Conversion has always been a bugbear for the Hindutva forces. They fear nothing more than this phenomenon. They had the first shock of their lives when Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, underwent Deeksha, the Buddhist term for conversion, exactly 66 years ago on October 14, 1956. Nobody, including Mahatma Gandhi, understood religion, especially Hinduism, better than him.
Ambedkar’s book Riddles in Hinduism is a pointer to the vast understanding he had about the religion he forsook on that day. He was not alone when he gave up the so-called religion he was born. As many as 3.75 lakh underwent the Deeksha ceremony along with him. It was the single largest conversion ceremony anywhere in the world.
Such a large conversion never happened in Christendom. Nor can Islam claim to have received so many faithful on a single day. Dr Ambedkar did not do it on the spur of the moment. He had announced his decision that he was born a “Hindu” but would not die a “Hindu”. In the run-up to the mass conversion at Nagpur, he weighed the pros and cons of converting to another religion. He studied Christianity and Islam.
He had the foresight to know that if he converted to either of the semitic religions, there would be violent repercussions and his community, poor and deprived as they are, would not be able to face them. He also felt attracted to Buddhism with its inherent practical ways of enlightenment.
After all, it was a religion that had an Indian origin. Although Gautam Buddha was born at Lumbini in Nepal, he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, now in Bihar. It is a different thing that the most sacred temple for the Buddhists is not under the control of Buddhists.
Until then, Buddhism was a dying religion in India. Its adherents were few and far between. When the British thought of building a house for the Viceroy in New Delhi, rechristened Rashtrapati Bhavan, they modelled it after a Buddhist Vihara for they knew that India was essentially Buddhist.
How did Buddhism lose its appeal? It was Aadi Shankara who threw out the Buddhists from their pedestal in the eighth century. What’s more, an injunction was introduced later whereby anyone who crossed the seas would lose his or her religious identity. Those who persecuted the Buddhists, like the Christians who persecuted the Puritans in the 16th century, knew that Buddhism was thriving outside of India in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, etc.
The ban on crossing the seas was not to let Indians come into contact with the Buddhists and know that the religion was thriving elsewhere. Whatever be the case, Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism gave a fillip to Buddhism in India. It was galling to the Hindutva forces. But they could not do much about it when they claim that Lord Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu.
In fact, Dr Ambedkar wanted all his followers to take an oath that had 22 clauses whereby they renounced all their connections with the Hindu pantheon of Gods. They affirmed their faith in the Buddhist path for salvation, which is the ultimate aim of man, whatever be his or her faith, though it is defined differently by different religions.
Those who know the history of Travancore, the princely state in southern India, which proclaimed Independence, only to fall in line later to become an integral part of India that is Bharat, know how the threat by the Ezhavas to convert en masse forced the State to end the discrimination against the single largest community that resulted in the Temple Entry proclamation. The threat worked in Travancore.
In 1981, a few hundred Dalits at Meenakshipuram in Thirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu converted to Islam as they could no longer suffer the indignities inflicted on them for centuries by an intermediate caste. It caused a sensation in the country. All kinds of charges were made that they were influenced by petrodollar. Inquiries revealed that each of them had contributed some money to meet the expenses of the conversion ceremony.
Of course, there were cooked up stories to show that money was at the root of the conversion. One person claimed that he was given Rs 500. The fact of the matter is that while some of them returned to the Hindu-fold, the vast majority who converted stayed in their new religious home.
The BJP felt so threatened that it initiated the Babri Masjid movement under the leadership of L.K. Advani that eventually paved the way for Narendra Modi to become Prime Minister in 2014. If anybody should be thankful for the Meenakshipuram conversion, it is the BJP.
Under a pernicious rule, anybody who converts to a religion other than Hinduism would lose his caste status. Not only that, he would also lose all the benefits like reservation. For instance, if A who is a sweeper earning Rs 1000 a month becomes a Muslim or Christian, his children will lose the benefits of reservation.
They will have to compete with Brahmins who have enjoyed a high social, cultural and educational status for a clerical post in the government. Conversion does not improve the economic status of a person. The argument advanced was that Islam and Christianity are egalitarian religions which do not accept casteism. Only Hinduism accepted the caste system.
Buddhism and Sikhism are also egalitarian religions which do not follow any caste system. In the nineties, Prime Minister V.P. Singh, who implemented the Mandal Commission report, granting reservation to the Other Backward Classes like the Yadavs and Kurmis, accepted the demand that the Scheduled Castes among the Buddhists and the Sikhs should also be given reservation.
Yet, the Scheduled Castes among the Christians and the Muslims were denied the benefits of reservation. When the SCs among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists get reservation, it is a gross denial of justice to deny reservation to the SCs among Christians and Muslims. It is also against the foundational principles enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
Nearly two decades ago, considerable hype was created about a mass conversion to Buddhism in Delhi. The organiser of the move was Udit Raj. Though lakhs of people were expected to convert making it larger than the one Nagpur witnessed during Dr Ambedkar’s lifetime, only a few thousands turned up. Interestingly, the BJP had no problem in giving its party ticket to Udit Raj in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He contested from the North West Lok Sabha constituency and won by a comfortable majority.
