Wednesday, November 01, 2006
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
My guests are Lalida and Perimar who I met at the conference in Nagpur that I attended at the start of my trip here. They are a dynamic, impressive couple who run a networking a organisation called ADECOM devoted top improving the lot of dalits by developing things at the grassroots. They offer training and support for a cooperatives and projects in dalit villages and communities across the state. They broker shared funding requests to western ngos such as the Karuna Trust and offer monitoring in return. At first sight it seems as impressive a set-upo as I have seen in this area. They are dedicated to staying small, devolving responisbility to the village groups wherever possible and training local people to take it on.
Top of Lalida's shopping list of issues are women's rights and land rights. The British passed statuesd promising land dredistribuition to the dalits, and 59 years after Independence the dalits here are waiting to see the benefits. Perumal is an actor and singer, and his focus is developing cultural activities. In Nagpur he and his troupe shocked the audience with drumming that was performed explosive, passionate and raw, followed a superbly staged piece of agitprop street-theatre. They use their performances to campaign on issues from AIDS awareness to demands for economic justice, and increasingly, the importance of DR Ambedkar and his Budhist message
This afternoon I attended a meeting in a dalit village in Pondicherry. Most of the dwellings are thatched wooden huts - dark interiors, rough floors, and often overflowing with children. The tracks between the houses are shared by buffaloes, goats and stray dogs and children dressed in scraps of clothing. Vill;agers gather to met us in a building that in most places would be considered a derelict wreck, but here is the community centre. It is hurriedly swept clean of the piles of litter including discarded cigarrette butts and playing cards - because the men gather here to gamble. They haven't come to the meeting: it is filled by women, their arms filled with children - the older ones of whom stare at me with unabashed curiousity. Their parents join them when Perumal tells that that I am a BBC reporter who will tell the world about their difficulties. I start to think, 'How did this happen... ?'
We have been travelling today with several of the girls from Peruma's company, and Vijaya starts the meeting with a soulful, vibrant song. I hear the word 'Ambedkar' repeated in it, though Perumal tells me that in fact Dr Ambedkar is little known here. 'They know he is the Dalit leader who did much to help dalits. That's all.'They have probably never heard of Buddhism, let alone considered adopting it. He whispers that Vijaya's song si about the need to be united in the struggle for justice.
In turn the women introduce themselves to me: each represents a co-operative, a self-help group, or a savings group. Although they earn just 30-50 rupees a day in the fields, and often can find no work at all, they manage to sav 100 rupees a month, which they put by to start a business. Perumal and his team have been training some of them to make cards and small sculptures constructed from coconuts,a s well as embroidery work. But they don't know how they will sell the work. Perumal says his friends will help with taking it to the market as well as continuing their training.
He tells them they have a good chance to learn tailoring at the government training centre. 'But it's too far away, it costs 10 rupees to get there. Can't you build a centre here?' they ask. 'If you get training and make a start you will get help, otherwise you won't he replies.
Then a litany of complaints and problems pours out, and Perumal mutters explanations beteeen taking on the vehement protestations. This woman's husband has a good education, but he couldn't get a government job and lost his job in the rpivate sector. They don't have the confidence to send their children to school. This woman works on the land, but it is not the season for work now, and anyway there is less land since the large school was built.
My respect grows for Perumal and hjis team. The needss are huge, but they are insist that what they can do is to help the women to help themselves. They have no money to hand out, but they can help them to organise, to improve their own l;ives and to campaign for help from the government. I sit back watching the growing intensity of the discussion in Tamil, and before I leave I offer some encouraging and, I hope, appropriate words about the need for unity and collective effort. I feel like an old-time socialist - and here the need for collective action is so plain.
In the jeep driving away I ask Perumal what they were saying in the heated conversation towards the end. 'They were asking what I would do to bring relief and help them with their problems. They were saying that they need help right now. I told them you are a jopurnalist, but they said, he is a forieigner, how will he help us?' He paused. ' Maybe I shouldn't take foreigners to villages.' I am subdued on the drive back, and we stop for chai on the outskirts of Pondycherry. We drink from plastic cups. 'See the others,' says Perumal, pointing to the metal cups served at a separate counter. 'Two tumbler system. We have to use separate cups.'
