Dr. Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar first hinted at religious conversion during the Mahad Talab Satyagraha in 1927 when he said, “We want equal rights in society. We will achieve as far as possible by remaining in Hindu society or if necessary, by kicking this useless Hindu identity.” In the beginning, Dr. Ambedkar tried his best to reform Hindu society. He wanted to remove untouchability while remaining in the Hindu religion. His Mahad Satyagraha and Nasik Kalaram Temple Satyagraha (1930) are clear examples of his persistent efforts to reform Hinduism.
In the end, Babasaheb realized with pain that it was impossible to change the behaviour of the upper-caste Hindus. So, he decided to give up Hinduism. The turning point came in October 1935 when Dr. Ambedkar made a shocking announcement: “I was born a Hindu untouchable, it was not in my power, but I will not die as a Hindu.”
In 1936, Dr. Ambedkar put forward the option of choosing one religion among three religions, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, which had clearly different advantages. He believed that the adoption of Islam and Christianity among these three religions would lead to the denationalization of the Depressed Classes and disorganization of the freedom struggle while the adoption of Sikhism would not pose any threat to the country. In fact, in May 1936, Dr. Ambedkar sent his elder son Yashwant and 13 others to the Golden Temple, Amritsar to study Sikhism. But when he got the report that Jat Sikhs also commit atrocities and practice untouchability on Dalit Sikhs like Hindus, he left the idea of adopting Sikhism.
Dr. Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar on May 31, 1936, in Dadar (Bombay) “Why to change religion? “speaking on the subject, said in his detailed speech,” I want to say in clear words that man is not for religion but religion is for man. If you want to attain humanity, then change your religion. If you want equality and respect, then change your religion. Change your religion if you want to earn your livelihood with freedom. If you want to make your family and community happy, then change your religion.”
On August 28, 1937, Babasaheb while addressing a group of untouchables asked his disciples to give up celebrating Hindu festivals. He said that religious conversion will happen, but there is a need to think and understand a lot in this matter. “The new religion will be adopted only after a lot of investigation.”
Finally, Babasaheb embraced Buddhism on October 14, 1956, at Deeksha Bhoomi, Nagpur with five lakh followers and said, “Today I have a new birth.”
When Babasaheb talked about the conversion of the untouchables, it was opposed not only by the upper castes but also by the untouchable leaders. The upper caste leaders said that Dr. Ambedkar was misleading the untouchables. This is not going to benefit them. On the contrary, some also argued that Dr. Ambedkar was depriving them of the profit of Rs.400 by skinning and selling the hides of dead animals. On this, Dr. Ambedkar said that I give five hundred rupees to the dead animal. Upper castes should come forward and earn profit by lifting the dead animal and taking five hundred rupees from me. But no upper caste man came forward.
Some untouchable leaders were opposing the change of religion by saying that we should not leave the religion of our forefathers and fight for our rights by remaining as Hindus. They also said that this would not make any difference in the social and economic status of the untouchables.
Let us now see to what extent the objectives and possibilities of religious conversion mentioned by Babasaheb have been fulfilled. First, it would be appropriate to see what the pace of conversion to Buddhism is. According to the Census Report of 2011, the population of Buddhists in India is about 84 lakhs, which is about 0.7 percent of the total population. In this, 13% are traditional Buddhists and 87% are Neo-Buddhists converted from Hindu Dalits. Maharashtra has the maximum number of 65 lakh Buddhists. In the period from 2001 to 2011, the population of Buddhists has increased by 6.1% but the total population has decreased from 0.8% to 0.7%, which is a matter of serious concern.
