As many as 236 members of the Valmiki community in Ghaziabad district have converted to Buddhism, citing the Uttar Pradesh government’s handling of the Hathras gangrape case as the reason behind their move, The Indian Express reported on Wednesday.

The community members changed their religion on October 14 in the district’s Karera village. They read out 22 pledges before social reformer BR Ambedkar’s great grandnephew Rajratna Ambedkar. The occasion was symbolic as BR Ambedkar had converted to Buddhism with 3.65 lakh followers on the same day, 64 years ago, according to The Print.

Members of the group told the news website that they have faced caste-based discrimination over the years and the Hathras case was the “final straw” for them. “The Hindus don’t accept us as their own, the Muslims will never accept us,” said 27-year-old Pawan Valmiki, who helped facilitate the mass conversion. “After the Hathras incident, we have come to realise that the state won’t accept or help us either. What options are we left with?”

Another community member named Rajjo Valmiki expressed outrage over the hasty midnight cremation of the 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras district. She said that in the 2012 Delhi gangrape case, the woman was given the best medical treatment and her caste was never discussed. “Our daughter was treated badly, the police and the doctors did not show any sympathy towards her body,” she told The Print. “Why is the media harassing her family?”

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Tara Chand, a sweeper, asked how long will their community continue to face discrimination. “In Buddhism, there is no fasting, no idol worship,” Chand told The Indian Express. “We have embraced it fully. My father was discriminated against, so was I, so are my children, and their children...When will this stop? When will we progress?”

Rajratna Ambedkar, who oversaw the conversion, said that Buddhism will help the community break the vicious cycle of poverty. “The Valmikis haven’t been able to come out of their previously set identity of being a sweeper or leather maker,” he was quoted as saying by The Print. “Converting to Buddhism is a means to help them come out of the vicious circle of poverty and the inferiority complex they live in.”

Hathras gangrape case

Four upper-caste Thakur men had raped and tortured the 19-year-old woman on September 14. She died of her injuries in a Delhi hospital on September 29. The woman’s death triggered shock and anger across the country.

In the events that followed, the Uttar Pradesh government forcibly cremated the body of the woman even as her family was detained in their home by the police, with the aim to stop the incident from becoming a focus of protests. The case became emblematic of the caste-based sexual violence faced by Dalit women in the state. The four accused have been arrested.

The Central Bureau of Investigation visited the crime scene in Boolgarhi village in Hathras on October 13. The woman’s brother and mother were also taken to the spot and the 15-member investigative team left after over two hours.

On October 15, the woman’s family requested the Supreme Court that the trial in the case be conducted in Delhi after investigation is completed.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam women's wing workers stage a protest in Chennai on Monday. [Credit: PTI]

The Uttar Pradesh administration has consistently denied that the woman was raped, based on a report from the forensic lab that had said there were no traces of sperm in samples taken from her. However, the chief medical officer at Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College – where the woman was admitted – said the forensic lab’s report “holds no value” as it relied on samples taken 11 days after the crime was committed.

Two doctors at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College, including the one who contradicted the police’s claims that woman had not been raped, were removed from their posts on Wednesday.

Experts have also pointed out that since the samples for the test were collected many days after the crime was committed, sperm would not be present. The autopsy report of the woman had showed that she was strangled and suffered a cervical spine injury. The final diagnosis did not mention rape, but had pointed out that there were tears in her genitalia and there had been “use of force”.