Dalit-Buddhist Converts Reject Hinduism, Yet See No Equality

Dalit-Buddhist Converts Reject Hinduism, Yet See No Equality

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Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam, Vivek Gupta

“Mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism”...a headline we often come across. Especially from regions where tensions between upper-caste Hindus and Ambedkarites have been on the rise – one such region is western Uttar Pradesh. The resentment and confidence in speaking against the Hindu religion was on the rise across the region.

22-year-old Sandeep Singh is a student who lives in the Thakur-dominated Mohali village in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh.
22-year-old Sandeep Singh is a student who lives in the Thakur-dominated Mohali village in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh.
(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

The Quint traveled to Mathura, Agra and violence-struck Saharanpur to meet with Ambedkarites, some of whom are being vigorously led by Chandrashekhar Azad’s Bhim Army. We wanted to understand the desire to abandon a religion that shaped their identity for generations, and if life had changed for the better afterwards.

(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

Violence had erupted in Saharanpur district, UP in May-April 2017 after an altercation between Rajputs and Dalits on Maharana Pratap Jayanti. One Rajput was killed, at least 12 Dalits seriously injured, and 55 Dalit homes burnt. It was after the violence that Chandrashekar Azad was jailed in June, and has been denied bail since.

It was this violence that made 180 families convert to Buddhism. The Quint met some of them.

Excluded and Betrayed, Dalits Abandon Hinduism

As you enter Rupdi village in Sahranpur, western UP, you are repeatedly greeted by ‘Jai Bhim’ a greeting common amongst Ambedkarite Buddhists. They’re itching to express how angry they continue to be with Hinduism, a year after conversion.

(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

Hindu idols have been replaced by Buddha statues and Ambedkar wall-hangings. There is no trace of Hinduism in these homes. “You can come in and see any house here,” this reporter is challenged and finds no remnants of Hinduism.

They insist they have no place for idols anymore as Hinduism has not given them anything.

Dalits Hesitant to Convert, ‘Scared God Would Harm Them’

Sandeep Singh, a 22-year-old student, lives in the Thakur-dominated Maholi village in Mathura district in Uttar Pradesh. He was repeatedly barred from taking a bath in this pool, which was open to upper-caste Thakurs and Brahmins.

(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

Sandeep recounts how he understood he was ‘different’ from others while growing up.

“When a kid feels untouchability against him, when he feels odd amidst others, he comes home and asks his family questions. But when the elders can't fulfill the demands of the child, the elders tell the child that the situation is the ‘fruit of our previous life’, 'You would have done something wrong or I would have done something wrong. This is why this is happening with you.'”

From 2010 to 2016 – that’s how long it took him to take the official oath of Ambedkarite Buddhism. His biggest obstacle in his six-year conversion? ‘Fear of the Hindu God’.
(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

Sandeep was not alone in his fear of god. Haribabu and his wife Premvati Baudhh are surrounded by relatives who feared conversion as well. “They’re scared of Gods and Goddesses who have been kept as idols in the temples. They are scared if they don't go to the temple, then their kids' ears will hurt, their stomachs will start hurting, or they will get fever. I don't accept these things at all,” Premvati said.

Sandeep’s desire to convert became stronger when he was pulled out of school, like other Dalit kids whose parents wanted them to work and earn money rather than study. Haribabu vowed then not to let this happen to his kids when he converted to Buddhism 30 years ago.

Biggest Benefit of Conversion? Education

Haribabu might be bitter about being pulled out of school in Class 8, but he has ensured his kids are not. “After accepting Buddhism, the change that has come in my life is that I have educated my kids. I have three kids and a grand daughter who are all studying. This is the biggest benefit I have got after accepting Buddhism, as my parents didn't make me study as much,” he told The Quint with a certain regret.

The picture of Haribabu’s youngest son on a table along the Buddha idol. In the middle is an award given to his granddaughter by the Buddhist Society of India for performing well in her studies.
The picture of Haribabu’s youngest son on a table along the Buddha idol. In the middle is an award given to his granddaughter by the Buddhist Society of India for performing well in her studies.
(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

Premvati was upbeat sitting on his right. With pride, she says, “I am very happy because I've got my kids educated. I feel like I've hit the jackpot. I tell myself that it’s alright that I haven't studied, but my kids have studied.” She adds that when one’s children are educated, one’s thoughts also improve.

But this life came at a cost for Haribabu, “Both my father's sisters, my sisters and aunts used to tell my mother that 'your son has lost it, get him married soon, or he might end up turning mad’. All this because they would pray to the goddess and I would tell them that such things weren’t right,” he said.

Hindu Festivals Still on the Table

When we asked Sandeep and his sister Babita Kumar, a 25-year-old student, Babita said, “The family generally gets together for Bhai Dooj and Raksha Bandhan, or weddings and other programmes. The celebrations make us happy. We celebrate other festivals, like Holi and Diwali too.” Sandeep said that for him, only Bhai Dooj and Raksha Bandhan are both celebrated properly.

I can not interfere in other people’s way of doing things. The emotions attached to a brother and sister, I can’t break them
Babita and her brother Sandeep continue to celebrate Rakha Bandhan and Bhai Dooj.
Babita and her brother Sandeep continue to celebrate Rakha Bandhan and Bhai Dooj.
(Photo: Aishwarya S Iyer/The Quint)

Haribabu and his wife have a slightly different take on Hindu festivals. “We will not celebrate Raksha Bandhan, Holi, Diwali or Bhaiya Dooj. If it is about visiting, we will do that. We will go to them, and they will also come to us, but tilak and other rituals will not happen,” Haribabu said.

Has Conversion Changed Their Status?

Hari and Babita’s families might celebrate Hindu festivals, but their homes do not have any sings of Hindu idols or posters. Instead there are Buddha statues and big posters of Ambedkar hanging everywhere.

Babita says she converted because she felt Buddhism was a better choice, as there was no acceptance or equality for them in Hinduism. When The Quint asked her if she was getting equality now, she said, “ No, that has not happened. If they give or they don't, it doesn't matter to us.”

Sandeep agreed that the way the society has treated them has not changed. He said:

Society has not changed their behaviour towards us even after converting to Buddhism...but we have changed (removed) ourselves from their society. We cannot change them but we can change ourselves. We keep our distance from their places of worship.

Beneath this anger is the burning need for equality that Dalits believe Hinduism cannot accommodate. While conversion might have not earned them the respect of their upper-caste Hindu neighbours, in their rejection of Hinduism, they have found a confidence and purpose rarely seen before.

When The Quint leaves Sandeep’s home he says:

When people are living with cleanliness, when they are better educated than you, when they are eating and drinking better than you, when they are doing all this... if even then you consider them untouchables and get scared of coming too close to them, then I believe there is no one more despicable than you.

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