I met Professor Saddhananda Fulzele, the organizer of the great 1956 conversion ceremony, in a university building adjacent to the Dikshabhumi conversion ground: Dr Ambedkar College, which Prof. Fulzele founded and developed into a top-ranking college. I asked him to tell me his memories of Dr Ambedkar and 1956.
“I have known about Dr Ambedkar as long as I have known about the world. When I was growing up my family kept his picture as one of their few possessions and worshipped him as if he was a God. My father was a landlord and we got news of the wider world, even in our remote village. I first saw him in 1942, when I was just 14 years old: he had left mainstream politics to form his own party, the Scheduled Caste Federation, and when he came to Nagpur for a conference, I saw him on the dais.
I saw him again in 1946, when he was Labour Minister and he came to Nagpur for another meeting. He arrived in a large saloon car, and his face was shining – radiant – and his whole bearing was very impressive. All of his followers respected him as if he was a higher being. What he had achieved was so immense for someone from our background, and he carried our hopes for a better future.
By 1956, when Babasaheb declared that he was to convert to Buddhism, I had been a member of the Municipal Council, and he called several of us to Delhi to tell us the date and discuss arrangements. He was very concerned that everything should be done properly, so I was sent to meet him personally. I sat on the verandah of his house and he came in supported by a stick in one hand, with his other arm propped up by his assistant. He asked about the arrangements and told me to find a suitable piece of land.
The plot I found was where we are sitting now – Diksabhumi – though at that time it was agricultural land outside the town. Nagpur has grown so much since then that now it seems close to the centre. I had to work hard to get the land from the government, but eventually all the arrangements were made, while my colleague arranged the ceremony itself. I was 28 years old.
On October 14th, as soon as Babasaheb stood on the dais everyone was cheerful. There were so many people – now they say around half-a-million – all of us dressed in the white clothes of Buddhist lay-people. People had traveled great distances to be there, as well as coming from the local region, so members of many castes and communities were present.
Babasaheb stood on the dais and rested his head before the Buddha for two or three minutes without moving. He was so moved, so emotional, and the whole crowd was calm and quiet. Then he took diksa from the presiding monk, and after that he repeated the verses for all of us, including the 22 vows. So we took diksa from Babasaheb.
I cannot describe what I felt that day. I do not have the words in English, but I can say that for all of us it was as if our lives started anew. It was as if we had stepped out of the darkness and into the light, or we had been released from prison. For so many thousands of years our people had been treated as animals, but now we were human beings. We could hold our heads high, and I never lost that feeling.
I heard the news of Dr Ambedkar’s death on the radio. Everyone was crying, and yet we could not believe it was true. I rushed to get to Bombay, for the funeral in Dada, and all along the route of the funeral there were many people, all filled with intense emotion.
We made an application to the central government to have a memorial on the site of the diksa, and eventually it was granted. I became Secretary of the trust controlling the land in 1965 and I decided to start the Dr Ambedkar College as the most fitting memorial: his constant message was, ‘Educate!’ Others wanted a memorial building, and we started efforts to build one in 1972, but we were held back by lack of funds. In 1981 we celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the ceremony and the Maharashtran Chief Minster contributed money for the construction. Work continued over many years and we finished quite recently. The outer appearance is modeled on the Great Stupa at Sanchi, but ours is unique because it has a temple inside the base, and some of Dr Ambedkar’s ashes are there. It’s the biggest hollow stupa in the world, and every year a million people come to pay homage to their revered teacher.
Fifty years is a very short time in the history of a religious movement, and I think that over this period the conversion movement has had a good response. Now many communities that had no connection to Dr Ambedkar are coming to be his followers – people like Lakshman Mane. The Other Backward Castes (the OBC’s or sudras) who hated Dr Ambedkar in his lifetime now see that they will only make progress by following the path he proposed. There are movements now in many states, including Tamil Nadu, where the leaders include many intellectuals and educated people.
Dr Ambedkar dead is more powerful than he was alive. Many of his followers have thrived: after centuries of deprivation there are now many doctors, senior government officers and people who are successful overseas from our community. They have been uplifted by Dr Ambedkar’s movement, which has brought a very good change in Indian society.”