A popular BJP MP was late B.L. Sharma (Prem) who used to represent the East Delhi constituency. He was in the vanguard of the BJP’s campaign against conversion. Yet, he found it necessary to convert to Sikhism. What’s more, Arun Shourie, a minister in the Vajpayee government who threatened Christians against conversion in his books expressed his desire in public to convert to Buddhism. I am not sure whether he did so.
Ten days ago, on October 5, a few thousands of people converted to Buddhism. Among them was Rajendra Pal Gautam, a minister in the Arvind Kejriwal government. The BJP demanded his resignation. Nobody knows on what basis they made this demand. The Constitution grants every citizen the right to convert to any religion of his/her choice, notwithstanding the right to religion laws passed in states like MP, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, etc. which are against the Constitution.
By the way, there is no such law in force in Delhi. When the BJP attacked him, neither the Aam Aadmi Party nor Kejriwal was there to defend him. This was quite contrary to what the party did when raids were conducted on the premises of deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia. The AAP has been going out of the way to defend Satyendra Jain, who is yet to be divested of his ministerial status though he has been in Tihar Jail for quite some time.
No such courtesy was extended to Gautam, who had to resign. The gentleman that he is, Gautam has been claiming that he resigned of his own volition and not under compulsion from Kejriwal, who has been promising the people of Gujarat that if his party was chosen in the state, he would ensure that the Gujaratis would be able to visit Ayodhya at state cost.
Poor Kejriwal does not know that Gujaratis are one of the richest communities in India and they can go anywhere in the world at their own cost. I would have been happy if he had promised to take them to Thumba near Thiruvananthapuram where the Catholic Church gave its property, including a church building, to let India’s first rocket launching centre to start functioning there.
Alternatively, Kejriwal can take them to the Kochi Shipyard where INS Vikrant was indigenously built. The land for it was donated, again, by the Catholic Church. In contrast, an airport at Aranmula was prevented from coming up because it would disturb the presiding deity of the Parthasarathy Temple at Aranmula on the bank of the Pampa.
When will the likes of Kejriwal realise that what India needs are temples of science and technology and not temples and temple corridors where Modi spends his valuable time pouring ghee into fire, little realising that the ghee would have done wonders to the bodies of emaciated children if they were allowed to consume the same.
Gautam’s initiative in Delhi had an immediate political fallout. The government has appointed a three-member committee headed by former Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan, who belongs to the Dalit community, to look into the problems of “new persons who have historically belonged to Scheduled Castes, but have converted to religions other than Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism”. The other members are Mr Ravinder Kumar Jain, IAS (Retd) and Prof (Dr) Sushma Yadav.
That the committee has been given two years to submit its report has raised eyebrows among the people at large. The Supreme Court has been hearing petitions about the need to extend the benefits of reservations to all Scheduled Castes, irrespective of their religious faiths, including their faith in atheism. The case has reached a decisive stage.
There is every possibility that the apex court would correct the historically wrong decision to deprive the Dalits among the Christians and the Muslims. The government can delay the decision by telling the court that a committee has been asked to study the issue. In other words, it is a dilatory tactics. In any case, why should the committee take such a long time as it is a matter that can be decided in a matter of a few weeks.
Three days after Gautam’s conversion, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said that “everything that causes discrimination should go out lock, stock and barrel.” He was referring to varna and jati (caste). It is easy to say so but difficult to practice. For instance, in 2024, the RSS would complete 100 years.
In India, the majority in the Hindu community consists of Dalits and intermediate castes. Has any non-upper caste person ever become the Sarsanghchalak (the supreme leader) of the RSS? Why is it that the leadership of the organisation has been, by and large, with the Brahmins? I have heard RSS leaders praising the caste system, which they say was what insulated Hinduism from Christian and Islamic influences, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh.
The RSS and its offshoots have been against reservation but they do not have the guts to oppose it openly. So, whenever Parliament discussed the issue and extended reservation every ten years, the BJP was forced to support it. Now its government has been subverting reservation in ingenious ways like not filling vacant posts and introducing what is known as lateral system of induction.
Bhagwat knows that if caste is “officially” banned, nobody from the lower castes would be able to compete with the upper castes like Brahmins. The Jews, for instance, have a disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes. You can call this phenomenon by any name. Why is it that Brahmins who constitute a small percentage of the Indian population have a disproportionate share of high posts in the country?
Abolishing the caste system and, along with it, reservation will ultimately benefit the upper castes who, in any case, control the levers of power. That is what Mohan Bhagwat Ji wants to attain. All else is just politics? The K.G. Balakrishnan Committee is just a pawn on the RSS chessboard.