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Nov 18, 2001
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HEADS,
I WIN...

Conversion: Ram Raj's rally was probably
just an exercise in self-promotion

Prerna Singh Bindra

Venue: Babasaheb Ambedkar Bhavan, New Delhi
Date: November 4, 2001
The occasion: Mass conversion of "ten lakh" Dalits to Buddhism by their new, self-proclaimed messiah

Ram Raj, now called Udit Raj in his Buddhist avatar, is reading out 22 clauses which form part of the process of conversion, cajoling wannabe converts to repeat his words. He draws tremendous response when he intones "we will not allow any ritual to be performed by Brahmins", but there is a complete, almost embarrassing silence, when he exhorts the people not to worship Vishnu, Brahma, Ram, Krishna or any Hindu gods and goddesses or their avatars.

TEMPTING AFTERSHAVE OPTIONS: Ram Raj says that he has no political ambitions but not everyone agrees

The first murmurs of discontent are soon audible. "These are gods we have worshipped all our lives; abandoning them gives me an uncomfortable feeling," whispers Kaushalyabai, who has travelled from Nanded in Maharashtra for her initiation into Buddhism.

Raj's claim of a teeming and oppressed populace eager to convert to Buddhism appears fragile at best.

Yet he maintains that the Dalits are with him. "One million Dalits from all over India will convert to Buddhism. Dalits are suffering, they are oppressed. This mass conversion is an essential step towards their social and economic upliftment," he says.

Raj's plans, as chairman of the All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisation, stop with the conversion. There are no plans for the development of the Dalits. He says the conversion will lead the Dalits along the path of development. "The conversion," he explains, "will change the mindset of the Dalits who believe they are lesser beings and cannot escape the karma of their previous lives."

The crowd, the rally, the purpose and perhaps the ideology were reminiscent of an event on October 14, 1956 when Dalit leader and father of the Indian Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, embraced Buddhism to break the shackles of the caste system. Nearly half a century later it was Ram Raj adorning the attire of the modern Ambedkar and holding court in Delhi to lead Dalits on the road to salvation.

Can he be compared to the great leader? Raj fights shy of saying that but proudly points out that "Babasaheb's rally was just like mine."

Chandra Bhan Prasad, eminent author on Dalit issues, points out that while Babasaheb's final act was converting to Buddhism, it was not his only contribution. "He worked for their cause. Why doesn't Raj make some effort on the same lines?" he asks.

Raj hails from a humble family. "My parents were poor peasants and I had to face tremendous discrimination. We were treated like dirt," says Raj.

He adds that he "always wanted to dedicate his life to the people." It was economic compulsion that forced him to join the civil services in 1989. But his career as an officer in the Indian Revenue Service was marred by internal complaints about his conduct. Four years ago, Raj went on leave. Sources say that he feared a department inquiry and took leave following a humiliating incident at work.

His wife Seema Raj is also an IRS officer and converted to Buddhism on November 4 with their two children, Abhiraj and Saveri. Interestingly, Seema is not a Dalit but a Khatri.

Wife Seema Raj is also an IRS officer
and converted to Buddhism on November 4 with their two children,
Abhiraj and Saveri (right)

A former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ram Raj started dabbling in politics early. Even during his days in the income-tax department, he tried to start a parallel trade union for SC/STs. His attempts to cosy up with Ram Vilas Paswan and Mayawati did not meet with much success, though. These days Raj is seen often in the company of BJP leader Suraj Bhan, the Governor of Himachal Pradesh.

The November 4 rally has been termed by many as being an exercise in self-promotion rather than a means of salvation to India's oppressed. Thunders an angry Giriraj Kishore, senior vice-president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad: "The only purpose of the rally is to establish [Ram Raj] politically, but he will not be able to gain political mileage. The BJP vote bank is not threatened by this political drama."

Everyone knows, however, that the large membership of the confederation, which Raj claims numbers 40 lakh, is a potential vote bank. His political aspirations are clear when he states that parties have made the rally a political issue and are blocking his way; now he might well give them a taste of their own medicine. "You can see the support I enjoy," he gloats.

Only, Raj's claim of millions turning up for the conversion rally fell flat. Some 30,000 people gathered at the venue, Babasaheb Ambedkar Bhavan, a last-minute shift from the original venue, the Ramlila Ground, as the police had been given orders to ban the event fearing a law and order problem. But Raj sticks to his number of one million. "Ten lakh Dalits entered the capital," he maintains, alleging that they were stopped by Delhi Police at Nizamuddin, Badarpur, Dhaula Kuan and Wazirabad borders. On the orders of the Prime Minister's Office, he adds. "The order to ban the rally has come from the PMO; the police are incapable of it."

