Santosh, 32, from Uttar Pradesh's Ghaziabad, dropped out of school when he was in class seven. "I am a Dalit, and I faced casteist slurs from students on a regular basis. I tried complaining to the teachers but to no avail," he told The Quint.
He was the first person in his family to go to school, which he calls "something of an achievement."
On Thursday, 5 October, Santosh walked inside the Ambedkar Bhavan in Delhi's Jhandewalan area to the chants of "Jai Bhim" with a hope in his heart that now things will change.
After all, he was here to embrace Buddhism.
Apart from Santosh, hundreds of Dalits from across Delhi-NCR embraced Buddhism as part of the Buddha Dhamma Deeksha Samaroh, an event organised by the Jai Bheem Mission – founded by Advocate Rajendra Gautam, a Delhi cabinet minister and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
"I want to be part of a casteless society. A society where everybody has the same opportunities like the one Babasaheb (Ambedkar) strived for," Gautam told The Quint.
The event was attended by a few thousand people, Rajratna Ambedkar, an activist and great grand-nephew of Dr BR Ambedkar, was also in attendance.
"If we don't want our children to be murdered for drinking water from the pots, keeping a moustache, or for owning or riding horses, we will have to organise ourselves and our community will have to come together in a disciplined manner," Gautam said as he addressed the gathering with chants of Baudhh dharam ki kya pehchaan? Maanav, maanav ek samaan (What is the identity of Buddhism? All humans are equal) and Jaati choddo, Samaaj Jodo (Break the caste system, unite the society).
Generational Trauma, Crime Against Women: Tipping Points for Those Who Want To Convert
Lalit, 45, and Nisha, 38, own a milk dairy in Ghaziabad. They attended the ceremony with their three children. As the entire family filled forms for conversion, Nisha said that in their locality, children from her caste are not allowed to sit on chairs.
"Those who say that caste-based discrimination doesn't happen anymore should come and visit our society. Children from our caste are not allowed to sit on chairs. Even though my children have not faced it, I see it happening around me all the time. We are here because we don't want our children to be treated that way," she said.
"We embraced Buddhism to make sure that our children have a better future," Lalit added.
Varsha (29) who had come from Tughlakabad in southeast Delhi, however, was in a dilemma. "Crime against Bahujan women are at an all-time high. Every day in the news, we read about women being raped and murdered because of their caste... this has made me think of wanting to embrace Buddhism but sometimes I wonder if that is the solution to these problems," Varsha said as she stood at the gate of Ambedkar Bhavan with her mother and younger brother. "I will probably just participate in the event and convert next time," she added.
Dinesh, 17, on the contrary, was confident about his move. "To embrace Buddhism in itself is a matter of pride. There is no unity among people in other religions. They discriminate on the basis of caste – something which is against the spirit of our Constitution," Dinesh said.
"If you want to choose a leader, choose someone like Babasaheb (Ambedkar)," he added.
Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 at Deekshabhoomi in Maharashtra's Nagpur.
'We've Seen the Worst, Won't Let Our Children Suffer'
Mohan Lal, 86, converted to Buddhism four decades ago. "I was born in 1934. I worked with Babasaheb for a few years and then went from village to village to convey his message to the masses. I still have cassettes with songs we made to simplify the ideas of Babasaheb and take them to people. I listen to them very often," Lal told The Quint.
"They didn't let us build houses, wear good clothes, go to school, or even drink water from the wells. I wasn't allowed to even go near a school. Things are much better now but we want our next generation to be completely free from the shackles of caste," he said.