Babasaheb Ambedkar had made a historic declaration on October 13, 1935 at Yeola (in Nashik district) of his resolve to renounce Hinduism. It provoked varied reactions. The orthodox Hindus were unmoved. In nearby Nashik, where they were being harassed for the past five years by the Kalaram temple entry satyagraha, they were exceedingly jubilant.

The politically minded Hindus deplored it and felt threatened. Some had issued death threats to Ambedkar. His own people were confused, some of them having openly opposed it. The religious establishments of some minority communities were, however, enthused to make a bid to attract him towards them.

As a follow-up of this declaration and in order to have a blueprint for the tasks ahead, a conference titled Mumbai Ilakha Mahar Parishad (Mumbai Province Mahar Conference) was organised from May 30 to June 1, 1936 at Mumbai. It shared the venue with two more conferences, namely, the conference of Mahar ascetics and the conference of Matangs from the Bombay province.

In the conference, Ambedkar made a detailed and passionate speech, which was published under the title “Mukti Kon Pathe?” (“Which Path to Salvation?”).

Here he tried to systematically explain why Dalits needed to change their religion. He had just developed this explanation in his celebrated text, Annihilation of Caste. His conclusion in Annihilation of Caste was that castes being mainly part of the rules of the Hindu religion, which were sourced from the Dharmashastras (Smritis and Puranas), could not be annihilated unless the Dharmashastras were destroyed.

He divided the scriptures of the Hindu religion into two parts: the religion of rules and the religion of principles, the latter being provided in the Vedas and Upanishads, which he observed did not have much influence on the religion in practice. He assessed that the Hindus would never be prepared for destroying the Dharmashastras and hence he had decided for himself to renounce Hinduism. Ambedkar thus argued that there was no hope for Untouchables to live a respected life within Hinduism. The only way they could escape from their caste bondage was to renounce it.

In “Mukti Kon Pathe?” Ambedkar outlined two considerations in changing religion – existential and spiritual. In explaining the existential consideration, he mainly indicated the pitiful plight of Dalits. They suffered atrocities at the feeblest violation of the caste code as perceived by the caste Hindus. Ambedkar termed it a class conflict. He elaborated his point as follows:

“It is not a conflict between two individuals or two groups; it is a conflict between two classes. It is not a question of dominance or of injustice over one man; it is a question of dominance perpetrated by one class over the other. It is a question of injustice heaped by one class over the other [...] The examples of this conflict enumerated above openly prove one point, which is that this conflict arises when you insist upon equality with the upper classes while dealing with them [...] the cause of their anger is only one and that is your behaviour demanding equality, which hurts their esteem.”

Ambedkar then concluded: “The conflict between the touchables and the untouchables is of permanent nature and is going to last for ever. Because, according to them the religion that is responsible for assigning you the lowest rung, is sanatan (which does not have either origin or end). There cannot be any change in it.”

Coming to the existential aspect of this problem, he observed that the lack of strength of Dalits was the root cause of the perpetuation of this conflict. Dalits did not possess any of the three strengths human beings are expected to possess, namely, the strengths of numbers, wealth and mind.

They did not have the strength of numbers as they were a minority, divided into numerous castes and dispersed in villages. They did not have the strength of wealth because they did not possess land or businesses or pursue decent employment. They did not possess mental strength as they were inured to humiliation, insults and oppression by caste Hindus for centuries. If Dalits relied upon their own strength, they could not hope to escape their prevailing miserable state.

He then compared them with Muslims, who were also a minority quite like Dalits. However, he said, Hindus would not dare to treat them like Dalits, because they very well knew that a Muslim had the backing of the entire Muslim community in India. If a Muslim is touched by a Hindu anywhere, the Muslim community from Kashmir to Kanyakumari would come out in support of him.

The Hindus, however, would never hesitate in unleashing humiliation and perpetrating atrocities on Dalits on the slightest pretext because they know that Dalits do not have any such backing from anyone. Moreover, Dalits and their oppressors, both being seen as Hindus, leave no scope for others to intervene. Therefore, as he concluded, Dalits had to think in terms of supplementing their strength from the outside.
This strength could come only through merging with some other religious community, by converting to its religion.

He thus justifies his call for conversion as an existential necessity for Dalits. It followed that the religion they convert to should have a sizeable community in the country, with Islam, Christianity and Sikhism implicitly constituting his zone of consideration. And since he had been speaking about Islam all along since 1928, including in the speech under discussion, Islam appeared to be the religion of his choice.

The spiritual consideration in the change of religion was related with enhancing the worth of an individual. Since the Hindu religion did not have any place for an individual, it could not provide spiritual solace to anyone.

