Politics is the art of the possible. Yet even by those standards, Indian politics is unique given that the head of a major party has been threatening to convert in order to gain a political advantage. On Sunday, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati announced that she planned to exit Hinduism and adopt Buddhism as her faith. “I want to warn the BJP and the RSS that if they don’t change their disrespectful, casteist and communal behaviour towards the Dalits and backward caste people and their leaders, I will also convert to Buddhism with my crores of followers,” Mayawati said. Significantly, this announcement was made in Nagpur barely a kilometre away from the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent body of the Sangh Parivar, which also includes the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
A threat to convert might seem extreme in everyday politics. Yet, this is nothing new for Mayawati. She has threatened to convert earlier as well. In fact, conversion being used as a bargaining chip has been an important part of Ambedkarite politics for almost a century now. Has this strategy, though, run its course now?
‘I will not die a Hindu’
The Ambedkarite strategy of using conversions as a bargaining chip starts with BR Ambedkar himself. In 1935, Ambedkar declared that he would not die a Hindu. Speaking at the Bombay Presidency Mahar Conference in 1936, Ambedkar was clear that conversion was a way for Dalits to emancipate themselves. He argued that the “caste system among the Hindus has the foundation of religion”, and so long as the Dalits “remain Hindus, you will have to struggle for social intercourse, for food and water, and for inter-caste marriages”.
Laying specific emphasis on Buddhism as a religion to adopt, Ambedkar’s argument for religion change was emphatic: “I tell you all very specifically, religion is for man and not man for religion. For getting human treatment, convert yourselves. Convert for getting organised. Convert for becoming strong. Convert for securing equality. Convert for getting liberty. Convert so that your domestic life should be happy.”
Ambedkar, however, was not the first person to bring up religious conversion in the context of caste rights. In the century before him social reformer and fellow Marathi, Jyotirao Phule did too. Sociologist Gail Omvedt writes: “To Phule, the conversion efforts of both Islam and Christianity were at least initially emancipatory; he had written a long ballad, for example, on Muhammad, and made statements of the sort that ‘Muslims forcibly converted the Shudras and Ati-Shudras and freed them from the bonds of slavery to the Bhat-Brahmans.’”
Conversions to Buddhism
BR Ambedkar eventually converted to Buddhism in 1956 in a mass ceremony in Nagpur along with four lakh other Dalits. This example would be followed sporadically by other Dalits. In 1981, for example, responding to caste atrocities, more than 1,000 Dalits in Tamil Nadu converted to Islam. In 2002, in Jhajjar, Haryana, after five Dalits were lynched by a mob on the suspicion that they had killed a cow, the area saw mass conversions. In 2014, in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh, four Dalits angered by caste discrimination converted to Islam. Earlier this year, 180 Dalits converted to Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh to protest against the arrest of activists from the Bhim Army, a Dalit rights organisation.
Partly in response to this, Hindutva organisations came up with the ghar wapsi programme, literally meaning “homecoming”, in which members of minority communities are converted to Hinduism. In Shivpuri, the four Dalits who converted to Islam were allegedly pressured to convert back to Hinduism as part of ghar wapsi. A number of states have also passed stringent laws that outlaw apostasy from Hinduism and penalise people trying to effect conversions.
Given that the Bahujan Samaj Party was founded on explicitly Ambedkarite lines, the line of thought that prioritises conversions exists in the organisation. In 2006, for example, the last rites of the party’s founder, Kanshi Ram, were conducted as per Buddhist norms. At the time, Mayawati had said that while Kanshi Ram had never converted formally, his beliefs were Buddhist. Mayawati claimed that she would convert to Buddhism when the BSP came to power at the Centre.
Yet, this strategy to use conversion in the service of Dalit politics has had mixed results. For one, the number of conversions were too small to affect Dalit politics nationally. Conversions outside the Mahar community of Maharashtra, the caste to which Ambedkar belonged, have been few and far between. As many as 90% of all neo-Buddhists in India live in Maharashtra. Yet, even in that state, there are only 65 lakh Buddhist Dalits. Madhya Pradesh comes next in terms of numbers, with less than three lakh Buddhist Dalits.
Moreover, Buddhist numbers are not growing as fast as they did. Between 2001-2011, the number of Buddhists in India grew by 6.1% – a sharp fall when compared to the 24.5% growth rate from 1991-2011. Karnataka, in fact, saw Buddhist numbers drop by 75%, as the Bahujan Samaj Party lost steam in the state. In Uttar Pradesh, the heart of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s politics, numbers fell by 29.6% between 2001 and 2011.
Moreover, the BJP has been successful in attracting prominent neo-Buddhists. In 2001, a prominent Dalit leader, Udit Raj, converted to Buddhism in a mass ceremony. While Raj’s politics was earlier pitted against the BJP, he is now a BJP MP and one of the party’s most prominent Dalit faces. In 2016, a prominent Buddhist BSP leader Swami Prasad Maurya defected to the BJP and is now a minister in the Uttar Pradesh government. This trend has meant that the BJP in 2016 even used a posse of Buddhist monks in its rallies for the 2016 Uttar Pradesh elections.
Moreover, given Mayawati’s electoral compulsions, a conversion to Buddhism might hurt her more than help her, damaging her chances of building a multi-caste coalition, without which coming to power in Uttar Pradesh will be impossible.
Ambedkar’s idea of using conversion as a means of social emancipation might have been a radical idea. But it might have run its course in Indian politics.