Those who came for the rally had different aims and grouses. Piraji Hingoli is a Dalit from Nanded. "I am not allowed to enter the temple in my village. My mother cannot draw water from the well," he says angrily. He believes that Raj is an incarnation of Babasaheb. "He will liberate us, I have faith in him."

Hardev Ram, a Ramdasia Sikh from Sangrur in Punjab, is sceptical. A teacher, he is tired of the discrimination he faces as a Dalit. "About 10,000 Ramdasiyas have come from Punjab, but whether we will convert will be decided later. Let us see how it goes," says he, adding that he does not believe that a simple conversion will change the situation much.

Narender's motive to participate in the rally is far from lofty. This college student from Ajmer came to Delhi because it gave him an opportunity to see the capital at someone else's expense. (Raj maintains that the participants travelled at their own expense, but this was refuted by a number of people present at the rally.) "These leaders came to our college and told us about the conversions, so we thought why not. We do not lose anything," shrugs Narender.

He got converted by repeating the hymns that Raj chanted. For those who did not make it to Ambedkar Bhavan, Raj announced that they had automatically become Buddhists by their mere efforts to march to Delhi to convert.

The mass conversion has, however, failed to find favour with a majority of Buddhists, who see the move as a threat to their religion. T.K. Lochan Tulku Rin Poche, a Buddhist scholar and member of the National Commission for Minorities, says that such an event could pose a problem. "The act is provocative and threatens our community since the anger of other communities will be aimed at Buddhists," he says.

Lochan also refuses to recognise the conversion. "It did not take place at a sacred place, nor were there any eminent teachers or scholars present, so how can we accept this as a conversion?"

Ram Raj scoffs at such talk. He prefers to focus on the task at hand. By changing his name he rejected Ram as a God; Udit means 'the one who has arisen'. Points out a critic: "He chose the right name, for this is his rise on the political platform."

IDENTITY CRISIS
Dalits in UP switch to Buddhism, creating tension

Ram Raj's dream of converting one million Dalits in New Delhi might have fizzled out, but near the capital you can see his men speedily carrying out the task of propagating Buddhism. The Buddhist Society of India, founded by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in 1954, has branches all over the country and claims to have converted millions of Dalits to Buddhism over the years.

Nothing to lose but your religion: Converts at a Buddhist temple in Meerut district

"We organise mass conversions during Buddhist festivals,"says Harbhajan Singh Bodh, former president of the Meerut chapter of the Buddhist Society. Kavita Bodh, who was a Jatav earlier, is a convert from Abdullahpur village in Meerut district. She appears satisfied with her new religion which she says has brought her peace, but her head and face are covered, in accordance with her former faith. Breaking away from the past is not easy. This is also true with Pushpa Bodh: among the pictures of Buddha and Babasaheb in her home is an image of a Hindu deity.

Almost 250 families in Abdullahpur who have converted to Buddhism, in the last five years, congregate at the Buddhist temple in the village. Statues and cassettes extolling Buddhism, and Babasaheb's writings and speeches, especially adapted for children, are freely distributed. But the calm in the village is fragile and conceals simmering tension.

Abdullahpur, which is dominated by Muslims and Jatavs, has been targeted for conversions. "There is a lot of Buddhist propaganda," says villager Harprakash Jatav. "Our community turns against those who convert since they have abondoned our faith." Thus marriages have become a problem since finding matches for the new converts is not easy.

In Dayampur, a Jatav-dominated village, Buddhism has come in only recently. On entering the village, a Buddhist temple or vihara comes into view. Lilavati Devi, a recent convert, doesn't understand her new religion yet. Yes, Buddha is her God, but so is Gauri-Shankar. She has just finished fasting in honour of Parvati.

"A large number of villagers went to Delhi for the mass conversion on November 4," says Dr Om Prakash Jatav, a resident of Dayampur and member of the Bahujan Samaj Party. The creation of a new religion has destabilised caste equations and rules of etiquette in the village, a trend that worries Dr Jatav. "Traditional Jatavs are outraged at the new converts for abandoning their old ways," he says. "Conversion doesn't help elevate the status of Dalits. The Brahmins and other upper castes still treat them as untouchables."

According to Chandra Bhan Prasad, eminent Dalit author, "Over the years, when Dalits converted to Islam, Sikhism or Christianity, they did not lose their Dalit identity. They were primarily Dalits, and then Christians or Sikhs. Conversion is not the answer to the exploitation of Dalits." However, on records, the Hindu status of the converts is retained. "Most of the converts are illiterate, and rarely change their religion in government records or during the census," says Harbhajan Singh Bodh. Though Harbhajan had been a Buddhist for over a decade, it was only during the last census that he registered as one.

Conversions are gradually changing the social fabric in the western belt of UP. What it may lead to is hard to fathom. But the hotheads in the VHP have readymade answers. It means trouble, they say.
Prerna Singh Bindra/Abdullahpur

 

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