A sort of victory

October 14, 1956: the day Ambedkar became a Buddhist

By Politics and Play: Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 14.10.16
B.R. Ambedkar at a public meeting in Delhi, 1955

My favourite newspaper no longer exists. It was called the Bombay Chronicle, and it was founded in 1910 as a nationalist alternative to the British-owned and British-oriented Times of India. In the first half of the 20th century, Bombay was an incredibly exciting place to live and work in. It was British India's commercial capital, and also the epicentre of the film industry, of nationalist politics, and of much else besides. The excitement and intensity of the times was vividly captured in the pages of the Bombay Chronicle. The newspaper had many fine reporters and two outstanding editors: B.G. Horniman, who was at the helm in its early years, and S.A. Brelvi, who edited it in the 1920s and 1930s.

When I thought of writing a column on B.R. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism, it was to the old files of Bombay Chronicle that I turned. I knew the paper had covered Ambedkar's activities ever since he entered public life, and it would be interesting to see what it said about the last major event of his career. Fortunately, the newspaper was still around to cover the event, although by this time Horniman and Brelvi were both dead.

Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in Nagpur on October 14, 1956, that is, exactly 60 years ago today. I shall come presently to the ceremony and its coverage in the Bombay Chronicle, but first I must provide some context. In October 1935, upper-caste Hindus in a Gujarati village named Kavitha boycotted untouchables for daring to ask for their children to be admitted to the local school. When Ambedkar heard of this incident, he said that "if we were members of another faith none would dare treat us so". He told his followers to "choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment". On Ambedkar's advice, a meeting of the Depressed Classes held in Nasik passed a resolution urging them to leave Hinduism and instead embrace a religion that gave them equal status with its other members.

Ambedkar expressed his intention to severe his connection with Hinduism in October, 1935. Yet it took him another 21 years to act on this. Why? One reason was that he wished to carefully consider all the options. Another was his preoccupation with urgent questions of reform and representation, that needed attention on a daily basis.

After Ambedkar said he would leave Hinduism, both Muslim and Christian missionaries reached out to him. He rejected their overtures, in part because these religions were not of Indic origin. He briefly considered conversion to Sikhism, till he found that the Sikhs had reproduced the Hindu caste system in their own congregations.

The search continued. From the 1940s, Ambedkar became increasingly attracted to Buddhism, studying and writing about the Buddha and his legacy. In December, 1954, he attended a World Buddhist Conference in Rangoon. By now he had decided to embrace Buddhism. However, his political and social reform activities, and bouts of ill-health, delayed the actual conversion.

In May, 1956, Ambedkar completed a book called The Buddha and his Dhamma, and sent it off to the printers. Now, he formally announced his plans to become a Buddhist. The place he had chosen for his conversion was Nagpur, a city where he had a large and loyal following; the day he had chosen was Sunday, October 14, also observed that year as Vijay Dashami in the Hindu calendar.

A correspondent from the Bombay Chronicle had got to Nagpur early. From a week before the ceremony, he reported, there were long lines outside the office of Ambedkar's Scheduled Caste Federation in Nagpur, as thousands of people wished to register to take part. From the afternoon of Friday the 12th, "all incoming trains, buses and other vehicles were overcrowded with the followers of Dr. Ambedkar for the conversion ceremony".

The conversion took place, as planned, on October 14. The next day's Bombay Chronicle had a front-page report, which noted that "thousands of people almost in unbroken waves had been moving in the place since early morning. Like a huge avalanche, welling crowds rolled down on the streets for a long period blocking all vehicular traffic". This "ceremony without a parallel in any part of the globe was held within an enclosure of one million square feet of open ground on the outskirts of the city which presented an immense sea of human heads". There were more than three lakh followers of Ambedkar - men, women and children - who embraced Buddhism on the day.

Ambedkar and his wife, Savita bai, were the first to be initiated, being received into their new religion by an 83-year-old monk from Burma named Bhikhu Chandramony. They took the pledges the monk asked them to, after which Ambedkar administered the pledge en masse in Marathi to his assembled followers. Ambedkar, reported the Bombay Chronicle, was wearing "a spotless white dress". As he climbed the rostrum with his wife for the initiation ceremony, "thunderous cheers greeted him", while "scores of cameras clicked".

The pledges that Ambedkar and his followers took were (in English translation): "I will not practice untouchability and will regard all human beings as equal.

"I will now observe in my daily life [the] panch-sheel of non-killing, non-stealing, non-indulgence in wrongful sexual behaviour, abstinence from drink, and from falsehood.

"I believe Buddhism is the only true religion as it rests on the three cardinal principles of knowledge, compassion and duty and therefore I am today taking a new birth by discarding Hinduism and embracing Buddhism."

The next day, Monday the 15th, Ambedkar addressed a mammoth rally of his followers, to explain why he had converted to Buddhism. Humans, he said, had always struggled for self-reflection. While economic betterment and seats in legislature were important, argued Ambedkar, "religion as an article of faith was absolutely essential for all-round development". And here "the dogma of Hinduism was the greatest stumbling block to the emancipation of the Harijans". (Harijans was the term used in the Chronicle - the term used by Ambedkar in Marathi was surely something else.) Ambedkar, the report continued, said that "there was nothing in Hinduism to enthuse anyone other than Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. They had therefore to take this crucial decision and embrace the new faith". Ambedkar then "promised his followers to clear all their doubts about the new step through books that he would write shortly on the subject". However, in the meantime "they should make the new religion acceptable and respectable to the masses of the country".

Although Buddhism was of Indian origin, it had since died out in its country of birth, while flourishing elsewhere. Ambedkar therefore knew that questions would be raised about possible foreign influences on his decision. So, in this public rally the day after his conversion, he categorically stated, "I will not ask for any foreign aid to this new faith. I have taken the step. They may or may not give money. I want to depend on the people of this country." Addressing his followers, Ambedkar continued, "If you decided to give five per cent of your income for the sake of social work and the new religion we will be able to uplift not only this country but the entire world."

Why did Ambedkar choose October 14 as the day of his conversion to Buddhism? Was it because it was a Sunday, or because it was such an important day in the Hindu calendar? If the latter, did he see his act as a sort of victory or Vijay too, since by converting to Buddhism, he and his followers were liberating themselves from the caste discrimination practised by Hindus?

The sources are silent on these questions. But more interesting by far is another speculation: what if Ambedkar had not passed away so soon after his conversion to Buddhism? As it happened, he died a mere seven weeks after this ceremony in Nagpur. He was then in his mid-sixties. Had he lived for another decade, surely many more former untouchables would have been inspired to follow him towards Buddhism. They would have had access to the books Ambedkar proposed to write on the subject, using which a new generation of Dalit Buddhists could or would have made "the new religion acceptable and respectable to the masses of the country". A mass conversion, numbering in the millions rather than (as actually was the case) a few lakhs, of Dalits to Buddhism would have had a profound transformative effect on the social and political history of India.

There, perhaps, lies the larger tragedy of Ambedkar's early death. Had he lived another 10 or 15 years, and overseen the embracing of Buddhism by tens of millions of Indians, the only way Hindus could have effectively met the challenge was to confront head-on the shocking iniquities of the caste system. But the great emancipator passed away, and we Hindus returned soon enough to our ancient and deeply prejudiced ways.