The Politics of Dalit conversions

About eight years ago, a BBC report barely managed to conceal its glee over a ceremony where “hundreds of Hindu Dalits” converted to Buddhism and/or Christianity. Among other things, the BBC report repeated the oft-heard canards about the unjust caste system and how laws against Dalits are ineffective, and therefore, converting out of Hinduism made sense. But such brazen editorializing in a news report is not the focus here.

Scoring Political Goals

Buddhism, until very recently, had virtually no followers in India in the thousands of years of its evolution, spread, and destruction in the land of its own birth. And neither is its sudden, rapid ascendancy in our own times a surprise.

Dalit champions of various hues use conversion to Buddhism as a point to score against Hinduism, which they regard as an oppressive religion. As the Dalit discourse has progressed over the years, it has become just that: scoring a political point.

There is very little by way of any genuine understanding, insight or scholarship about Buddhism as a philosophy emanating from contemporary Dalit discourse. To be fair to Dalit ideologues, they have been almost completely appropriated by the JNU school of ensuring social justice, among other things. The corpus of Indian Marxism has produced more than enough literature for us to conclude that a practiced tactic of this school is to reverse the roles of victim and oppressor. This tactic is most evident in the Marxist “history” of medieval Muslim conquest and rule of India where the Islamic invaders made no distinction between castes in either their orgies of mass murder or their oppression of the Hindu society. It is a cruel travesty that a very vocal and influential section of today’s Dalit champions have lent their shoulders to the most rabid Islamists in contemporary India.

History of Buddhist-Islamic Encounters

The history of Buddhism shows that it failed to counter Islam militarily and politically. The most common reason for Buddhism’s decline in India is attributed to Adi Shankaracharya. Which is again a Marxist distortion. Of the chief reasons, two are prominent. First, Buddhism with its insistence on renunciation of worldly life automatically nipped the concept of family in the bud. Second, its central doctrine of non-violence ensured a large mass of monks who were untrained in warfare.

And so, by the time Islam began to make successful inroads into India, it found these hapless monks and slaughtered them at will. Those that managed to escape fled away, some as far off as Tibet. Indeed, even the arch Marxist and extraordinary scholar Rahula Sankrityayana cites this as the main reason for Buddhism’s decline in India.

Christian Conversions during British rule

During the initial days of British rule, a significant number of upper caste Hindus–chiefly Brahmins–converted to Christianity. This class of people were close to the top echelons of the British administration, and were anxious to please their new colonial masters. And those Indians below them followed suit. It also helped that subtle and persuasive missionary propaganda played a significant in convincing them that Hinduism and Christianity were fundamentally the same.

However, this stopped soon after reformers in the mould of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda and others showed the true nature of Christianity. It was then that the missionaries changed course and began to aggressively target the lower castes who were numerically greater. They realized that it was impossible for Christianity to defeat Hinduism intellectually and philosophically.

The reality of Dalit conversions

Back in our own time, the following reasons partly explain the spurt of Dalit conversions to Buddhism:

  • Increased visibility (and power) of Dalits in politics
  • Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism
  • Encouragement by forces hostile to Hinduism with the ultimate aim of completely dismantling the Hindu society

It is clear that Dalit conversions to Buddhism and Christianity now rests on two main pillars: politics and money, not philosophy, not conviction in the high ideals and philosophy expounded by Gautama Buddha.

At the risk of generalization, there is perhaps no Dalit politician or ideologue who can speak coherently about Buddhism. Which is these politicians rely on aggressive sloganeering, political clout and brute strength of numbers to force their followers to embrace Buddhism. In other words, the thousands of Dalits who’ve converted to Buddhism have done so blindly. And majority of the Dalits who have converted to Christianity still live in the same, wretched conditions. But despite this conversion, their continuing wretchedness continues to be blamed on Hindus. Indeed, nothing could be a greater farce than the term Dalit Christian. Yet such perverse charades largely go uncontested, which only encourages the charade-perpetrators further.

If Dalit conversions to Buddhism were based on a fundamental understanding of Buddhist precepts, it would be based on truth and conviction. Consider a hypothesis: had Ambedkar converted to Christianity or Islam, wouldn’t his modern day followers have followed suit?

The Dalit political discourse in India is based mainly on anti-Brahminism, which has reached alarming levels. An extreme example is a luminary named Kancha Ilaiah who called for Brahmins to carry feces to avenge a historical wrong.

The irony of the Dalit leader and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati cosying up with Brahmins, the “Oppressor” caste, should be lost on none.

Sandeep Balakrishna is a columnist and author of Tipu Sultan: the Tyrant of Mysore. He has translated S.L. Bhyrappa’s “Aavarana: the Veil” from Kannada to English.
  • Anonymous

    Buddhism in Sri Lanka has caste. Read this. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/caste-and-exclusion-in-sinhala-buddhism/ Buddhism underwent a 1,000 year decline in China and Korea on account of the Confucian critique that it undermined the family, the economy and the military. It receded in India on account of the Muslim invasions. In short, Buddhism is no panacea to the Dalits. Just look at the Sri Lankan example!

  • ethicalman

    The Simple fact of the matter of why Buddhism got wiped out of India is Islamic brutality and forced conversions.. The hardcore Buddhist regions of ancient India were Gandhar, Bihar, Bengal, Kashmir, NWFP, parts of UP etc. today they hard core Islamic. Recent documents suggested that even Fatehpur Sikri was a Buddhist monastery.

    Kancha Illiah is a radical leftist, Marxists, Maoists Dalit writers who condones Islamic fundamentalism, Christian converstions just because he has personal grievances against all upper cast Hindus.. He generalizes all Hindus of being oppressive of Dalits which is absolutely incorrect.

  • N.Paramasivam

    Kanchan Iliah from AMU/Hyderabad is propagating hatred among people. With so much facilities to them and equality advocated by Hindu seers of late, these people need not worry. Only thing, they should not fall prey to the allurement of money offered by Christians and then keep them as Dalit Christian. These Dalit Christians are not allowed in common Sunday Service. These is a separate service for them.

  • Kancha ilaiya is a notorious charlatan cloaked in dubious academic robe. He writes from Hyderabad so much nonsense that is revolting. Whatever traction he has is because of support from some foreign subversive interests.
    That apart, the majority of “dalits” in politics today are still poorly read. A vast majority has no knowledge of the amazing metaphysics of Buddhism which was largely a branch of Dharmic thought emphasizing certain principles of good conduct and countering the over-emphasis in those days of empty rituals. This is not to deny extreme brahmin-centric oppression of many categories of the so-called Sudras in India till the 1900s. In so far as cruel and unjust discrimination that the lower castes, particularly the lowest rungs of them, were subjected to, it was good that many internal reform movements within Hindu Dharma in the beginning (1000AD onwards) and the so-called “Dravidian” movement in TamilNadu from the early 20th Century have resulted in emancipation of the oppressed classes within the Hindu Dharmic fold. Christian evangelical missionaries who are much too clever have exploited to the hilt this flaw in the practical conduct of Dharmic life in India, for conversion to add to the Christian “flock”. In the recent decades the appellation of “dalit” has been seized upon for political action by some equally clever leaders, for aggrandizement of political power. Mayavati is a classic example of such political mobilizers. They have brought more prosperity, largely illicit, to themselves, their families and cronies than genuine benefits to the oppressed classes that they profess to support. Many Govt. schemes centered on the principle of “reservation” have played genuinely large role in empowering the oppressed classes within the Hindu fold. What the Christian Missionaries are agitating for is to extend this “reservation” principle to Hindus converted by them on the promise and lure of advantages so that their conversion activity can bring a richer “harvest of souls”.