Deepak Kurare, 48, a BSNL worker from Jamboli village in Kolhapur district of Maharashtra, did not stop chanting “Buddham Saranam Gachchami, Sangham Saranam Gachchami” (a Buddhist hymn), despite being completely drenched in the heavy rains that Nagpur witnessed on Sunday.
Deepak travelled more than 1,000 km to be at Deeksha Bhoomi on the Dhammachakra Pravartan Din on Sunday, the day of Vijayadashmi Dussehra, for on this day in 1956, millions of Dalits “broke the shackles of Hindu religion and converted to Buddhism,” according to him.
On October 14, 1956, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and lakhs of his followers converted to Buddhism at a place in Nagpur which is now called Deeksha Bhoomi.
Just as every year, lakhs of Dalits across India gathered at the place to remember their “Babasaheb” and to celebrate the Dhammachakra Pravartan Din.
“Before Babasaheb, we would be treated like animals. He gave us identity, showed us the right path, taught us to fight for our basic rights,” said Waman Kamble, 64, of Sheval town in Kolhapur. “We were not allowed to drink water from public wells. We had no entry into temples because we were labelled untouchables. But Babasaheb fought for us all his life and today we at least have our basic rights,” added Mr. Kamble.
For Dalits like Mr. Kamble and Deepak, coming to Deeksha Bhoomi and paying tribute to Dr. Ambedkar is a yearly ritual but for youngsters like Krishna Kamble, “Dhammadisksha” (Conversion to Buddhism) was a “revolution.”
“It was a revolution,” said Krishna, who studies in the Industrial Training Institute of this town, adding, “Our ancestors lived like animals for ages until Babasaheb awakened us.”
But Krishna and his friends are also unhappy with the present days Dalit leadership.
“Babasaheb started a movement. Conversion to Buddhism was a revolutionary step but he died and left a vacuum in the leadership, which has still not been filled,” said Bhimdas Naik of Yavatmal.
Mr. Naik blamed the Congress for the divisions in the Dalit movement and was all the more angry watching Congress leader Sushilkumar Shinde and NCP leader Sharad Pawar as the chief guest of the day’s function.
“This is purely a religious ceremony when we celebrate our freedom from the shackles of exploitation. What is the need to invite politicians as chief guests on this day? Last year it was Gadkari, this year it is Sharad Pawar and Shinde,” said Mr. Naik.
There are disputes among different sections of Dalits over the celebration of Dhammachakra Pravartan Din. A section led by some Dalit writers has launched a campaign to celebrate it on October 14 and not on Vijayadashami Dussehra for it is a Hindu festival.
“But most of the people prefer Vijayadashami Dussehra,” said Mahendra Raut, a defence sector employee. “Although, a large number of people have started coming on October 14 also and if this trend persists, after 10 or 15 years, Dhammachakra Pravartan Din will be celebrated only on October 14 and not on the day of any Hindu festival,” he added.
But for 65-year-old Lakshmibai of Ner Tehsil in Yavatmal, who claimed to be present in the ceremony when Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956, the day did not matter.
“Babasaheb is more than a God to us. God may have given us life, but Babasaheb taught us how to live it with dignity,” she said.