the first time in Tamil Nadu, over two hundred dalits converted to Buddhism
at a ceremony in Perambalur largely ignored by the media. The conversions
put the spotlight back on a community that is still treated as untouchable,
reports PC Vinoj Kumar
defining moment: dalit monks honour an Ambedkar bust
October 14, 1956: Babasaheb Ambedkar, India’s constitutional
father, embraces Buddhism at Diksha Bhoomi, Nagpur.
October 14, 2004: Dalits from three southern states recite
the 22 vows, which were pronounced by Ambedkar, to convert to Buddhism at
a ceremony in Perambalur, Tamil Nadu.
“I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, nor shall I worship
them. I was born a Hindu because I had no choice. But I will not die a Hindu
because I do have a choice,” hundreds of dalits, their heads tonsured
before the ceremony, repeated after a monk in ochre robes.
The ceremony was the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu. For centuries, dalits
here have faced discrimination in a caste-entrenched society. Tea stalls
have continued with a notorious system of two sets of glasses: one for the
upper castes and another for the dalits. But last week, hundreds of dalits
made a public display of their disaffection. They left the Hindu fold to
The mass conversion took
place on the outskirts of Perambalur, roughly 64 km from Trichy. All morning,
dalits streamed into the town. They came from various parts of Tamil Nadu,
and the neighbouring states of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. The largest contingent
of about 500 people was from the state’s Pudukottai district. They
came in a convoy of 10 vans. Five hundred metres from the venue they stopped
and walked to the pandal in a procession.
still face discrimination. In village teashops, separate tumblers
are kept for them. Not too long ago, a dalit was made to eat faeces
in Thinniyam. We don’t want to remain in a religion that does
not treat us as equals
“I don’t want to practice a religion that treats me as an untouchable.
My family is converting and so are 125 others who have come with me. I don’t
care what benefits I stand to lose by converting to Buddhism. I can work
hard and feed my family,” asserts P. Thanasekaran, an auto driver
It was a defining moment for most of the people present. Volunteers of the
Ambedkar Youth Front (ayf), the organisers, have reason to believe that
a new era is in the making. For over two decades, the little known ayf has
been working for dalit emancipation and spreading Buddhism in the State.
“We identified to our people those who were denying them their rights.
We have been telling them to assert their rights,” says ayf state
president K. Kandasamy. According to him, “Ambedkar showed the right
path. By embracing Buddhism he sent a clear message to dalits. We are just
following his path.” Obviously the notion was appealing. Hundreds
of dalits converted last week.