Caste practice is alive and well in Tamil Nadu. Staying with Lalida and Perumal I think of civil rights movements in the US and liberation struggles in Latinn America. This is the experience from which the Ambedkarite Buddhist liberation movement is growing.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
The first major coverage came in The Guardian - I spoke to their International Newsdesk a few days previously and they forwarded the story to their Delhi correspondent. He was here in Hyderabad on the evening of 13th and filed his copy in advance. The BBC World Service people I have been working with are also in Hyderabad making a documentary, and in the afternoon Dan Isaacs, the reporter working on the documentary, started to get calls following their morning editorial meeting: having read the Guardian piece, they decided to carry it themselves. He was filing reports all day and my friend and companion here, Manidhamma (a dalit Buddhist from Nagpur, currently living in the UK) was interviewed for the news programe Newshour - which has an audience in the tens of milions.
The report also appeared on the bbbc.co.uk website and even now it is ranking as the fourth most read story. Along with guardian unlimited this is one of the most read English language news channels. Then it apeared on Reuters, and a flood of international coverage has followed. There's not much US coverage yet, that I can see: that may change.
Dalits change religion in caste system protestABC Online, Australia - 2 hours ago
Thousands of people have attended a ceremony in India at which hundreds of low-caste Hindus, known as Dalits, have converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
Dalits embrace Buddhism, ChristianityHindu, India - 7 hours agoNagpur: Hundreds of Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a programme here, where copies of the Gujarat Government's anti-conversion Bill ...
Dalits' mass conversion held in NagpurNDTV.com, India - 11 hours agoHundreds of Dalits on Saturday embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a mass conversion programme in Nagpur, in which copies of Gujarat government's anti ...
Mass conversion to Buddhism in IndiaBangkok Post, Thailand - 15 hours agoNew Delhi (dpa) - The western Indian town of Nagpur was tense Saturday as hundreds of lower caste Hindus or Dalits attended a rally to protest new laws making ...
Low-caste Hindus adopt new faithBBC Bulgaria, Bulgaria - 15 hours agoThousands of people have been attending mass ceremonies in India at which hundreds of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
Hindus set to convert to BuddhismBBC News, UK - 20 hours agoTens of thousands of people are due to attend a mass conversion ceremony in India at which large numbers of low-caste Hindus will become Buddhists. ...
Indian low-caste Hindus plan mass conversionsReuters AlertNet, UK - 21 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus in India plan to covert to Buddhism and Christianity ...
Dalits to embrace Buddhism, ChristianityHindu, India - 13 Oct 2006Nagpur: The All-India Conference of SC/ST Organisations, Lord Buddha Club and the All-India Christian Council will organise mass conversions here on Saturday ...
Untouchables embrace Buddha to escape oppressionGuardian Unlimited, UK - 13 Oct 2006In the small one-room house on the edge of the rice bowl of India, Narasimha Cherlaguda explains why he is preparing to be reborn again as a Buddhist. ...
100,000 outcasts to change their faithUnison.ie, Ireland - 12 Oct 2006ABOUT 100,000 outcast Hindus are expected to attend a mass conversion ceremony in central India tomorrow to be freed from the social injustices of the caste ...
India's Untouchables turn to Buddhism in protest at discrimination ...Independent, UK - 12 Oct 2006By Justin Huggler in Delhi. Across India this month, thousands of Hindus from the former Untouchable castes are converting to Buddhism ...
Outcasts switch faith to gain freedomTimes Online, UK - 12 Oct 2006By Ashling O’Connor. ABOUT 100,000 outcast Hindus are expected to attend a mass conversion ceremony in central India tomorrow to ...
Dalits en masse change religion protesting casteIndian Catholic, India - 1 hour agoThe mass conversion ceremony in Ngapur was part of the programs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of neo-Buddhist movement, which began when B. R Ambedkar ...
Lower castes convert en massePeninsula On-line, Qatar - 3 hours agoNAGPUR • Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity yesterday in protest against new laws in several states that make such changes ...
Hindus’ religious protestSunday Herald, UK - 6 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity yesterday in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of ...
