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Untouchable? Who us?

For 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

the 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 embrace Buddhism.

Dalits 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
M. Thangasamy
Bhel official
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.

“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 from Chennai.

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.

October 30, 2004
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