More than 230 Indians converted to Buddhism in the city of Ghaziabad, just east of New Delhi, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on 14 October. The conversion ceremony was held in part to protest the 14 September gang rape and murder of a 19-year-old woman from Hathras, between New Delhi and Agra.
The day of the conversion was significant as it was the 64th anniversary of the landmark conversion to Buddhism of the politican and social reformer Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in 1956, along with as many as 500,000 supporters. Those who took part in the conversion ceremony in Ghazaibad this month came mainly from a section of the city known as Karhera, and were joined by Rairatan Ambedkar, the great grandnephew of B. R. Ambedkar.
One of the men participating in the ceremony, Pawan Valmiki, 27, related the story of when he applied for work at a luxury apartment complex in Ghaziabad. Due to his last name—associated with one of India’s so-called Scheduled Castes (often referred to as Dalits) one of the groups officially designated in the Constitution of India with protections and measures meant to remove historical social barriers—he was offered only work in the cleaning department.
“I didn’t apply for a cleaning job [but] I took it because I needed the money,” said Valmiki. “However, I recognized the discrimination. We are facing this for generations.” (The Indian Express)
Valmiki acknowledged that his hope with the conversion is In part that his two children will not face similar discrimination in their lifetimes.
Inder Ram, 65, worked as a mechanic in east Delhi’s Shahdara District until a few years ago. Echoing Valmiki’s reasons for converting, he observed: “After what happened in Hathras with the 19-year-old Dalit woman, we decided to convert. There is no caste in Buddhism; no one is a Thakur or a Valmiki there. Everyone is a human being, everyone is just a Buddhist.” (The Indian Express)
The violent rape and murder of the young woman in Hathras drew condemnation from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and garnered international news headlines. She was from the Valmiki community. According to police, four men were arrested and charged with rape and murder, although records of rape cases in the country show that very few result in convictions. Compounding distrust of the police were accusations that officials had seized the woman’s and had it cremated without the consent of the family.
“They took the body by force, assaulted the family members, and cremated my sister in the night itself,” said Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. “Police did not allow us near the cremation place.” (The New York Times)
Valmiki said: “We thought of converting in the past as well but this [Hathras] incident shook us up—the way state machinery is grilling the victim’s family, the way she was cremated at 2:30 a.m. without her family’s permission.” (The Indian Express)
Following the woman’s death, the people of Karhera held a candlelight march in her honor. Soon after, Valmiki said, he began considering converting to Buddhism.
“The Hindus don’t accept us as their own, the Muslims will never accept us,” said Valmiki. “After the Hathras incident, we have come to realize that the state won’t accept or help us either. What options are we left with?” (ThePrint)
Discrimination and violence against Dalits has existed throughout the history of India. For many, conversion to other religions, most commonly Buddhism, represents as much a political and social move as a religious one. Nevertheless, Bir Singh, who took part in the conversion, made it clear that this was not a mere symbolic act, saying: “After adopting Buddhism, we have been told to undertake good activities like social service.” (News 18 India)
Over 230 Dalits embrace Buddhism in NCR: ‘Hathras crime tipping point’ (The Indian Express)
Woman Dies in Delhi After Gang Rape, Fueling Outrage Again in India (The New York Times)
Angry Over Hathras Case, 236 Members of Valmiki Community ‘Convert’ to Buddhism in Ghaziabad (News 18 India)
Hathras ‘rape-murder last straw’, 236 Valmikis in Ghaziabad village convert to Buddhism (ThePrint)
Ghaziabad district official rush to Karhera after 236 Dalits ‘convert’ to Buddhism (Hindustan Times)