According to Ambedkar, the real objective of a religion should be the spiritual development of individuals: “[B]irth of an individual is not for service of the society, it is for his or her own emancipation.” He declared that a religion which did not grant an individual primacy was not acceptable to him. He saw the necessity of three things for the development of an individual – compassion, equality and freedom – and observed that Hinduism did not have any of these.

Personally, Ambedkar rated the spiritual aspect of religion to be more important than the existential aspect. However, for the sake of Dalits, he would emphasise the existential utility of religion. It appeared that he was inclined to join one of the existing religious communities in India which would bring them the requisite strength to counter Hindu oppression. Although the Yeola declaration came in 1935, he had been variously advocating religious conversion to Dalits as a means of escaping caste bondage right from 1928 through his journal Bahishkrit Bharat. Bahishkrit Bharat is replete with references which clearly indicate that he had almost reached the conclusion that without conversion to some other religion there was no escape for Untouchables from caste bondage.

Apart from the subject of conversion, he also dwelt upon which religion would be the best for Dalits to convert to. He had gone to the extent of rejecting Buddhism and Arya Samaj and indicating his preference for Christianity or Islam:

“By becoming Buddhist or Arya Samajist, there is not going to be any significant impact on the prejudices of the people who call themselves as belonging to upper varna (uccha varniya) and therefore we do not see much sense in accepting that path. If we want to successfully confront the prejudices of Hindus, we have to convert to either Christianity or Islam in order to secure the backing of some rebellious community. It is only then the blot of untouchability on Dalits will be washed away.”

Within less than two years, he eliminated Christianity and zeroed in on Islam.

In the Bahishkrit Bharat edition of 15 March 1929, under the editorial “Notice to Hinduism”, Ambedkar exhorted Untouchables under the bold heading, “If you have to convert, become Musalman”. After analysing the futility of becoming Buddhist and Arya Samajist, he also dismissed Christianity because “even Christianity could not escape castes in India”.

He might have known that the conversion of Dalits to Christianity would not make any difference to their social status. They would remain the same old Untouchables to not only Hindus but also to their upper-caste counterparts. He would explain that only the Muslim community could come to back them up with full support. Even though he would keep saying that he had only decided to renounce Hinduism and not specified which religion to embrace, his rational choice of Islam was all too evident until 1936.

It might have been a stratagem to pressurise Hindus for reforms, which was his modest expectation in the Mahar conference. But the manner in which they reacted to the legitimate exercise of Dalits’ civil rights left Ambedkar totally disillusioned. Even in the next Satyagraha Conference, organised in December, they cunningly aborted it. Immediately after Mahar, he began speaking about conversion. Since the Morley–Minto Reforms (Indian Councils Act, 1909), the communal basis of sharing political power was formalised and even the separate status of Dalits and Adivasis from Hindus was insinuated by the Muslim League, Ambedkar saw a lever to bend Hindus by threatening to leave the Hindu fold. Interestingly, Hindus completely ignored them until the Yeola declaration.

However, the choice of religion that Ambedkar made in 1956 was quite contrary to this existential consideration.

It appears that his spiritual consideration eventually overwhelmed the existential one. Buddhism, which became his choice for conversion, was almost extinct in India save in the hilly areas of the north-east (West Bengal, Assam, Sikkim, Mizoram and Tripura) and the high Himalayan valleys (Ladakh district in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and northern Uttar Pradesh), with a tiny population as its traditional followers.

This did not qualify as satisfying the existential need of Dalits as he had outlined. While there is a reason to believe that Ambedkar made this choice after a serious study over more than two decades, the influence of Buddhism on him was public knowledge. It goes back to his early years, when he was introduced to the Buddha through his biography, which was presented to him to commemorate his having passed his matriculation examination. It was authored by Keluskar Guruji, a noted social worker of those times who had presided over the felicitation function. Since then, the influence of Buddhism on his mind would surface off and on.

Even in “Mukti kon pathe?”, although he appeared to be extolling Islam and thereby gave an impression that Islam might be his choice for conversion, he ended his speech with the famous exhortation of the Buddha in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta – “Appo deepo bhava” (Be your own light). It was not surprising that he ultimately chose Buddhism, ignoring his own rationale that the religious conversion of Dalits should serve their need of existential utility.

Excerpted with permission from “Strategy of Conversion to Buddhism: Intent and Aftermath”, Anand Teltumbde, from The Radical In Ambedkar: Critical Reflections, edited by Suraj Yengde and Anand Teltumbde, Penguin Books India.