Around 180 Dalit families converted to Buddhism after caste violence in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh in May 2017. Bhim Army, the new group that seeks to give Dalit politics a more aggressive face, says it is considering a mass campaign for conversions to Buddhism. Last year, over 300 Dalits converted to Buddhism in Gujarat after seven of their caste were flogged for skinning a dead cow. Dalits, ranked lowest on the Hindu caste hierarchy, first started converting to Buddhism as a political gesture in 1956. This was the year B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit icon, embraced Buddhism contending that this was the only way to escape caste oppression.
The community has continued to use initiation into Buddhism as a gesture of protest. Every time the Dalit movement peaked, the number of conversions rose. After 1956, the number of neo-Buddhists — or fresh converts to Buddhism — grew again in the 1980s and 1990s because of the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a major Dalit-centric political party. Today, around 87 per cent of Buddhists in India are neo-converts; the rest belong to traditional Buddhist communities, mostly in the north-east of India and other Himalayan regions.
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However, there has been a decline in the growth rate of Buddhists in recent years. The number of Buddhists grew by 6.13 per cent in 2001-11 and Hindus, 16.76 per cent. But in the previous decade, this trend had been the reverse: Buddhists (24.53 per cent) and Hindus (20.35 per cent). This decline was most noticeable in states such as Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — known for their neo-Buddhist movements. Maharashtra, which accounts for 77 per cent of all Buddhists in the country, has also seen the growth rate in the community sliding from 15.83 per cent in 1991-2001 to 11.85 per cent in 2001-11.
What could be the reason for this slowdown? It could be because conversion is primarily used as a political tool by Dalits and this means fluctuations in numbers depending on factors that affect the community. New converts to Buddhism are returning to Hinduism or reporting themselves as Hindus in government surveys. Both these scenarios underscore the complexities that mark the neo-Buddhist movement in India. Maharashtra, which has around 90 per cent of India’s neo-Buddhists, saw their numbers grow by 11.85 per cent between 2001 and 2011, from 5.8 million to 6.5 million.
“The consistent influence of social reformers, including Jyotiba Phule and Dr Ambedkar, has ensured that people here are more aware and secure enough to leave their Hindu identity,” said Sandeep Upre, the president of Satyashodhak OBC Parishad, an organisation that conducts deeksha (initiation rites) programmes in Maharashtra. Karnataka, on the other hand, registered a decline of 75 per cent even in the total number of Buddhists between 2001 and 2011. This was a sharp reversal from the upsurge of 439 per cent the state saw in 1991-2001. The earlier growth was in response to a strong political movement in 1990s which saw the BSP winning its first assembly seat in south India.
“The sway of the BSP has dissipated over the years, which explains the decline to some extent. Another reason is the denial of caste certificates to neo-Buddhists by the state government. This excludes them from reservations in education and jobs,” said Mavalli Shankar, the state secretary of Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, an activist organisation based in Bangalore. In 1990, an amendment was made in the Government of India (Scheduled Castes) Order of 1936 bringing neo-Buddhists into the category of Scheduled Castes. However, Karnataka has not issued an official order reflecting the change.
To maintain the reservation advantage, some converts still maintain their Hindu caste certificate and report themselves as Hindus in government surveys while practising Buddhism. Enumeration in Census may not be accurate, said Shiv Shankar Das, a former researcher with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who studied the neo-Buddhist movement in Uttar Pradesh. “Often the surveyor doesn’t even ask about religion once he hears a Hindu-sounding name. In other cases, recent converts may not be as assertive with their changed identity,” he added.
Dalits in Saharanpur, hit by caste violence in May 2017, have complained that Hindu outfits treated them as their own until the assembly elections which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to power in the state. “The BJP, RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and Bajrang Dal are always seeking support based on the Hindu identity. When people reject Hinduism by embracing Buddhism, they also refuse to be part of their socio-political ambitions,” said Nawab Satpal Tanwar, a leader of Bhim Army, which has been accused of inciting violence in Saharanpur.
In Uttar Pradesh too, the population of new converts to Buddhism declined by 29.64 per cent between 2001 and 2011. There are differences between Ambedkarites on how to take the movement further. Bhim Army and its president, Chandrashekhar, take great pride in reinforcing their caste identity. “Dr Ambedkar’s message was annihilation of the caste, not its celebration. Such political associations with caste weaken the neo-Buddhist movement instead of strengthening it,” said Das.
Das pointed out that Uttar Pradesh has not been able to achieve what Maharashtra has in terms of assertiveness. “There was en masse conversion in 1956 and hence the state had a good strength of neo-Buddhists from the very beginning. They don’t look up to any political party because they are themselves a force,” he adds. Ambedkar’s interest in Buddhism went back to 1908, when he first read about Buddha’s life and reached its zenith in 1935 when he declared, “Although I have been born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu.” His essay, “The Annihilation of Caste”, stated that the greatest barrier to the advancement of the untouchables was Hinduism itself.
His stance was seen as a response to Gandhi’s who stressed the removal of untouchability, not caste system itself. But does conversion change how Dalits are treated by casteist elements? “If neighbours continue to treat us according to our caste, it’s their ignorance. We cease to be a Hindu and that act is a redemption enough for us,” said Upre.