Many of us know that in India the ‘Untouchables’, who now call themselves dalits, were the bottom of the heap. Below the lowest rung of the caste system, they were literally outcasts, but with the outlawing of caste under laws framed by Dr Ambedkar shortly after Indian Independence they were given a place as ‘scheduled castes’, and they benefited from many government affirmative action schemes. Beside them were ‘scheduled tribes’ – including numerous other groups outside the caste system. It is less well-known that below even the scheduled castes and tribes is another group: the nomads and outlaw tribes who fail even to register on the government statistics and social programmes. Now, under the leadership of Laksman Mane – born into a thieving community, but now a celebrated writer and activist – a significant slice of this community is embracing Buddhism.
In a special ceremony at Diksabhumi in Nagpur yesterday morning, Mane took the three Buddhist refuges along with 140 leaders of tribal communities from across Maharashtra. Following the ceremony they held a planning session in which they agreed to extend the conversion programme to the other members of their communities, who number at least 500,000. From 16 November to 16 December the leaders will hold a ‘rally’ – a grand procession across the state – that will culminate in a great ‘diksa’ or conversion meeting in Bombay. Dr Ambedkar had planned a second ceremony on this date in 1956, two months after the Nagpur event. Mane told me that he expects to see 500,000 people from this community becoming Buddhists at the Bombay event. They will be joined by many others, including those who are already Buddhists and new converts from other communities.
When I met him just before he left Nagpur, Mane - a short, solidly built man with an air of sturdy determination – told me of the inspiration he and his fellow converts had gained through the ceremony.
‘My companions left the ceremony different people from the ones who had started it. They were filled with a new inspiration and confidence. We held a planning meeting straight away, and the atmosphere was different from any we had experienced before, full of hope and determination. It was a sudden, dramatic shift. For myself, I felt a new sense of freedom.’
Like Europe’s gypsies, the nomadic and criminal groups follow a rootless life, constantly on the move, begging their food or foraging for scraps. The criminal castes survive by scavenging and stealing - that’s why the British outlawed them in 1871. But 135 years later their lifestyle continues: outside the law and on the edges of society. Many have been gathered together into compounds supported by the barest amenities. ‘These are like ghettos or concentration camps,’ Mane said.
Nomadic and criminal tribals fail to register in government statistics because they are homeless so, even though India is becoming more prosperous, they are many welfare programmes miss them out. For this reason, no one knows the numbers of criminal and nomadic tribals for sure, but a typical estimate is that in Maharashtra alone they number 8 million people, or around five percent of the population. Extrapolating that to India as a whole suggests a figure of around sixty million people living in this community.
Laksman Mane was born into the Kaikadi thieving caste: their assigned role in society is to steal, and this way of life is reinforced by pressure from other members of the community: if they don’t bring back stolen food or goods their families will beat them. Meanwhile, even those who do not steal are likely to be blamed whenever a robbery takes place, and the group regularly suffer beatings at the hands of the police. For many years Mane has urged his fellows to abandon ‘thievery.’
His family were also nomads, and he grew up traveling from place to place: an upbringing described in his celebrated autobiographical novel ‘Upra’. I asked Mane how he had gained an education and he told me: ‘I went to school - hundreds of schools. We moved on every few days, but wherever we went I was determined to get schooling. Some teachers accepted me into their class, others did not.’
Grabbing the chance to study when he could while working in numerous jobs, Mane eventually won a place at a College and gained a BA: an extraordinary achievement for a member of this community where only 0.6% can read or write. ‘Upra’ was published in 1981 and since then he has written sixteen further books, all concerned with the plight of his people.
The decision to embrace Buddhism was long pondered and was inspired by several factors. He insisted that he and his followers were not leaving Hinduism. ‘I was born into the tribal system, not the caste system or Hinduism. In our system there is no caste: we are not even ‘untouchables’. In our system we don’t believe in karma, punya (merit) or reincarnation, and we don’t worship the Hindu Gods.’ Worship in the tribal communities is directed towards ancestors.
Mane continued: ‘The tribal system is like the Buddhist system. We travel from place to place, like the monks, who the Buddha told not to stay in one place for more than three nights. Like them, we live between the village and the country.’ The tribals often dwell in squalid hutments on the edge of the villages, very different from the tree-root existence of wandering monks, who received food from the villagers. But the parallel is evocative and itextends to the attitude to property: ‘In our community we share everything. If one person gains food or money they share it with everyone else. All of us are equal: there is no social status among us and men and women are equal.’
Mane is deeply inspired by Dr Ambedkar. ‘Babasaheb [the name by which Ambedkar’s followers address their leader] gave us our rights. He is the father of the nation who framed the constitution that treats us as human beings. The problem is that those in power fail to enforce the constitution. In fact we are treated like animals.’ These tribal groups lack the most basic elements of citizenship because they are homeless, not registered with the authorities and sometimes cast as criminals. Because they do not vote, India’s politicians have been able to ignore them with impunity.
Mane was active in radical political groups such as the Dalit Panthers, but he discovered he Ambedkar’s work and became a follower in 1970. Since 1980 he has been an activist and organizer within the community. ‘I have started many social programmes, been elected to the State Assembly and mounted protests in the Assembly, but everyone ignored me.’
In adopting Buddhism, Mane has made common cause with other followers of Dr Ambedkar. ‘For many years I was a one-man army, but now that has changed. The dalit ‘untouchables’ are our elder brothers and I want to join with them. The country doesn’t accept these people, but I feel today that I have joined the mainstream. I want my people to have their just share in power, property and social standing. Dr Ambedkar said that these things should be redistributed, but peacefully - not using violence as the communists suggest.’
Observers will inevitably ask whether the conversion is genuine or if it is merely a political expedient. In India religion is a matter of identity as much – or even more - than a matter of belief, and in adopting an identity that asserts human dignity, these tribal peoples are plotting way forward that can open out from social change to spiritual change as well. I asked Mane if he wanted to see Buddhist teaching among his followers, so they understood the faith they were adopting. He replied:
‘My people need to move away from superstition and harmful livelihood such as stealing. But our main priorities are two: housing and education. Housing comes first because without a stable base nothing else is possible. Education can follow if we have houses, and I believe that in ten years we will achieve this. My programme is for 100,000 new houses: two for every village in Maharashtra; now that we have organized ourselves and taken diksa the government is paying attention in a way it has never done before. Buddhist teaching can follow – it will follow, but for now we need help, and we look to our elder brothers in Maharashtra, to Buddhists around the world, and to the foreign governments and NGOs. But today I am filled with new life and hope for the future.’