Low Caste Hindus Convert In Protestnewswire.co.nz, New Zealand - 8 hours agoThousands of people have attended a ceremony in central India at which hundreds of low caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
India's Dalits hold protest conversionsWashington Times, DC - 10 hours agoHundreds of Dalits, the group on the bottom of the Hindu caste structure, converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday in India, the BBC reported. ...
Thousands Of India Dalits Abandon HinduismBosNewsLife (subscription), Hungary - 11 hours agoBy BosNewsLife News Center. The 'World Religious Freedom Day' took place in Nagpur, the largest city in central India in the western ...
Indian Hindus to Convert to BuddhismShortNews.com, Germany - 11 hours agoIn protest against the injustice of the Indian caste system, thousands of people will attend a mass conversion ceremony in the central city of Nagpur (India ...
Dalits' embrace Buddhism at a mass conversion programme :konkaniworld, United Arab Emirates - 12 hours agoHundreds of Dalits today embraced Buddhism and Christianity at a mass conversion programme here, in which copies of Gujarat government's anti-conversion bill ...
India Supreme Court Postpones Landmark Dalits HearingBosNewsLife (subscription), Hungary - 12 Oct 2006By BosNewsLife News Center. The government already deferred five previous scheduled hearings of the case related to the rights of ...
Low-caste Hindus adopt new faith
BBC News, UK - 2 hours agoThousands of people have been attending mass ceremonies in India at which hundreds of low-caste Hindus (Dalits) converted to Buddhism and Christianity. ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseSydney Morning Herald, Australia - 2 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of religion ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseNinemsn, Australia - 2 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of religion ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseThe Age, Australia - 2 hours agoThousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity in protest against new laws in several Indian states that make such changes of religion ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseReuters.uk, UK - 14 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday ...
Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masseScotsman, United Kingdom - 14 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday ...
Low-caste Hindus convert en masseReuters India, India - 14 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus converted to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday ...
Indian low-caste Hindus plan mass conversionsKhaleej Times, United Arab Emirates - 20 hours agoNAGPUR, India - Thousands of low-caste Hindus in India plan to covert to Buddhism and Christianity on Saturday to protest new laws in several states that make ...
Low-caste Hindus plan mass conversionsReuters India, India - 21 hours agoBy Krittivas Mukherjee. NAGPUR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of low-caste Hindus in India plan to covert to Buddhism and Christianity ...
Saturday, October 14, 2006
As it became clear that the numbers would be low and that the event would start several hours late patience started to fray, and the Taiwanese nuns and monks who had flown over with the Ven Hsing Yun were mumrmuring about the organnisation and being there on flase pretences. Hsing Yun is a major figure in Taiwan and TV crews followed his every step - but the event hardly lived up to his stature.
The siumple, moving diksa ceremony went off smoothly, and a series of speeches started. Just as I came to the microphone to make my own the organisers announced that their time was up, and the police had told them they needed to reopen the road.
It is so hard to tell the reality of what is happening here from the rhetoric and the posturing. Various theories are circulating about the small size of the sucess, but a key issue seems to be that the organisers focused on getting high-profile guests to attend rather than mobilising ordinary people from the vilages.
Meanwhile some international media coverage is starting. See the Times online at: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/section/0,,8214,00.html and the Guardian at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/india/story/0,,1922410,00.html
This afternoon, along with thousands of his supporters - on foot, on scooters and in buses – I walked behind a hearse bearing the body of Kanshi Ram to the funeral ghat. The procession wound for miles through the wide tree-lined avenues of New Delhi, past diplomatic residences and embassies. The hearse was an open-topped truck, bedecked with flowers – when I got close there was the beautiful scent of frangipani. Standing beside the body in its open-topped casket was Mayawati, Kanshi Ram’s chosen successor, and ex-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, with someone holding a black umbrella to keep the sun off her. Alongside her were two yellow-clad Theravadin monks, politicians – and two lean black-clad security guards with rifles.
The crowd, jostling to get close to his body, was sombre. They walked tightly packed, with periodic raised arms punching the sky, and shouts of ‘as long as the sun and moon remain, your name, Kanshi Ram, will stay’; and ‘the second name of Dr Ambedkar was Kanshi Ram’. I notice there are hardly any women at all in the crowd for all that Mayawati is a woman and presumably an inspiration for female empowerment.
