Decades ago, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar brought hundreds of thousands of people together in the Dalit Buddhist movement after he converted to Buddhism in his frustration over the caste system and social discrimination. A similar sentiment reigned over Ambedkar Bhavan yesterday, as large crowds swarmed there to mark Babasaheb’s 125th birth anniversary and watch another momentous conversion.
Embracing Buddhism this time, were Raja and Radhika Vemula, the brother and mother of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, whose death in January had sparked a storm across the country. The police was out in full force, along with a swarm of media persons out to report on their conversion to Buddhism yesterday.
The venue, behind the well-known Chitra cinema, was the go-to place for the community marking Ambedkar Jayanti. The colours were white (worn by the majority of Babasaheb’s followers attending the deeksha or conversion function), and a smattering of saffron, worn by the Buddhist priests. But perhaps there was one other, intangible colour — a political hue — that bathed the event, though several attendees refuted a political twist to the event.
Even as chants of ‘Jai Bhim’ and sporadic applause rang through the hall, KD Pawar stated, “We are still on the path towards realising Babasaheb’s dreams of a more equitable society. We saw Rohith’s mother and brother converting — it is a small step towards that change.” Asked whether the event might be politically coloured, Pawar stated, “It is more about choice than politics. Rohith’s mother and brother have converted to Buddhism on their own, there was no coercion, so there is no political persuasion here.”
Dr Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar and his wife Anjali were also present. Anjali, a professor at the Karve Institute of Social Work (Pune), stated, “This has always been about the political. Dr Ambedkar was about challenging the establishment. This is about the victims of the Brahminical, upper class Hindu society.”
She added, “We are seeing increasing polarisation in the nation. From imposition of dress codes, to compulsions about saying, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and now there is talk about replacing Jana Gana Mana with Vande Mataram. Student revolutions are simmering. As a faculty member, I see what is happening on campus, but it is our duty to keep dialogue open.”
For writer Sudhir Dawle, dialogue means first opening one’s mind to what he claims is the truth. Dawle, whose book on Rohith was being sold at Rs 20 a copy at the function, joined in the BJP-bashing and stated that Rohith’s vision was of a “casteless society,” while the BJP’s aim is “to squash any anti-caste movement”.
One of the younger men in the packed hall, Dinesh More (30), chose to focus on the spiritual significance of the ceremony: “Once you have taken deeksha or converted, it does not mean you automatically change, but it does set you on a path towards certain principles you embrace. It is the beginning.” His wife, Smruti More has yet another take, “I wish more women would have been present at the function. They may have been caught up, since there are celebrations all across today.”