Mass Buddhist conversion of Indian Dalits sparks official investigation

Annual gathering of Indian Buddhist Dalits

Each year since 1956, throngs of Dalits — members of India’s so-called untouchable caste — gather on October 13 to refresh their Buddhist faith, or to enter it anew. This year was no exception. Organizers of the mass gathering in Dungarpur village in Gujarat state claimed up to a million Dalits in attendance, with 60,000 newly converting to Buddhism. One of the official Dalit Buddhist society’s leaders, Devendra Vanvi, “said that Dalits were embracing Buddhism to seek ‘emancipation’ from the Hindu caste system that had virtually made them ‘social slaves’ for centuries,” according to  the Indian Express.

The time and place of the annual event have deep meaning for Dalits: they recall the day when the most famous among them, Dr. B. M. Ambedkar, publicly converted to Buddhism. Citing the Buddha’s anti-caste teachings on the basic equality of people and on their self-worth being reckoned by their actions rather than their birth circumstances, Dr. Ambedkar began a social revolution in India that continues to this day.

Following the event, however, the Dalits were faced with an unexpected obstacle: an official investigation into the legality of the conversions.

The Indian Express explained that under Gujarat’s Freedom of Religion Rules implemented in 2008, “a proper and prior permission of the district magistrate was mandatory before any religious conversion. Any violation amounted to an offence and invited action.”

The organizers insist that these guidelines were followed, suggesting that the investigations were politically motivated, and yesterday’s Times of India reports that “nothing objectionable has been found till now.”

To learn more about India’s Buddhist Dalit movement initiated by Dr. Ambedkar, and its contemporary ramifications, see:

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