Kanshi Ram was president and inspiration for the Bahujan Samaj Party (for the good of the all). He formed the BSP in 1984 as a breakaway from the RPI, the party set up by Dr Ambedkar that was riven by internal disputes following his death. The BSP gained power three times in the vastly populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, with Mayawati as Chief Minister.
Kanshi Ram’s death may have great significance. The lower-caste political and social movements have been constantly riven by discord, and like Dr Ambedkar in the last century, Kanshi Ram was the one leader who had a following and respect across India and across the multifarious lower castes. He declared in 2003 as Dr Ambedkar had in 1935 that ‘Although I was born a Hindu, I will not die a Hindu. He planned, again like Dr Ambedkar, to convert to Buddhism this month, along with many, potentially millions of his followers. However his health, which had been bad for some months, failed him before he could do so. His anointed successor, Mayawati, does not command the same support and there are fears about what will happen to the impetus behind the Buddhist conversions – at a time when state after state are drafting anti-conversion bills.
I fall in with a Punjabi – Harinder – whilst we walk. I’m sporting a camera and he asks me if I’m press – it turns out he’s a reporter on a Punjab newspaper, and also a strong supporter of Kanshi Ram, so he’d come down to Delhi as soon as he’d heard last night of Kanshi Ram’s death. As far as I could work out – given his non-existent English and my fractured Hindi – he is a member of a Punjabi party affiliated to the BSP – the Bahujan Samaj Morcha – BSM. He has great respect for Kanitram, but is quite derogatory about Mayawati. He says that Kanshi Ram was a simple man, who stayed connected with the poor that he cared about, and lived in a very upstanding way - apparently he didn’t have properties gained by ill-gotten means scattered around India as is the wont of the political class here. Mayawati, on the other hand, he says, once in power quickly gained a reputation for corruption.
We reach Nigambodh Ghat, the funeral place, which is swarming with people. They’ve climbed up on the roofs of the buildings there, and even up the trees. I sneak my way through the crowds till I can get a view of the podium. Harinder says ‘there’s Sonia Gandhi going up the podium’ but I can’t make her out. Then the speaker system comes on and someone – I assume one of the monks – is reciting the Buddhist refuges, though I seem to hear Kanshi Ram’s name mixed in with them…are they saying ‘Kanshi Ram saranam gachami’ - I go for refuge to Kanshi Ram’? I can’t be sure. Then there are the precepts in Pali. I notice some of the people around me mouthing along with them. So Buddhism seems to have a place within the BSP, but is it lip-service – mere political Buddhism? Who now will lead, when Kanshi Ram is dead?
This is a contribution from Dryan Kitchener of the Karuna Trust. Thanks very much to Jarrod for this: more contributions are very welcome. Thanks also to those of you who have sent emails about this blog. Because of the pressure on my time and the difficulties of communication here I may not be able to respond for a while, but I’ll try to get back to everyone when I can.
I am now in Hyderabad in Andra Pradesh State, several hundred miles sout of Nagpur, for the large meeting and diksa tomorrow – 14th October. A report will follow shortly …
Friday, October 13, 2006
We’ve just pulled up in a large field and water hole with buffalo lying neck-deep in the water with a statue of Dr Ambedkar in a lush, green field. Then we drive a kilometer to the village – roughly built huts, the walls mostly made of mud, the more solid buildings of brick, beside a tranquil lake, and the sun shining down a sweltering heat. The entire village is there to meet us: two hundred people clustered in a gathering pace by the lake.
The men are dressed in simple shirts and slacks, many of the faces deeply weathered; the women are dressed in dramatic green and red saris, many with dramatic pink and red nose studs in both nostrils; the children are here as well, from the smallest to teens in smart blue and white school uniforms. You see the incredulity is in the faces: amazement that people should come from so far away to their village – in fact, that anyone at all would come here. They warm to the speakers as each in turn expresses their admiration for Dr Ambedkar and the warmth of the reception. It’s true: their faces shine as with joy – though mixed with surprise and perplexity. One man towards the back stares at me as if to say ‘What’s that?’
