200 Dalits convert to Buddhism in Gujarat. The message? End discrimination
That nearly 200 Dalits embraced Buddhism in Gujarat has come as a big embarrassment to the BJP-led government in the state as well as the Centre. Worse, they chose to leave the fold on Vijayadashami, the same day RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat gave a virtual clean chit to cow vigilantes.
Dalits in the state hold cow vigilantes - who are considered "respectable" by the Sangh Parivar" - responsible for their leaving Hinduism. The leaders of the Dalit protest march from Ahmedabad to Una had announced that many of them would quit Hindu faith if justice continued to be denied, but the statement was not taken seriously at that point.
Even though hundreds of Dalits in Gujarat have embraced Buddhism previously, the conversions this time are a reaction to the incident in Una on 11 July when self-styled cow vigilantes thrashed several Dalit youths. All this was caught on camera.
In 2003 and 2010 too, several thousand Dalits in the state converted to Buddhism, but those events were attributed to general complaints of atrocities and discrimination the community had to suffer at the hands of upper caste Hindus.
At the conversion ceremonies, the Dalits who embraced Buddhism specifically stated that their move is in protest against the Una incident.
The refrain was the same at the ceremonies, held in Ahmedabad, Surendranagar and Kalol. Apart from the tyranny of cow vigilantes, other reasons cited for the conversions were superstitions, caste-based inequality and discrimination in Hinduism.
These conversions have come at a time when Gujarat's Dalits are refusing to lift dead cattle, another vow they had taken as part of their protests against the Una episode.
Reports are pouring in daily from Gujarat's interiors where Dalits are either being beaten up or socially boycotted for their refusal to shift dead animals.
A leap of faith
These Dalit narratives that are emerging are not new in Gujarat, but the state has always managed to sweep them under the carpet while projecting the state as an ideal investment destination.
The most common complaint is the discrimination Dalits face while trying to purchase or even renting a flat in areas or housing societies earmarked for general categories.
Builders openly refuse to sell flats to Dalits and other Scheduled Caste people, many quoted as their reason for embracing Buddhism - a path of protest shown by their spiritual leader Dr BR Ambedkar.
A contradictory law
Earlier in 2010, when nearly 11,000 people from all over Gujarat had embraced Buddhism, Dalits had said that they only wanted to escape from the caste discrimination followed in Hinduism.
As per the requirements of Gujarat's anti-conversion law, enacted in 2003, advance notices are to be given to the District Collectors intimating one's intention to change his or her faith.
But the same legislation, ironically called the Freedom of Religion Act, makes an exception that no such notices are required if the conversion is into Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as they are religions that have originated in India.
This exception made for conversions to religions originating in India makes it clear that the main objective of the anti-conversion law is to prevent any change of faith towards Islam and Christianity.
An unapologetic Parivar
The liberty given to conversions to faiths originating in India has now come to haunt the BJP government and the Sangh Parivar, but that is only because they refuse to be apologetic about the high handedness of the self-appointed cow vigilantes.
But a few thousand Dalits who converted to Buddhism within six months of enactment of this law had clearly exposed the Sangh Parivar's game plan of using the lower caste people for their ulterior motives during the 2002 riots.
Nearly 5,000 Dalits, who converted to Buddhism at Vadodara on Vijayadashami in 2003, had said that their change of faith was in protest against "the dual policy of the upper caste Hindus to use these backward classes in riots against Muslims, but dumping them later on".
The Dalits choose Vijayadashami to embrace Buddhism because Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar too had converted thousands of Dalits to Buddhism on this day in 1956, precisely in protest against the discrimination followed by the upper caste Hindus.
Edited by Aleesha Matharu