ON OCTOBER 14, 1956, Ambedkar and millions of followers took to Buddhism and opened a new era of revolutionary socioreligious movements in India. Since then a large number of neo Buddhists come to Dikshabhoomi in Nagpur, where the conversion took place, on Dussehra, and have established this place as an integral part of the cultural heritage of Maharashtra. This has also become an important political act for Dalits to demonstrate their cultural capital and social strength as a unified community.
The impact of Buddhist cultural capital is formidably visible in Nagpur. The city was decked-up with colourful Buddhist symbols and blue flags on Dussehra. The roads were crowded with caravans of people of different classes, regions and languages. All political parties (including Shiv Sena) raised big holdings welcoming and congratulating the Buddhist population on such an auspicious day. There were hundreds of cut-outs of Ambedkar. There were a series of free foodstalls on roads, ferries of free bus services by the city transport, camps for boarding and free medication facility and hundreds of book stalls selling literature on Ambedkar, Buddhism and the Dalit movement. Dikshabhoomi was like a mega fair, colourful and vibrating with a committed and self-disciplined crowd, chanting Buddhist hymns passionately and emphatically answering all slogans in praise of Ambedkar and against caste atrocities.
Before Ambedkar’s entry into politics, the question of Dalit emancipation was understood as an internal affair of Hinduism and its solution was largely restricted within the boundaries of social reform. Gandhi, as a main promoter of this thesis, had fierce arguments and debates with Ambedkar. Gandhi located the former untouchables as an integral part of the Hindu social order and asked the upper caste Hindus to take responsibility for eradication of untouchability. Against the utopian Gandhian mode of social reform, Ambedkar adopted a liberal state’s intervention and proposed constitutional safeguards and protection for the empowerment of the deprived classes. However, he also understood the limitations of such imposed legality of an external force in bringing social reform. Hence, he rediscovered Buddhism, an ancient religion of India, to fight caste prejudices and to promote modernist ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Ambedkar proposed an alternative, which was indigenously rooted in the traditional and tolerant spirit of India and had the potential to support the modern liberal ethos of a new nation-state. He argued that Buddhism is not a religion but a social philosophy, which encompasses radical challenges to the social system based on caste hierarchies. Ambedkar assumed that conversion to Buddhism, in the first stage, would de-caste Dalits from their degraded identity and in the progressive run ‘establish the kingdom of righteousness for the prosperity of the whole world’. In the battle between the scientific temperament of Buddhism and the irrational doctrine of Brahmanism, the destruction of the caste system is inevitable.
The neo-Buddhist in Maharashtra has achieved significant change in social, cultural and psychological behaviour. As an impact of Buddhism, one can argue that the neo-Buddhists are one of the most educated, economically well-off and politically conscious communities among the Dalits in Maharashtra. They have developed a vibrant social and cultural atmosphere through their literary works, theatre groups, religious conclaves and alternative traditions and customs. The neo-Buddhists have developed an array of independent and committed intellectuals who represent the concerns and issues of the Dalits at the national and international level. The dream of Ambedkar to see his people as equal participants looks fulfilled here. However, the experience of the neo- Buddhist revolution would be just half the story.
Nagpur can be a suitable model on the cultural front but is not the representative image of all the Dalits in Maharashtra. The other side of the story demonstrates the growing impoverishment of the Dalits (including the neo-Buddhists). On an average, a large population (35 per cent) among the Dalits fall under the official category of below poverty line (those who earn less than Rs 32 a day). The cases of caste atrocities have not reduced but have worsened in filth and violence. The eye-opener was the gruesome massacre of a neo-Buddhist family at Khairlanjee in 2006. According to the Indian Human Rights Report of 2009 published by the Asian Centre of Human Rights, a staggering 1,166 cases of caste atrocities against the Dalits in Maharashtra were noted. The representation of Dalits in the government is dismal and only 5 per cent have become part of the private sector. As a political force, including all the factions of Republican Party of India, the Dalits are almost a non-entity and are dependent on big regional parties.
DURING THE Vijayadashmi celebration, the Buddhist population in Maharashtra demonstrates a conscious effort to distinguish themselves from the Brahmanic sociopolitical ideology and cultural values. However, on the critical front, one can argue that the contemporary Buddhist movement is restrictive, limited and comfortably operational mainly in urban locations with a sizeable educated neo Buddhist population. The primary aim behind most of the Buddhist social activities is to generate the visibility of Ambedkarite cultural symbols at public places and during sociocultural gatherings. Such events are significant and can be counted as valuable inputs for building social capital but they mostly have a ritualistic value. The gratification of Buddhist identity can be valuable but it has a narrow audience and has had little impact in changing the psyche of the caste Hindus towards the Dalits. The distance of the movement from the struggles of other socially marginalised communities further restricts the impact.
The Buddhist movement has yet to devise formidable social strategy by which the non-Buddhist castes can integrate and become torchbearers of social revolution. The apathy of the Mangs, Matangs, Mehtars and Chambhars (other significant Dalit sections in Maharashtra) towards the Buddhist movement has made it an exclusive club only for the Mahars (majority of the Buddhists in Maharashtra are from this caste). The lack of interaction between various Dalit castes on the question of social emancipation has placed the Buddhist movement at the margins. Ambedkar visualised Buddhism as a sociopolitical force to generate a new confidence and moral outlook within the Dalits. But the disunity among the subcastes, and a lack of committed leadership have halted the revolutionary project in the middle of its journey.