Most of these people are Satnamis – followers of ‘the true name’: a sect founded by a local teacher called Garsidas in the late 18th century. It is an anti-caste bhakti movement (i.e. devotionally based – because social differences disappear in the face of Truth) numbering three or four million people in this region. They are nominally Hindu, but they have rejected so many Hindu beliefs and practices that they see themselves more as an independent tradition. Followers these days think that Garsidas’ teaching has much in common with Buddhism: indeed, some scholars trace a line from the last of the Buddhist siddhas to the first of the Hindu bhaktas, culminating in figures like Garsidas.
The great link is Dr Ambedkar, and the fact that he advocated conversion to Buddhism is now impacting on these people. They knew nothing of him in his lifetime: illiterate and far from external communications they knew of little beyond their own community. That changed in the 1980s when Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP, a political party representing the poorest people, visited the area, bringing news of Dr Ambedkar’s achievements and legacy. A dalit who became the country’s first law minister and framed laws against caste discrimination (though of course you can’t outlaw the attitudes that go along with it). Several people here tell me that for them Dr Ambedkar is a Messiah, a saviour who embodies all their aspirations and showed them a way forward.
Kanshi Ram was largely responsible for spreading awareness of Dr Ambedkar beyond Maharashtra, to many groups like the Chhatishgari Satnami’s, and for taking his work forward in the political sphere. In a country whose rulers are still overwhelmingly Brahmins, the BSP actually joined the government. But we have just heard that he died – the day before we arrived on 8th October. It is a shock to these people, but not a surprise, as he had been ill for two years, and at every meeting we hold a two minute silence.
Only five percent of the Satnami community have actually become Buddhists so far, but this includes some very active and determined people, including a singer who has accompanied us on two of our programmes. He recites the words first in a rolling, emphatic, strongly rhymed poetry, sounding like Jamaican dub. I can pick out a few key words: ‘Bhagawan Buddha’, ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar’. Then he sings the same words, in a vibrant, modulated harmony, adding to them improvised lines and repetitions. He sways and the audience nod with pleasure.
There’s a rich culture here, for all the absence of education and the community’s isolation, but it is being transformed as these people move towards Buddhism. Traditionally religious teachers would sing verses from the Ramayan followed by commentaries on the meaning. But in recent years many people have turned against the ancient text because of its caste connotations, and new epics have been composed: the Bhimayana, which tells the life of Bhimrao Ambedkar (‘Bhim’ for short) and the Buddhayana, recounting the life of the Buddha.
I ask a schoolteacher if they see conflict between the Satnami tradition and Buddhism. ‘Both teach equality and both were against caste,’ he replies. ‘We love our teacher, Guruji, but the Satnami way has done nothing to help our people out of their suffering. Babasaheb Ambedkar has helped, so we have great faith in him. Buddhism shows how to live a good life and it has always opposed caste, so now we have faith in the Buddha.’
Another man joins the conversation, who is dressed in flowing yellow and red robes and has mantras tattooed across his forehead. He tells me that he is a former Ramnami, a breakaway from the Satnami movement devoted to reciting the name of Ram. ‘I still bear the marks of a Ramnami, but I am a follower of Bhagawan Buddha, and I have traveled to every state in India to see how the followers of Dr Ambedkar’s movement are working to spread Dhamma.’ I compliment him on his magnificent white beard and he tells me, ‘When I travel in the train I tell them I am a Buddhist holy man and point to my beard. They say ‘Buddhists shouldn’t steal – buy a ticket!’ But I say, I am not stealing, I am just traveling, and usually they let me stay on the train.’
I worry several times during the tour if that this seems too much like a missionary tour, but there is little sense here that something is being imposed from outside. I have used the word ‘conversion’ throughout this blog, but in fact they tell me they are not Hindus. Some say they have no religion; others follow teachers who they now consider to be in sympathy with Dr Ambedkar and the Buddha.
