If one has to mention three most important events from Dr BR Ambedkar’s life, they would be the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, Ambedkar’s role in drafting India’s Constitution in the 1940s, and his conversion to Buddhism in 1956. While the first two occupied Ambedkar as they were happening real-time, he spent many decades thinking about his conversion.
Ambedkar was done with Hinduism in the 1930s itself and had publicly declared his resolve to leave the religion on many occasions. He had held a conference of Mahars – the people he was born amongst – in 1935 in Mumbai where he delivered his famous speech ‘What Path to Salvation’. At this conference, he spoke at length why he and his caste people must convert to another religion.
Even though Ambedkar gave this speech more than two decades prior to his actual conversion, the contents of this speech are useful in analysing the ‘anti-conversion laws’ that have been brought in by a few Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled states in the recent past.
In his 1935 speech, Ambedkar proposes two reasons why a person would want to convert to another religion from the one in which they are born – (i) for material gains and (ii) for spiritual well-being. For Ambedkar, both these reasons were equally valid. He says, “Some persons mock and laugh at the idea of conversion for material gain. I do not feel hesitant in calling such persons stupid.”
Ambedkar had made the motto of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – an integral part of his political philosophy and he alluded to it many times, including in his most famous work, Annihilation of Caste. The principle of autonomy is closely tied to the principle of liberty, and Ambedkar valued it dearly. This can be observed in the way he approached the issue of conversion.
Ambedkar’s decision to convert to Buddhism was not personal; it was primarily a social act and emanated from his immense love for his people and his desire to free them from the yoke of Hinduism, caste system, and untouchability.
Respect for Followers' Autonomy
When Ambedkar decided to leave Hinduism in the 1930s, his conversion to Buddhism was not a foregone conclusion. He took Islam and Christianity into consideration and briefly flirted with the idea of converting to Sikhism as well. However, he finally realised that Buddhism best fitted with his principles and philosophy and this ancient religion founded by the Buddha would be the best vehicle to emancipate his people.
In this whole process, he never took his followers for granted. He held many conferences and meetings with them, propounded his ideas and reasoning in many public forums, and was completely transparent about the process from the start to finish.
He never treated his followers as anything but autonomous beings who should be persuaded with solid reasoning but never coerced into following him. He states towards the end of his 'What Path to Salvation' speech:
"You should not … be led away by emotion, and follow me only because I say so. You should consent only if it appeals to your reason."
Ambedkar's two decades of persuasion bore fruit and when he finally took the diksha of Buddhism on 14 October 1956 in Nagpur, lakhs of people converted to Buddhism with him.
The State's Heavy Hand
An individual should have the freedom to convert to any religion they want, without the State’s heavy hand interfering in the matter, and Article 25 of India’s constitution guarantees as much. However, the recent ‘anti-conversion laws’ by states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh are in contravention of this article and also go against the principle that was so dear to Ambedkar – liberty. Ambedkar says, “Only a fool can say that one should cling to one's own religion only because it is ancestral. No sane person can accept such an argument.”
The Uttar Pradesh government’s act mandates that the person who wishes to convert to another religion must submit an affidavit to the district magistrate declaring their intention of conversion 60 days in advance. The person who will perform the conversion ceremony will also have to submit an affidavit 30 days in advance. Furthermore, the magistrate will enquire into the conversion through the police to check whether it falls foul of the law.
The act also states that a person should not be encouraged to convert through ‘allurement’ – here, allurement is defined as gift, easy money, material benefit either in cash or kind, employment, better lifestyle, etc. The law also prohibits conversion at the time of marriage.
Autonomy in Conversion
Should the State decide for what reason a person can convert to another religion? Also, should spiritual well-being – which in any way is hard to define or gauge accurately – be considered a higher ideal than material gains?
The individual who is converting is the best judge of their motivation behind conversion and what they desire from a change in religion. And therefore, only they should be the rightful ‘aggrieved party’ allowed to file a case if they feel they have been deceived in any way or coerced into the act of conversion.
Ambedkar, whose own conversion was a social act with the aim of emancipating fellow Dalits, may or may not have agreed with all the motivations behind an individual’s decision to convert but he would surely stand with every one of them. The freedom to choose and practise whatever religion a person desires, is consistent with Ambedkar's espousal of the principle of liberty.
The State's Disregard for People's Autonomy
When Ambedkar declared, “I was born a Hindu… I will not die a Hindu,” there were many detractors who swiftly came forward to criticise him for his decision to leave Hinduism. One of them was Congress leader MK Gandhi. Gandhi wrote to CF Andrews in 1936:
“The poor Harijans have no mind, no intelligence, no sense of difference between God and not-God. It is absurd for a single individual to talk of taking all the Harijans with himself. Are they all bricks that they could be moved from one structure to another?”As quoted in Gail Omvedt's 'Ambedkar: Towards an Enlightened India'
The State’s attitude as can be seen in the anti-conversion laws is as condescending and patronising as Gandhi’s since both deny agency to the people and refuse to treat them as autonomous beings capable of independent thinking. The clause that if the person who has been ‘converted’ is a minor, woman, or belongs to Scheduled Caste or Schedule Tribe, the quantum of punishment will be higher further proves this point.