The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Dalit conversion mission in Gujarat

Vadodara, Oct. 7: He is a man with a mission — converting the Dalits of Gujarat to Buddhism. Vishwa Boudh Sangh general secretary Bhante Sanghpriya went ahead with a programme on Sunday at which more than 3,000 Dalits embraced Buddhism, without the mandatory permission from local authorities.

The turnout was less than expected as the administration had denied the Boudh Sangh permission for mass conversion. However, the message of Dalit assertion from the New Sama grounds was loud enough to reach the opponents of religious conversion.

Sanghpriya, who is a household name among Gujarat Dalits clamouring for a respectable social identity, leads by example. The 28-year-old, who has been camping in the state for the last two years, himself embraced Buddhism, along with his father, when he was 12.

A resident of Sidharthnagar, the birthplace of Buddha, Sanghpriya has become an inspiration for the leaderless Dalits. He is aggressive, confident and educated and is doing a doctorate in Pali from Delhi University.

“He is a clear-headed man who knows how to inspire Dalits,” says Rahul Rastrapal, who has served as jail superintendent in 14 districts of Gujarat and has been working with Sanghpriya since he retired two years ago. Rastrapal is one of the scores of Dalits who have been the backbone of Sanghpriya’s mission to convert the 7.5 per cent Dalit population of the state to Buddhism.

The conversion programme is gaining momentum with people such as Rastrapal — who teaches Ambedkar’s ideology in two Buddha Vihars in Surat where he is settled after retirement — and Shyamlal — who recently retired from the income-tax commission — joining the campaign. Shyamlal was one of the Dalits who embraced Buddhism on Sunday. Manoj Goel, a senior bank officer, is actively associated with the Boudh Sangh, as is H.. Patel, who recently retired as a senior ONGC official.

Haridas is a top ONGC official associated with the movement while still employed. So is Pankaj Sindhe, principal of a Surat-based high school where he also propagates Ambedkar’s teachings.

Sanghpriya claims that many retired and serving dalit IAS and IPS officers support him. This was confirmed by several retired officers present at Sunday’s conversion programme.

The Boudh Sangh’s function was undisturbed. The VHP, which has been campaigning against religious conversion, chose to ignore the function. It neither issued any statement nor threatened to disrupt the ceremony.

Even the local administration was in a dilemma about taking action against Sanghpriya.

“I do not call it a conversion. Only a religious meeting was held and no ritualistic conversion was carried out,” asserted Vadodara police chief Sudhir Sinha. According to him, the Boudh Sangh did not defy the Gujarat Religious Freedom Act, 2003 — the anti-conversion law that came into force on April 18.

However, district collector Bhagesh Jha terms such a programme a defiance of law. “If they carried out conversion without permission, action will be taken,” asserts the district collector. Jha says he is not aware that any conversion was carried out and says he is waiting for the police report.

Although dalits in Gujarat started embracing Buddhism long ago, only now are mass conversions being organised in defiance of law, say sources. Some dalits also maintained their Hindu identity to get the benefits of job reservation, says social activist Achut Yagnik.

“No dalit in Gujarat will remain a Hindu if reservation is abolished,” says dalit activist Valji Patel.

“With Brahmins seeking reservation in some areas, the quotas for dalits seems to have already lost its meaning,” adds Rastrapal.

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