Now, if the qualitative change in Neo-Buddhists is compared with that of Hindu Dalits, then it is proved that Neo-Buddhists have moved ahead of Hindu Dalits in all fields, which confirms the fulfilment of the objectives of Babasaheb’s religious conversion. If Neo-Buddhists are compared with Hindu Dalits based on data obtained from 2011 Census, then Neo-Buddhists are found to be far ahead of Hindu Dalits in the following areas: –
- Sex Ratio: -The sex ratio of females and males among Neo-Buddhists is 965 per thousand while among Hindu Dalits this ratio is 945 only. This proves that the condition of women among Neo-Buddhists is much better than that of Hindu Dalits. The high sex ratio of women among Neo-Buddhists is in line with the equality status of women in Buddhism while the sex ratio of women among Hindu Dalits is in line with the low status of women in Hinduism. This sex ratio of females among Neo-Buddhists is higher than the national ratio of 943, Hindus 939, Muslims 951, Sikhs 903, and Jains 954.
- Sex Ratio of Children (up to 0-6 years): – According to the above population census, the sex ratio of girls and boys in the age group of 0-6 years among Neo Buddhists is 933 while among Hindu Dalits this ratio is also 933. Here also the sex ratio of boys and girls is according to their place in the religion. The sex ratio among Neo-Buddhists is higher than the national rate of 918, 913 among Hindus, 826 among Sikhs and 889 among Jains.
- Literacy Rate: – The Literacy Rate among Neo-Buddhists is 81.30% while among Hindu Dalits this rate is only 66.10% only. The literacy rate of Neo-Buddhists is higher than the national rate of 74.04%, 73.27% of Hindus, 68.54% of Muslims and 75.4% of Sikhs. This clearly proves that on account of giving more importance to knowledge and education in Buddhism. Neo-Buddhists have made a lot of progress in the field of education, which is much more than that of Hindu Dalits.
- Literacy Rate of Women: – The education rate of women among Neo-Buddhists is 74.04%, while this rate is 56.50% only among Hindu Dalits. The female literacy rate among Neo-Buddhists is higher than the national female literacy rate of 65.46%, 64.63% of Hindu females, and 68.50% of Muslims. This proves that more attention is paid to the education of women among Neo-Buddhists.
- Work Participation Rate (Regular Employment): – The work participation rate among Neo-Buddhists is 43.1% while among Hindu Dalits this rate is 40.87%. The work participation rate of Neo-Buddhists is higher than the national participation rate of 39.8%, 41.0% for Hindus, 32.6% for Muslims, 41.9% for Christians, and 36.3% for Sikhs. This proves that Neo-Buddhists are ahead of everyone in the category of having regular jobs as compared to all other classes, which has been possible only because of their high literacy rate. For this very reason, they are economically more prosperous than Hindu Dalits.
It is clear from the above comparative study that the sex ratio, literacy rate, female education rate and work participation rate among Neo-Buddhists is not higher not only than Hindu Dalits but also that of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Jains at the national level. The main reason for this is change of religion. They have become more progressive by becoming free from mental slavery.
Apart from this, it has been found in studies done by different researchers that the families and sub-castes of Dalits who have adopted Dr. Ambedkar and Buddhism have progressed more than Hindu Dalits. They have left the old dirty professions and adopted new clean professions. They are more inclined towards education. They are free from fatalism and stand on their own feet. They have become more self-respecting by freeing themselves from low caste inferiority complex. They have also become free from economic exploitation in the name of religion and have improved their economic condition. The condition of their women and children is much better than that of Hindu Dalits.
From the above brief discussion, it is proved that Buddhism is really the right path for the welfare and liberation of Dalits. Neo-Buddhists have made a lot of progress in comparison to Hindu Dalits in a short span of time. They have attained a new identity of Neo-Buddhists. They have become more self-respecting and progressive than before. Their view of the world and religion has become more rational and scientific. Hence Hindu Dalits should take inspiration from the changes that have come through the change of religion among the Neo-Buddhists and the progress made by them. They should free themselves from the mental slavery of Hinduism and move forward like Neo-Buddhists. They can get equality and freedom by coming out of the hell of caste by getting a new identity. Along with this, Neo Buddhists should also become good Buddhists and present a good example in front of Hindu Dalits so that Babasaheb’s dream of making India Buddhist can be realized as soon as possible.
SR Darapuri, National President, All India People’s Front