In a webinar organized by the Ambedkarite International Co-ordination Society (AICS) Canada on Sunday, titled “Importance of Census-2021 for Dalits,” experts urged Indian Dalits to choose “Buddhism” as their religion.
India is the world’s second most populous country with an estimated 1.353 billion people in 2018, just 40 million fewer people than China’s 1.393 billion. In 2021, India plans to conduct its census, though the exact schedule is currently uncertain due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Dalit is a term usually used in India for people previously deemed “untouchable” or “outcaste” by members of India’s higher castes. As BBC News notes: “India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of social stratification surviving to this day. . . . The system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by privileged groups.” (BBC News)
Historically, claiming to be Buddhist could remove one from the caste system entirely. This was the position taken by the man who drafted India’s 1949 post-colonial constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. In his public conversion to Buddhism in 1956, alongside as many as 500,000 Indian Dalits, Ambedkar sought to challenge the caste system. Since that time there have been numerous mass conversions by members of the Dalit community.
“Our people who experienced atrocities are turning to Buddhism because they know the root of the problem is their identity,” said Dhammadarshi, media and publicity officer for the Mansku Trust, a human rights organization based on the teachings of Ambedkar, referring to a conversion ceremony in 2017. “As long as they remain Dalits and untouchables, they are going to get this treatment of humiliation and discrimination and violence.” (Religion News)
While Buddhist leaders in India are not planning the same kind of widescale conversion ceremony, the census offers an opportunity for greater official recognition. According to the 2011 census, fewer than 1 per cent of Indians identified as Buddhists. In the years since the census, crimes against Dalits have risen steadily, according to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. For the 2021 census, Dalits are urged to mark “Buddhism” as their religion while mentioning their respective castes, namely Ravidassia and Adhi-Dharmi, instead of demanding separate religion columns for these two.
Speaking at the webinar, scholar Dr. G. C. Kaul explaied: “Babasaheb [Dr. Ambedkar] is considered one of the six greatest intellectuals in the world. In his research books, Who Were the Shudra? How They Came to be the Fourth Varna [Classification by profession] in the Indo Aryan Society and The Untouchables – Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables, Babasaheb has proved that the Buddhists were made untouchables by the Aryans.” He further stated: “After 21 years of an in-depth study of all religions, he [Ambedkar] did not create a new religion but preferred to choose Buddhism because it had the moral foundations of equality, justice, and the broader basis of humanism. Now you can understand that Adi-Dharma, i.e. the original religion, is none other than Buddhism.” (The Indian Express)
AICS founder member Chanchal Mall noted that because Dalits do not receive a separate religion column in official documents, they should register as Buddhists with their castes mentioned next. Other participating experts, Khushwinder Kumar Billa, president of the Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Committee of Great Britain UK, and Paramjit Kainth and Anand Bali, founder member and general secretary, AICS Canada, respectively, suggested that the move would also help community members and leaders to know more clearly the numbers of the Ravidassia and Adhi-Dharmi communities.
Dalits should mention Buddhism as religion in Census 2021, say experts (The Indian Express)
What is India’s caste system? (BBC News)
A Dalit community looks to escape the caste system by converting to Buddhism (Religion News)