Samaj read the final version of the text of Ambedkar’s speech—Annihilation of Caste—they realized they could not endorse it. It especially irked the reformist group that Ambedkar had written: “If you wish to bring about a breach in the system, then you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the shastras, which deny any part to reason and morality.” Having given up on the possibility of reforming Hinduism, Ambedkar was left with four choices—Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Buddhism.
Sikhism was the alternative that Ambedkar considered most seriously. He attended the Sikh Prachar Conference in April 1936 and then even sent his son and nephew to the Sikh Temple for a month. However, according to the scholar Harish K. Puri, perhaps the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) feared that “after six crore (60 million) untouchables became Sikhs” the clout of dominant-caste Jats in the SGPC and the gurdwaras would be undermined.
In the end, Ambedkar chose Buddhism. After all, when he had matriculated in 1907, the social reformer and writer Krishnaji Arjun Keluskar had gifted him with a copy of his just-published biography titled The Life of Gautama Buddha. In his political and philosophical essays such as “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India”, which were only posthumously published as unfinished drafts, it is clear that Ambedkar veered to the view that Buddhism was a serious challenge to Brahminism in ancient India. He wrote: “Buddhism was a revolution. It was as great a Revolution as the French Revolution. Though it began as a Religious revolution, it became more than Religious revolution. It became a Social and Political Revolution.
In his 1948 work, The Untouchables, Who Were They And Why They Became Untouchables, Ambedkar suggests that those who remained Buddhist after the Brahminic counter-revolution against Buddhism were treated as “Broken Men” and became the “untouchables”. Therefore, much like for Iyothee Thass in the Tamil country seven decades before Ambedkar, reversion to Buddhism for Dalits seemed to be both logical and necessary. In Ambedkar’s view, Buddhism also provided the much-needed moral ballast that was missing from Hinduism. He charted a way to do away with narratives of crisis and suggested the insistent categories of hard reality—be it the self, the soul, or religion, were eventually no more than the basis upon which newer forms of discrimination would come to rest.
Further, Buddhism was a way to annihilate caste. If Dalits did not remain the oppositional category against which caste Hindus defined themselves, the system could not be sustained. Ambedkar’s was a category which was not based on conflict, it was a separate identity. The influence of continental philosophy—from Hegel to Heidegger, is unmistakable in this idea and yet Ambedkar also preempted a critique of such Eurocentric relative liberalism and argued for a balance. In 1951, he wrote in an article for the vaishak number of the Mahabodhi Society of Calcutta’s journal that “the Buddha’s Religion was the only religion which a society awakened by science could accept, and without which it would perish …. for the modern world Buddhism was the only religion which it must have to save itself.”
Despite the current right-wing efforts to promote Ghar Wapsi, conversions continue to this day, and not only to Buddhism. The most recent instance was this August when Dalits from Bhagana, Haryana, converted to Islam. They had been protesting for two years at Jantar Mantar against the atrocities and rapes committed against them by Jats and finally gave up waiting to be heard. The VHP resorted to the age-old argument that their conversion was forced on the helpless Dalits, exploited by those who converted them.
This is a clichéd subset of the long history of patronizing welfare efforts directed at Dalits by the nation and its beneficiaries (see The Pariah Problem for this) that comprise religious and social “reform”, but never political empowerment or structural transformation. For these are times of the politics of victimhood. It’s been sixty-nine years, and the only salvation seems to be in the hope that we’re inching towards the world Ambedkar talked about—one where the distance between the self and the other is, eventually, annihilated.