I have already described the scene at Diksabhumi on Monday 2nd October, when a million or more people thronged to the site of Dr Ambedkar’s own conversion. I want to add here to what I wrote in my blog that day.
I traveled into the center of Nagpur with an American writer called Leona, Milind– who was there to take photographs - and Christopher Queen, who is a lecturer on religion at Harvard University and the leading writer on both engaged Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar’s movement. We were rooming together at Nagaloka, a Buddhist center on the outskirts of town where were both attending a conference that brought Buddhists from around the world together with Indian followers of Dr Ambedkar.
Chris is a large, ebullient man brimming with ideas and anecdotes who seems to know everyone in the Ambedkarite world. ‘What do they mean: “All India will become Buddhist”?’ he said in the taxi – as we discussed the conversion ceremony that had taken place at Nagaloka that morning. ‘These people need to live in a world with Moslems and Hindus and all the rest. Dr Ambedkar was a wanted to reconstruct the Buddhist tradition so it met the needs of his time. But can the Ambedkarites do the same with Ambedkar’s own ideas? Nagaloka should be teaching comparative religion and they really need to drop the 22 vows.’ There are additional commitments made by Ambedkarites when they convert that enjoin renunciation of Hindu practices. ‘They need to say what they are for, and leave aside what they are against.’
On the route into town I was more alert than before to the signs of Buddhism and Dr Ambedkar all around me. His face stared down from hoardings alongside a changing selection of religious figures and smiling politicians: articulating political semiotics far beyond my comprehension. Some of three-wheelers that belched fumes and criss-crossed the traffic also flew above them the multi-coloured Buddhist flag. It’s unknown in most Buddhist countries, but Dr Ambedkar sympathized with the approach of Col. Olcott, the American Theosophist who a century ago tried to convince Asia’s disparate Buddhists that they were indeed members of the same faith and should agree on common symbols – like the flag – and shared basic tenets.
Dr Ambedkar shared Olcott’s modernizing agenda. He was a rationalist who looked to the European Enlightenment for an alternative to the traditional thinking that underpins caste. Having studied and discarded Marxism he also realized that a purely rational philosophy could not touch the depths of the issues facing his followers. That’s where the Buddha came in. They needed a new identity that was free from the stigma of untouchability, and which offered dignity and self-confidence to a community that had imbibed the view that they were less than human. He found that teaching in the Buddha, but he sought a modern Buddhism stripped of notions of karma, rebirth and the emphasis on suffering expressed in traditional formulations of the Four Noble Truths, which he thought reaffirmed social hierarchies and caste-thinking.
Central Nagpur was surprisingly quiet – no sign of the vast throng we were anticipating. Then we passed a police barrier as we approached Diksabhumi and and it was clear that we were part of a stream of people who were heading the same way. But even here, the hotel where we were to meet Chris’ friend, Rahul Deepankar, an American-based dalit who was a successful doctor and the President of one of the main US dalit organisations, seemed untouched by the event. A sign in the lobby read: ‘Congratulations on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.’ For the caste Hindus who made up the majority of the hotel’s residents Ambedkar was invisible to them, his memory still eclipsed – as he is in the West - by his great, traditionalist, Brahmin rival.
We set off on foot for the conversion ground with Rahul and another man – a stocky dark-skinned fellow dressed in white, who I had initially assumed was part of the hotel staff. Turning a corner we were into Ambedkarite territory: a two-way street in which a solid crowd of people thronged towards Diksabhumi in one direction and another crowd, including those who had completed their visit, flooded the other way. Along the road were stalls promoting the many political interests that cluster around the Ambedkarite movement, while for others – selling rosettes and food and trinkets - this was another chance to make a few rupees.
Arriving at Diksabhumi itself we were confronted suddenly by a great, white, gleaming stupa adorned, at least for this day, with flickering lamps. Its familiar shape – a cube topped by a dome topped by a spire - rose hundreds of feet above us. ‘Keep together!’ Rahul called, as we looked, baffled, at the great sea of people before us. But then whistles started to blow around us and several figures wearing crisp shirts, military-style fatigues and little blue caps bustled around us crying, ‘You come, you come.’ We turned right, into a compound at the side of the main field and suddenly there were more whistles and a flurry of blue-capped bodies. As we westerners stood uneasily, camera-laden and sweating, the several dozen men and women in the formed ranks, saluted and cried out in unison, ‘Babasaheb Ambedkar, kai jai!’ I fumbled in my bags for the BBC recording equipment I was carrying for a contact in the World Service who is making a documentary about the conversions but couldn’t make it in time for the 2nd and had asked me to make some recordings of key events before she got there. I have quite shamelessly used this connection to make contacts and open doors: the letters BBC still carry weight in India.
Looking up, I saw our white-shirted companion now clasping a microphone and shouting passionately into it, his face puffed with intensity. After every few words he paused and the sergeant major marshalling the ranked blue-caps bellowed a cry that was echoed by the ranks. Rahul murmered. ‘This is the Ambedkarite youth movement, “Samata Sanak Daal”, who marshal the activities, and he is the all-India General Secretary.’ Far from being swamped in the crowd it seemed we were celebrity visitors, and far from being in danger of getting lost, we had our own cadre of security. Teaming up with Chris was the best thing I had done – he is very well connected in the Ambedkarite community.
We each said a few words, and pretty soon the microphone was passed to me. In a rush of adrenaline I was saying, ‘In my country I have heard a phrase, which is close to my heart and I have heard again today: ‘Jai Bhim!,’ I cried. ‘Jai Bhim!’ they shouted back. ‘I know you are very proud of Dr Ambedkar, because he was one of your people and he is a very great man. You think he is your teacher, but I have to tell you that is not true.’ Silence. ‘He is also my teacher! And Buddhists from every country can learn from the words of Dr Ambedkar, and you are not alone in your faith!’ More cries from the ranks. Finally I held up the great, phallic, red-tipped BBC microphone. ‘People around the world will know about your celebrations, so please let me hear you cry again, ‘Jai Bhim!’ I doubt that cry will ever be broadcast, but at least I can write about it here.
Where had this sudden onset of oratory come from? Was I intoxicated by the excitement of the day and the exhilaration of finding myself a centre of attention? I was moved, and happy to have said what I had. The more I had learnt about Dr Ambedkar, the more impressed I had grown. But most of all I was moved by the intensity of the devotion still on display. That power of that chubby, bespectacled figure, who was born an ‘untouchable’ in village India, but had somehow won a PhD from Columbia and framed the Indian constitution, was all around me. For these people, and their two hundred million companions across India, he represented the hope that they might be able to take their place in society as human beings, having been regarded for millennia as animals or slaves. And beckoning within that aspiration to dignity and equality was the mysterious promise of the boundlessness of that humanity. The Ambedkarites and the rest of India’s banished classes are forgotten people in the wider world. My moment of melodrama expressed, at the very least, sympathy for their position and a wish to do what I could to help share their voice.