Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Religious Conversion 2

In October 1956, shortly before his death, the Dalit leader Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Thousands of his followers copied him.

Mass conversions have been taking place recently to celebrate the 50th anniversary of this event [BBC News Oct 2006, May 2007].

In a comment to my earlier post Religious Conversion, someone called Armchair Guy disputed the BBC's account of the conversions, and defended the laws restricting (he prefers the word "tempering") religious conversion. If indeed they are conversions at all - since Buddhism and Jainism are legally classified as branches of Hinduism anyway.

Many Indians regard these conversions as a political stunt [Seriously Sandeep]. Discussing an earlier mass conversion in 2003, a Dalit leader denied this.
Valjibhai Patel, the most vocal opponent of the anti-conversion law, intends to provoke the government to take action against them by organising the mass conversion. ... [He] said the proposed mass conversion would not be a “political stunt” but a well thought-out strategy to get rid of the “oppressive Hindu caste system”. [Telegraph, April 2003]
I am not sure where is the dividing line between a stunt and a strategy, and I haven't seen enough of the strategy to know how well-thought-out it was, but there seems to be some agreement here that the conversion has a socio-political objective as well as a religious one.

It may seem unlikely that conversion alone will produce a massive improvement in the socio-economic status of the Dalit caste, at least in the short term. B.R. Ambedkar himself always argued (against the more romanticized view of Mahatma Gandhi, who labelled them Harijan - Children of God) that Dalits should move to the city and get an education. Perhaps it is true, as ArmchairGuy suggests, that well-funded religious organizations are performing large-scale social engineering on uninformed people. Many religious movements throughout history could be open to this accusation - and there have been much worse things than social engineering. But inhibiting ("tempering") the conversions (regardless whether this is religiously or politically motivated) appears to be fighting one piece of social engineering with another piece of social engineering.

At the root of the argument seems to be a fundamental contradiction about the significance of these conversions. If it's not such a big deal, if it's not going to make any difference to their daily lives, and if Buddhism is just a branch of Hinduism anyway, why make such a fuss? On the other hand, if conversion is worth legislating about, then perhaps it is more important than the deniers would have us believe.

See also [Dalit Issues @ CounterCurrents]

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