There is much more I could write about my three-day trip to Chattisgarh, but communications have been so difficult that I will only be able to manage this single report. But I am pleased to have gone. Not far south is a heartland of the Naxalite insurgency: a Maoist guerrilla insurgency that spreads across India and uses bandit tactics to oppose caste and social inequality. Whole districts not far away are in Naxalite hands, and the scale of the revolt is gradually being appreciated by Indians and outsiders. The poverty is to intense and the injustice of caste so palpable, that this is no surprise. It throws Dr Ambedkar’s importance and his espousal of non-violence into sharper relief still. The villages and towns that are turning to Buddhism are the heart of India, and a change is taking place there: a teaching of equality, dignity, and helping the community, all embodied in the bespectacled figure of the most unlikely-looking messiah: Dr Ambedkar.
“I have known about Dr Ambedkar as long as I have known about the world. When I was growing up my family kept his picture as one of their few possessions and worshipped him as if he was a God. My father was a landlord and we got news of the wider world, even in our remote village. I first saw him in 1942, when I was just 14 years old: he had left mainstream politics to form his own party, the Scheduled Caste Federation, and when he came to Nagpur for a conference, I saw him on the dais.
I saw him again in 1946, when he was Labour Minister and he came to Nagpur for another meeting. He arrived in a large saloon car, and his face was shining – radiant – and his whole bearing was very impressive. All of his followers respected him as if he was a higher being. What he had achieved was so immense for someone from our background, and he carried our hopes for a better future.
By 1956, when Babasaheb declared that he was to convert to Buddhism, I had been a member of the Municipal Council, and he called several of us to Delhi to tell us the date and discuss arrangements. He was very concerned that everything should be done properly, so I was sent to meet him personally. I sat on the verandah of his house and he came in supported by a stick in one hand, with his other arm propped up by his assistant. He asked about the arrangements and told me to find a suitable piece of land.
The plot I found was where we are sitting now – Diksabhumi – though at that time it was agricultural land outside the town. Nagpur has grown so much since then that now it seems close to the centre. I had to work hard to get the land from the government, but eventually all the arrangements were made, while my colleague arranged the ceremony itself. I was 28 years old.
On October 14th, as soon as Babasaheb stood on the dais everyone was cheerful. There were so many people – now they say around half-a-million – all of us dressed in the white clothes of Buddhist lay-people. People had traveled great distances to be there, as well as coming from the local region, so members of many castes and communities were present.
Babasaheb stood on the dais and rested his head before the Buddha for two or three minutes without moving. He was so moved, so emotional, and the whole crowd was calm and quiet. Then he took diksa from the presiding monk, and after that he repeated the verses for all of us, including the 22 vows. So we took diksa from Babasaheb.
I cannot describe what I felt that day. I do not have the words in English, but I can say that for all of us it was as if our lives started anew. It was as if we had stepped out of the darkness and into the light, or we had been released from prison. For so many thousands of years our people had been treated as animals, but now we were human beings. We could hold our heads high, and I never lost that feeling.
I heard the news of Dr Ambedkar’s death on the radio. Everyone was crying, and yet we could not believe it was true. I rushed to get to Bombay, for the funeral in Dada, and all along the route of the funeral there were many people, all filled with intense emotion.
We made an application to the central government to have a memorial on the site of the diksa, and eventually it was granted. I became Secretary of the trust controlling the land in 1965 and I decided to start the Dr Ambedkar College as the most fitting memorial: his constant message was, ‘Educate!’ Others wanted a memorial building, and we started efforts to build one in 1972, but we were held back by lack of funds. In 1981 we celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the ceremony and the Maharashtran Chief Minster contributed money for the construction. Work continued over many years and we finished quite recently. The outer appearance is modeled on the Great Stupa at Sanchi, but ours is unique because it has a temple inside the base, and some of Dr Ambedkar’s ashes are there. It’s the biggest hollow stupa in the world, and every year a million people come to pay homage to their revered teacher.
Fifty years is a very short time in the history of a religious movement, and I think that over this period the conversion movement has had a good response. Now many communities that had no connection to Dr Ambedkar are coming to be his followers – people like Lakshman Mane. The Other Backward Castes (the OBC’s or sudras) who hated Dr Ambedkar in his lifetime now see that they will only make progress by following the path he proposed. There are movements now in many states, including Tamil Nadu, where the leaders include many intellectuals and educated people.
Dr Ambedkar dead is more powerful than he was alive. Many of his followers have thrived: after centuries of deprivation there are now many doctors, senior government officers and people who are successful overseas from our community. They have been uplifted by Dr Ambedkar’s movement, which has brought a very good change in Indian society.”
