Political conversion

Published : Jun 15, 2007 00:00 IST

The mass conversion rally to mark the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar's embracing of Buddhism assumes political overtones.


THERE was an air of festivity at Mumbai's Race Course on May 27. The dhamma flag, with its five colours symbolising aspects of Buddhism, was ubiquitous. People were dressed as they would for a celebration, many of them in white with silver spangles. For the majority of the one lakh people who had assembled on that day it was indeed an occasion to rejoice; they had come to reaffirm their faith. But for the 200-odd tribal people and members of the Other Backward Classes who had arrived to embrace Buddhism, it was to be a new beginning in their lives.

The rally to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's embracing of Buddhism was billed as a mass conversion event. Mass conversions to Buddhism, especially by those who want to escape the caste system, are not uncommon. So there was more to this particular rally. The organisers said the meeting was also meant to fulfil a wish of Ambedkar. Apparently, after his conversion Ambedkar wanted to hold a rally at the Race Course but died soon after.

The goal of the rally was twofold: to hold a public religious initiation ceremony and put up a show of strength. And therein lies the difference between Ambedkar's 1956 conversion rally and the present one. Ambedkar's dream was driven by the cause of social upliftment. Political empowerment was a happy outcome of that.

The present event worked on the exactly opposite principle - of using the promise of social justice in order to gain political prominence. In the final outcome, the rally was little more than a political jamboree. This was more than apparent from the publicity material, which was dominated by photographs of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil, the Republican Party of India (RPI) president and Member of Parliament Ramdas Athavale, and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Laxman Mane.

The speakers reinforced the political nature of the meeting. Deshmukh said his government would sanction Rs.50 crores for the development of Ambedkar's memorial at Chaityabhoomi in Mumbai and have it declared a national memorial.

The event, which was postponed from the actual anniversary date of October 14, 2006, was organised by the Boudha Dhammadiksha Suvarna Mahotsava Samiti. The celebrations committee was presided over by Athavale, and the driving force behind the event was Mane.

Mane, an obscure tribal leader in Maharashtra politics, shot to fame when he converted to Buddhism last year and made it his mission to bring as many people into the Buddhist fold as possible. For the past one year he has been travelling all over Maharashtra and the neighbouring States spreading the word of social justice among the tribal communities and OBCs and encouraging their members to embrace Buddhism.

It was Mane who offered the deeksha or conversion. He asked the people assembled in front of him, "How many of you want to take deeksha?" The response was electric - practically every one in the audience raised his/her hands, giving rise to the mistaken notion that close to a lakh people embraced Buddhism at the rally. The fact is that the majority were already Buddhists and were merely following the Buddhist tradition of reaffirming their vows. The actual number of the new believers is supposed to be around 300. This figure could be approximated by the group that had been placed right in front of the dais, many of whom were clearly of tribal origin and were dressed in tribal attire.

The new entrants came from 42 OBCs, such as Valmiki, Charmakar and Matang; and nomadic communities such as Bahurupi, Beldar, Nandiwale and Gopal; and the so-called criminal tribal communities such as Ramoshi, Vadar Kaikadi and Berad. The dramatic reaffirmation of faith revealed the true nature of the rally, marking it clearly as a political event rather than a Dalit-tribal religious meeting.

It was undoubtedly a show of collective strength for the benefit of the political parties. It was a display that crudely said: "We are a strong and united vote bank." Although the State Assembly elections are due only in 2009 it is believed that alliances are already being forged.

Dalits, tribal communities and the OBCs together account for almost 50 per cent of the population of the State. Amalgamating them into mainstream parties would be a masterstroke. Even the Shiv Sena has been considering this. In fact, at a meeting preceding the rally, the local Shiv Sena corporator put up a huge poster conveying his best wishes to all the participants.

Interestingly, none of the saffron parties raised any objection to the conversions. Although they say it was because they consider Buddhism to be an offshoot of Hinduism (patently untrue) the fact is that they cannot risk alienating a large section of the voting population.

The organisers were aware that this was a rally of a political nature. Mane stated this clearly when he said: "Political leaders from all parties have asked me to refrain from conversions. Why would they do this? Clearly because they are afraid of our strength as a group. My question to them is: "What have you done to destroy the evils of casteism in society'?" While he got no response to his question, he was reassured in another way. Leaders of the Congress and the NCP who were on the dais reassured him and Athavale of their commitment to Ambedkar's goal of working for the oppressed classes and of their continued support to the RPI.

While the meeting consolidated Mane's public presence as a leader and reinforced that of Athavale as a Dalit leader, it did nothing to strengthen the already fractured RPI. At last count there were nine factions, including one led by Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb. (Prakash chose to keep away from the function.)

Athavale is indebted to the Congress and the NCP for his parliamentary seat. Dalit intellectuals also kept away from the rally objecting to its politicisation. They believe it does nothing to further the cause of Dalits. They believe their identity as Buddhists and Dalits needs to be maintained for social and political reasons. In their view, merging the cause of Dalits and the tribal people would dilute the benefits to both.

Ambedkarites (primarily Mahars who converted to Buddhism) have idolised Ambedkar to such an extent that they have tried to emulate his life. Education is given top priority in Mahar families with the result that Mahars have been in the forefront of Dalit politics in Maharashtra. Dalit intellectuals are angry at there being no distinction between Ambedkar's conversion rally and the present one. The tribal people, who are primarily animists, have lived a life of isolation for reasons that were not imposed on them. Mahars (the community to which Ambedkar belonged before embracing Buddhism) were born into a life from which the social system did not allow escape. Mane glossed over such differences, believing that a consolidated approach would benefit both communities.

Mane is so confident of the new political strength that he even criticised Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati's social engineering formula of forging a Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim alliance. He said that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader was not following `Ambedkarism'. The slogan used by the BSP in the State Assembly elections - Hathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai - (Mayawati had asserted that her party's elephant symbol could also be considered as Ganesh) - was in itself a breach of Ambedkar's oath to renounce Hindu gods, he felt.

A point of note. It would be naive to believe that the conversion of the tribal people was done solely with a view to changing their socio-economic conditions. Although they were inducted on the basis that they were marginalised and had no political voice the reality is that they will be used to swell the ranks of the Buddhist vote bank. And since Mane was a tribal leader before his conversion, the access he has to a vast unorganised number of people will serve to boost his own position within the NCP. Indeed, this has not gone unacknowledged. Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule, who is a Rajya Sabha member, has been working with Mane on the upliftment of the tribes in Maharashtra.

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