issue 17 winter 01
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Mass Bid For Freedom

Forty-five years after Dr Ambedkar initiated a wave of conversions to Buddhism by 15 million Dalits (people regarded as Untouchables under the Hindu caste system), a second wave of conversions may be gathering. Organisers predicted, before the mass conversion ceremony in Delhi, that 1 million people were set to become Buddhists. Dalit leaders in Orissa, Kerala and Punjab were also seriously considering leading their communities - whose members number several million - into Buddhism. The new conversion movement has been instigated by Ram Raj, a leader of Dalit government workers, whose organisation The Lord Buddha Club gathered an estimated one million people at a Delhi gathering in December 2000.

In recent years caste has been a growing force in Indian politics and the reactionary Hindu party, the BJP, is in government. India is modernising and the old system is becoming unacceptable to many; however, at the same time, post-Independence provisions that have helped the Dalits improve their position are being eroded. Ram Raj has waged a campaign to protect the allocation of a proportion of government jobs to Dalits, which is threatened by a constitutional review and by the privatisation of many government services. The decision to turn to Buddhism in response to these difficulties testifies to the continuing influence of Dr Ambedkar and his vision for Dalit emancipation.