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Re-evaluating the neo-Buddhist movement

Till October 14, 1956, the followers of Buddhism in India were an insignificant mass. And as a religion, it was one that was on the verge of extinction. On this date, Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism in a grand ceremony at Nagpur, Maharashtra, and offered it to millions of his followers. Significant sections among the erstwhile untouchable castes divorced the degraded untouchable caste identity to find solace in the teachings of the Buddha.

Ambedkar’s impact

A few days ago, on October 20, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Kushinagar International Airport in Uttar Pradesh, which will help connect important Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Kushinagar is an important Buddhist pilgrim destination. The Prime Minister heralded the Buddhist sites and the Buddha’s teachings as the marker of India’s ancient civilisational heritage. However, he never acknowledged Ambedkar’s contribution in revitalising the Buddhist faith. Buddhism’s affiliation with the Dalit emancipatory movement is largely neglected, and often, its ornamental spiritual side is what is presented instead.

 

According to the last national population census, the Buddhists are one of the smallest minorities (0.7% of the total population) in India. Interestingly a majority of them are converted Dalits from Maharashtra. Within the conventional Hindu social order, the untouchables were reduced to a sub-human category and treated with hatred and subject to prejudices. Though there were impactful social reforms to correct historic wrongs, the general social psyche of the dominant caste Hindus towards the lowest rung remained pervasive. It is with the arrival of Ambedkar on the national political stage that Dalits realised their self-potential and launched a struggle, claiming an equitable share in the modern institutions of power. Embracing Buddhism is heralded as the intellectual choice of Dalits that connects them to a robust historic past while also making them ready to enjoy constitutional rights as secular citizens.

A force in Maharashtra

Important cities in Maharashtra such as Mumbai, Aurangabad and Nagpur have witnessed the rise of powerful Dalit movements, social events and modern monuments. Deeksha Bhoomi in Nagpur, the place where Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, has emerged as a monumental heritage site, attracting millions of visitors every year. Here, Buddhism was resurrected not only as a part of India’s cultural and civilisational heritage but also as a tool to escape the caste hierarchical cultural hegemony and social hostility. In the post-Ambedkar period, it is urban Buddhists — because of their educational achievements and newly gained middle class status — who have offered vital leadership to Dalit politics and organised various social and cultural struggles. Importantly, it is the creative application of the neo-Buddhist identity and ideology that has structured the Dalit movement as an autonomous political force in Maharashtra. A serious debate between neo-Buddhists and Marxist-Socialists erupted during the heightened period of activism by the Dalit Panthers’ in Bombay. Namdeo Dhasal, a maverick revolutionary poet, offered a militant political alternative, suggesting that ‘Dalit’ is a revolutionary collective of all oppressed communities and that they shall contest caste atrocities and state violence by radical violent means. Dhasal was influenced by the Maoist-Naxalbari movements and wanted that Dalits should build close solidarities with the Communist working-class movement.

Raja Dhale, another founding member of the Dalit Panthers’ movement, criticised such a ‘Leftist turn’ of the Dalit movement. As an alternative to Dhasal’s ‘Marxist Manifesto’, he offered a Buddhist perspective, suggesting that the social justice movement must be based upon a primacy to Ambedkarite liberal principles and making a break from the ideas of a violent class struggle. Conversion to Buddhism helped the community appreciate the constitutional values of secularism and social justice substantively and develop a critical distance from the ideologies that legitimise any brutal usage of violence. Dhale visualised the neo-Buddhist movement not as a sectarian project for the emancipation of untouchables only but visualised it as a revolutionary project that would enlighten the wider Bahujan mass.

 

Second, conversion to Buddhism also helped Dalits to find a robust meaning about their cultural past. They reinvented the Buddhist cultural symbols (by building monuments, viharas and religious sites), rituals and practices (by celebrating Buddhist festivals) as the proud markers of their new social identity. Buddhist cultural assertions and claims over public spaces became the symbols of their rejection against Hindu cultural hegemony and its social tentacles. Such assertiveness often put them in opposition with right-wing ideologies.

Niche ideological space

In Mumbai, under Bal Thackeray’s leadership, the Shiv Sena responded to the neo-Buddhist social activism with street violence and riots. In the early 1990s, the neo-Buddhists launched a mass movement to liberate the Bodhgaya temple from the control of Brahmin priests and also raised legal claim over the controversial site of the Babri Masjid, thus putting Hindutva politics into conundrum — on how to deal with the neo-Buddhists’ demands.

Though the Bharatiya Janata Party regime at the centre appears more accommodative to Dalit cultural and religious symbols and avoided much skirmish on this front, it is difficult for the right wing to attract neo-Buddhists under the Hindutva project. As an ideological force, neo-Buddhists offer an alternative reading of history and imagine Buddhism as the chief challenger to Brahmanical Hindu traditions, caste order and orthodox ritualism. Buddhists thus stand distinct from the militant Hindutva hegemony and wish to retain their own autonomy in sociocultural spaces.

 

Non-allegiance with the Left militancy and later its opposition to Hindutva politics have created a niche ideological space for Dalits especially amongst neo-Buddhists. However, as a political force, they have failed to provide any significant challenge to the dominant caste and class elites and failed to mobilise other marginalised communities under their social or political programmes. In recent times, neo-Buddhism has generated a passive communitarian exclusivity that often engages with ritualistic and spiritual endeavours rather than building impressive struggles for social justice or to gain political power.

 

A democratic dialogue

The revolutionary promises made during Ambedkar’s historic Buddhist conversion would be fulfilled only if the polity is sensitive towards secularism and social justice. The current advancement of Hindutva is coercive and hegemonic as it offers residual space to Buddhist symbols and keeps a distance from its revolutionary anti-caste struggles. Though it is vital to protect the autonomous cultural space that the neo-Buddhist intellectual class has developed, it is equally important to build a unified people’s movement to protect the merits of India’s constitutional democracy. It is only by initiating democratic dialogue with other marginalised and struggling communities that neo-Buddhists can revitalise Ambedkar’s transformative project.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


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Printable version | Dec 1, 2021 8:47:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/re-evaluating-the-neo-buddhist-movement/article37181070.ece

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