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Uttar Pradesh: Why Do Dalits Convert? Part-1

First piece of a three part series on conversions among dalits: What necessitates conversion?

Lucknow/Saharanpur: Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati recently announced that she would emulate the architect of the Indian Constitution, BR Ambedkar, and convert to Buddhism if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led state government did not change its anti-Dalit mindset. Addressing a rally in Azamgarh on 25 October, the Dalit leader and four-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP) lashed out at the BJP for fomenting caste riots in Saharanpur.

Mayawati’s words echoed the decision that nearly 200 Dalit families took in Shabbirpur village in western UP to convert to Buddhism. The village was at the centre of the Saharanpur caste clashes last May when upper-caste Thakur mobs allegedly torched 50 Dalit houses to avenge the death of a Thakur youth.

In a village of nearly 600 households, the majority are land-owning Thakurs, and around 200 Dalit landless families work in their fields. Nearly all Dalits here have embraced Buddhism, beginning to convert after the May riots and after Chandra Shekhar Azad, alias Ravan, the founder of the Dalit-rights organisation, Bhim Army, was detained indefinitely under the draconian National Security Act.

Some families believe their houses were burned down in retaliation for the support they extended to Azad, who hails from Shabbirpur, in challenging upper caste domination in western UP. Dalits in Shabbirpur describe religious conversion as the only way to escape generations of caste oppression rooted in Hinduism, especially in villages like theirs.

Naresh Baudh, the former panchayat president of Shabbirpur village, believes there is no end to the harassment of a Dalit in the Hindu religion. “During elections, we are seen as Hindus, but soon after, we go back to being called derisively by our caste names Chamar, Pasi, Harijan,” says Baudh. “Our elders have to greet even Thakur children, but the respect is not mutual. Hinduism has never given Dalits respect, and it is incapable of doing so.”

Baudh converted to Buddhism in 1985, taking on the Baudh surname. This year, his family joined him. His wife Umesh Baudh, 47, says she was not in favour of abandoning Hinduism prior to the violence in May. “Jab sarkaar hame hamara samman dila nahi sakti to hamne dharam badal liya. Chamar, Chamar, Chamar sun sun kar thak chuke the ham log,” she said, explaining that she was tired of the repeated insults, and the government’s inability to protect their dignity.

In the local government school, she says, “When a teacher realises that one of our Chamar children is studying well, he calls the boy or girl to do labour, so they are distracted from studies and do badly in exams, while the upper caste boys do better.”

She was aware of the laws that are supposed to punish atrocities against Dalits but said it has never come to their rescue.

Chamar, Chamar, Chamar sun sun kar thak chuke the ham log,”

An influential Dalit community leader and Lucknow-based businessman, 56-year-old Gangaram Gautam, says that in the upper caste imagination, Dalit communities are associated with theft, impurity or menial jobs. “If Hindus think Dalits are so bad, then what is the use of this religion for Dalits?” He assumed the Buddha’s first name as his surname after becoming a Buddhist in 2014, on Vijay Dashmi, a popular date to embrace the religion since Emperor Ashoka and Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on this day.

The conversion in Shabbirpur was administered by the Buddhist Society of India, which gives Deekhsa (ordains) to those who want to embrace Buddhism. Says Bhante Anand Sagar, a Buddhist monk in Saharanpur, “Buddhism does not believe in pomp and show like other religions. People gathered in the Buddha Mahal in Saharanpur, a candle was lit in front of a portrait of Ambedkar-ji and I narrated the ideology of Buddhism. After they accepted the tenets, they were given Deeksha,” he said.

Dalits in Shabbirpur describe Buddhism as a religion which is against idol worship and for education. “Buddhism for us is enlightenment like Baba Saheb said. We now preach education,” says Baudh. His wife adds that she had stopped praying to Hindu gods, celebrating festivals and going to temples.

Of course, the upper caste residents of Shabbirpur deny any discrimination on their part. Says Pushpendra Singh, 29, a Thakur and a teacher, “The fact is that Dalits continue to work in Thakurs’ fields and visit their home for work, like always. The relationship is actually very amicable, but some people create tension for reasons known best to them.”

Harendra Kumar, a Thakur farmer, says those who converted did so willingly and were not being driven to it by oppression. “If Dalits were really so backward here, then how is it that Naresh (Baudh) became a panchayat president twice?” he asks.

Despite their denials, there is little doubt that anti-Dalit violence and routine discrimination is rampant in UP. The Nation Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) counts Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan among those deserving special attention. According to a report published in The Hindu last year, UP, where 20% of India’s Dalit population lives, accounted for most registered cases of atrocities against the Scheduled Castes.

Lalji Prasad Nirmal, president of the Lucknow-based Ambedkar Mahasabha, says Dalits embraced Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in the hope of shaking off caste hierarchies. “When the people of upper castes don’t want Dalits to rise, there is no option left but to leave a religion that has oppressed us for centuries,” he says. Senior political commentator and veteran journalist Ratan Mani Lal agrees that conversions in western UP are a reaction to the recent atrocities, rather than a result of rising awareness about the Buddhism.

However, he doesn’t see conversion as a solution to caste-based discrimination, especially since the converted Dalit families continue to live in the same villages and depend on the village economy controlled by the landed upper castes. “Dalits have gone through a lot and they deserve respect, but for that, change is needed from the grassroots level through education, poverty eradication and political support, says Lal.

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With inputs from Sadiq Khan and Khilendra Gandhi.

(Contributors are all Uttar Pradesh-based freelance journalists and members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters) 

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