Ambedkar, B. R., and The Buddhist Dalits

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AMBEDKAR, B. R., AND THE BUDDHIST DALITS Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891–1956), independent India's first law minister, was a leader, scholar, and activist of the "depressed classes," or untouchables, who are now known as Dalits (meaning the "oppressed" or "crushed"). In 1935 Ambedkar announced that he would not die a Hindu. He encouraged his followers to convert as well, yet left open the question of which religion he and his followers would ultimately choose. After two decades of religious study, negotiation, and deliberation, Ambedkar and approximately 400,000 to 600,000 of his followers converted to Buddhism in Nagpur, India, on 14 October 1956, followed by many more conversions in the ensuing years.

B. R. Ambedkar

Born into the depressed classes, Bhimrao ("Babasaheb") Ambedkar was educated in Mumbai (Bombay) at Elphin-stone College, then in New York at Columbia University, and in London at the London School of Economics and the Inns of Court before returning to India to eventually become the greatest leader of the Dalits. During the independence movement, he and Mahatma Gandhi disagreed over the best approach to gaining rights for lower castes. Gandhi preferred to keep the depressed classes within the Hindu fold, to reform Hinduism from within, and to avoid special rights for depressed classes. In contrast, Ambedkar wanted to ensure rights and representation for lower castes. After representing lower castes at London's pre-independence Roundtable conferences on constitutional reforms, Ambedkar became law minister under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and was one of the major authors of India's 1950 Constitution. Building on the nineteenth-century anticaste movement and early-twentieth-century non-Brahman movements, Ambedkar brought Dalit issues to the attention of the new Indian nation.

Mass Conversion of 1956

Ambedkar fearlessly argued against the tyrannies of Hinduism's caste system, insisting that you "must give a new doctrinal basis to your religion—a basis that will be in consonance with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, in short with Democracy" (Ambedkar, "The Annihilation of Caste," 1936, p. 100). His speeches make clear that conversion for anyone born an "untouchable" meant conversion to a new life. "To get human treatment, convert yourselves," he urged his followers. "Convert for securing equality. Convert for getting liberty." Ambedkar ultimately chose to convert to Buddhism, finding the egalitarian aspects of Buddhism appealing, as well as its moral and ethical dimensions.

Maharashtra's outcaste community of Mahars, to which Ambedkar was born, formed the majority among the Dalit converts in Nagpur. A large, relatively well-organized community, the Mahars were particularly receptive to Ambedkar's arguments against Brahman oppression, thanks to his own Mahar background. Other lower castes revered Ambedkar as well, but his leadership faced powerful competition from Gandhi, who called himself "untouchable by choice" and who argued against outright rebellion or rejection of Hinduism and called for reform within. Nevertheless, Ambedkar ultimately rejected Gandhi's arguments; after Ambedkar's own adoption of Buddhism in the last year of his life, conversions continued, resulting in 3 million new Buddhists in the next few years, some from outcaste communities in other states. Statues of Ambedkar have been erected throughout India.

Dalit Movement

After the 1956 conversion and the death of Ambedkar, the Dalit movement grew in popularity and political power. There was a Dalit renaissance in literature, renewed political activism, and a constitutional legacy in the form of affirmative action policies, including university entry positions and service appointments, for Dalits. Although the majority of Dalits are still landless or near-landless agriculturalists in rural areas, Ambedkar's two-pronged strategy—political and administrative representation via affirmative action and personal empowerment via conversion—has kept the Dalits' concerns on India's public agenda.

Reservation, or affirmative action policies for Dalits, officially called the Scheduled Castes, continue to ensure Dalit representation in all legislatures, including Parliament, in government jobs, and at universities. At the local level, some legislative seats are also reserved for Scheduled Caste women. Although Scheduled Caste converts' eligibility for such reserved places was long restricted, Scheduled Caste converts to Buddhism are now eligible for those positions.

Dalit literary contributions keep criticism of the caste system and the treatment of Dalit women in the public eye. Ambedkar stressed the importance of not only religious liberation by conversion and political liberation via agitation and organization, but of social liberation through education. A Dalit literary movement rooted in the Marathi language spread to other Indian languages, verbalizing the growing awareness and rebellion associated with the Dalit movement. A surge of writing in the decades after Ambedkar's death gave voice to Dalits reflecting on their experiences and their new aspirations. The Dalit Sahitya Movement included scathing poetry of protest and blunt condemnation of the religious under-pinnings of caste.

Movements such as the Dalit Panthers, modeled in part after the Black Panthers of the United States and primarily active in the early 1970s, challenged caste through protest, agitation, and at times violent confrontation, in addition to literature. Although Ambedkar's Scheduled Castes Federation, later the Republican Party of India, did not become a major political force, lower caste parties have more recently become major players in Indian politics. In short, the Dalit movement has not solved problems of caste discrimination but has empowered many Dalits, mobilized others, and raised awareness, both in India and globally, of the problems and perspectives of modern India's Dalits.

Laura Dudley Jenkins

See alsoCaste System


Ambedkar, B. R. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, edited by Vasant Moon. Mumbai: Department of Education, Government of Maharashtra, 1989–. A multi-volume set of collected works.

Dangle, Arjun, ed. Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature. Hyderabad and Mumbai: Orient Longman, 1992. Examples of the Dalit literary movement.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Political scientist's take on Gandhi-Ambedkar tensions and contemporary rise of lower caste political parties.

Omvedt, Gail. Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1994. A major biographical, sociological, historical work from a Marxist perspective.

Shah, Ghanshyam, ed. Dalit Identity and Politics. New Delhi; Thousand Oaks; London: Sage Publications, 2001. Edited volume covering Ambedkar and cultural, political, and social Dalit movements.

Viswanathan, Gauri. Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity and Belief. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. Award-winning book by comparative literature scholar; includes chapter on Ambedkar and Buddhist converts.

Zelliot, Eleanor. From Untouchable to Dalit. New Delhi: Manohar, 1996. Collection of works by leading Ambedkar historian who has followed Dalit movement since its early days in the 1960s.