Frustrated over the discrimination and injustice meted out to his untouchables community, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar vowed in Yeola in Nashik district in 1935 that: “I may have born as a Hindu but will not die as a Hindu.” When Dr Ambedkar made this pledge, he was already acknowledged as the sole rightful representative of the untouchables' community in the country.
At the Round Table Conferences, he represented his deprived community. Other leaders like Mahatma Gandhi too were working towards bringing in social equality in the Indian society but unlike them, Dr Ambedkar was one of these most deprived sections of the society and his conversion pledge had borne out of the unbearable sufferings and miseries of this community. Dr Ambedkar’s pledge to give up Hinduism, therefore, sent tremors in the Indian social and religious circles with various Hindu leaders trying to persuade him to reconsider his decision while leaders of other religions tried to woo him into their religions.
However, Dr Ambedkar did not implement his conversion threat immediately. He waited for nearly two decades to give enough time for the Hindu high caste social and religious leaders to improve a lot of the untouchables. When he realised it was futile to wait endlessly, he, along with his lakhs of followers, embraced Buddhism in Nagpur in 1956, just a couple of months before his death.
Last week, a group of Dalits in Una town in Gujarat embraced Buddhism and these included the four youths who were tried and flogged in public for allegedly slaughtering a cow two years ago. The Una flogging incident which generated outcry all over the country and the recent conversion only underlined that there has been absolutely no improvement in the social and economic situation of the Dalits even seven decades after the practice of untouchability was made an offence by the country’s Constitution.
In the past few centuries, many members of the untouchables' community have embraced Islam or Christianity in order to seek better social life and end the inhuman existence imposed on them. In order to prevent such mass conversions, many Hindu social and religious leaders had tried to end the social inequality in the Hindu society.
Mahatma Gandhi who referred to untouchability as the greatest blot on Hinduism too earnestly worked very hard to end this inhuman practice. Revolutionary leader Vir Vinayak Damodar Savarkar after his release from the Andaman prison and during his internment at Ratnagiri had devoted himself to end the practice of discrimination and the divisive caste system in Hindu religion. Vir Savarkar built a temple, Patit Pavan Mandir, in 1931 in the coastal town, where entry was open to members of all castes including the untouchables. After the Independence, socialist leader and Marathi litterateur Pandurang Sadashiv Sane alias Sane Guruji undertook fast unto death to demand entry to the Dalits at Pandarpur’s Vithoba temple. Unfortunately, all these efforts and movements have still not wiped out this greatest blot on the Indian culture as the incidents like Una flogging have proved time and again.
This unfortunate situation has persisted notwithstanding the anti-discriminatory legal provisions. On the contrary, over the years, the Indian society is being further compartmentalised into various divisions. Incidents like denial of permission to ride a horse or take out a marriage procession to members of the lower castes are still being reported in some states. Inter-caste or inter-religious marriages also continue to be a major taboo in Indian society, irrespective of the educational background of the people. Intensive measures need to be continued further in order to resolve this logjam and thus prevent further social tensions in the country.