Saturday, October 07, 2006
For the first time, the movement of conversion to Buddhism among the poorest and most oppressed people in India is moving out from its heartland in Maharashtra to include people across the country. In many ceremonies across India, tens, and in some cases hundreds of thousands of people will become Buddhists over the next few weeks. This started in Nagpur on Monday in ceremonies that included 1-2 million people (most already Buddhists and some new converts). The movement is now expanding dramatically to include other communities in Maharashtra, notably the Matungs – a second group of ex-‘untouchables’ – and the ‘criminal and nomadic tribes’.
Buddhism is also being adopted by groups in many other Indian states. On October 14th I will be in Hyderabad in Andra Pradesh, where up to 400,000 will meet and 100,000 will become Buddhists. On the same day and on other significant dates in the next two months there will be large ceremonies in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Punjab, and many other states, in which I think it is reasonable to say that millions of people will become Buddhists for the first time.
These events are so far unreported in the West and the mainstream Indian media. I have started this blog at to offer reliable news, information, personal observations and interviews with major players in this movement. Earlier in the blog are accounts of the Nagpur rally, and a meeting with the leader of the half-million members of criminal and nomadic tribes, who will be converting soon, an overview of Buddhism in India and the Ambedkarite movement, and much more.
In the next two weeks I will be joining a Dharma teaching tour around remote 'Untouchable' villages, attending a conversion for 3-400,000 in Hydrabad, visiting Tamil Nadu, where a large conversion movement is under way, and meeting Dalit Buddhist leaders in Nagpur, Pune and Bombay.
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I traveled into the center of Nagpur with an American writer called Leona, Milind– who was there to take photographs - and Christopher Queen, who is a lecturer on religion at Harvard University and the leading writer on both engaged Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar’s movement. We were rooming together at Nagaloka, a Buddhist center on the outskirts of town where were both attending a conference that brought Buddhists from around the world together with Indian followers of Dr Ambedkar.
Chris is a large, ebullient man brimming with ideas and anecdotes who seems to know everyone in the Ambedkarite world. ‘What do they mean: “All India will become Buddhist”?’ he said in the taxi – as we discussed the conversion ceremony that had taken place at Nagaloka that morning. ‘These people need to live in a world with Moslems and Hindus and all the rest. Dr Ambedkar was a wanted to reconstruct the Buddhist tradition so it met the needs of his time. But can the Ambedkarites do the same with Ambedkar’s own ideas? Nagaloka should be teaching comparative religion and they really need to drop the 22 vows.’ There are additional commitments made by Ambedkarites when they convert that enjoin renunciation of Hindu practices. ‘They need to say what they are for, and leave aside what they are against.’
On the route into town I was more alert than before to the signs of Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar all around me. His face stared down from hoardings alongside a changing selection of religious figures and smiling politicians: articulating political semiotics far beyond my comprehension. Some of three-wheelers that belched fumes and criss-crossed the traffic also flew above them the multi-coloured Buddhist flag. It’s unknown in most Buddhist countries, but Dr Ambedkar sympathized with the approach of Col. Olcott, the American Theosophist who a century ago tried to convince Asia’s disparate Buddhists that they were indeed members of the same faith and should agree on common symbols – like the flag – and shared basic tenets.
Dr Ambedkar shared Olcott’s modernizing agenda. He was a rationalist who looked to the European Enlightenment for an alternative to the traditional thinking that underpins caste. Having studied and discarded Marxism he also realized that a purely rational philosophy could not touch the depths of the issues facing his followers. That’s where the Buddha came in. They needed a new identity that was free from the stigma of untouchability, and which offered dignity and self-confidence to a community that had imbibed the view that they were less than human. He found that teaching in the Buddha, but he sought a modern Buddhism stripped of notions of karma, rebirth and the emphasis on suffering expressed in traditional formulations of the Four Noble Truths, which he thought reaffirmed social hierarchies and caste-thinking.
Central Nagpur was surprisingly quiet – no sign of the vast throng we were anticipating. Then we passed a police barrier as we approached Diksabhumi and and it was clear that we were part of a stream of people who were heading the same way. But even here, the hotel where we were to meet Chris’ friend, Rahul Deepankar, an American-based dalit who was a successful doctor and the President of one of the main US dalit organisations, seemed untouched by the event. A sign in the lobby read: ‘Congratulations on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.’ For the caste Hindus who made up the majority of the hotel’s residents Ambedkar was invisible to them, his memory still eclipsed – as he is in the West - by his great, traditionalist, Brahmin rival.
We set off on foot for the conversion ground with Rahul and another man – a stocky dark-skinned fellow dressed in white, who I had initially assumed was part of the hotel staff. Turning a corner we were into Ambedkarite territory: a two-way street in which a solid crowd of people thronged towards Diksabhumi in one direction and another crowd, including those who had completed their visit, flooded the other way. Along the road were stalls promoting the many political interests that cluster around the Ambedkarite movement, while for others – selling rosettes and food and trinkets - this was another chance to make a few rupees.
Arriving at Diksabhumi itself we were confronted suddenly by a great, white, gleaming stupa adorned, at least for this day, with flickering lamps. Its familiar shape – a cube topped by a dome topped by a spire - rose hundreds of feet above us. ‘Keep together!’ Rahul called, as we looked, baffled, at the great sea of people before us. But then whistles started to blow around us and several figures wearing crisp shirts, military-style fatigues and little blue caps bustled around us crying, ‘You come, you come.’ We turned right, into a compound at the side of the main field and suddenly there were more whistles and a flurry of blue-capped bodies. As we westerners stood uneasily, camera-laden and sweating, the several dozen men and women in the formed ranks, saluted and cried out in unison, ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar, kai jai!’ I fumbled in my bags for the BBC recording equipment I was carrying for a contact in the World Service who is making a documentary about the conversions but couldn’t make it in time for the 2nd and had asked me to make some recordings of key events before she got there. I have quite shamelessly used this connection to make contacts and open doors: the letters BBC still carry weight in India.
Looking up, I saw our white-shirted companion now clasping a microphone and shouting passionately into it, his face puffed with intensity. After every few words he paused and the sergeant major marshalling the ranked blue-caps bellowed a cry that was echoed by the ranks. Rahul murmered. ‘This is the Ambedkarite youth movement, “Samata Sanak Daal”, who marshal the activities, and he is the all-India General Secretary.’ Far from being swamped in the crowd it seemed we were celebrity visitors, and far from being in danger of getting lost, we had our own cadre of security. Teaming up with Chris was the best thing I had done – he is very well connected in the Ambedkarite community.
We each said a few words, and pretty soon the microphone was passed to me. In a rush of adrenaline I was saying, ‘In my country I have heard a phrase, which is close to my heart and I have heard again today: ‘Jai Bhim!,’ I cried. ‘Jai Bhim!’ they shouted back. ‘I know you are very proud of Dr Ambedkar, because he was one of your people and he is a very great man. You think he is your teacher, but I have to tell you that is not true.’ Silence. ‘He is also my teacher! And Buddhists from every country can learn from the words of Dr Ambedkar, and you are not alone in your faith!’ More cries from the ranks. Finally I held up the great, phallic, red-tipped BBC microphone. ‘People around the world will know about your celebrations, so please let me hear you cry again, ‘Jai Bhim!’ I doubt that cry will ever be broadcast, but at least I can write about it here.
Where had this sudden onset of oratory come from? Was I intoxicated by the excitement of the day and the exhilaration of finding myself a centre of attention? I was moved, and happy to have said what I had. The more I had learnt about Dr Ambedkar, the more impressed I had grown. But most of all I was moved by the intensity of the devotion still on display. That power of that chubby, bespectacled figure, who was born an ‘untouchable’ in village India, but had somehow won a PhD from Columbia and framed the Indian constitution, was all around me. For these people, and their two hundred million companions across India, he represented the hope that they might be able to take their place in society as human beings, having been regarded for millennia as animals or slaves. And beckoning within that aspiration to dignity and equality was the mysterious promise of the boundlessness of that humanity. The Ambedkarites and the rest of India’s banished classes are forgotten people in the wider world. My moment of melodrama expressed, at the very least, sympathy for their position and a wish to do what I could to help share their voice.