By Dale Luis Menezes*
The “institutional murder” of a Dalit PhD scholar, Rohith Vemula in January this year, saw the launch of a fiery protest across India. Rohith was driven to commit suicide due to the institutional harassment meted out to him because he was Dalit. While the investigation into the matter has not proceeded in any meaningful direction leading to justice, the protesting students at the Hyderabad Central University – the epicenter of the protests – have witnessed repeated and brutal attacks by the State to stifle the voice of those who demand strict action against the guilty and those complicit in the violence and discrimination.
While the search for justice is on, this year’s 125th Ambedkar Jayanti saw the mother and brother of the deceased Rohith converting to Buddhism. Conversion is usually in the ‘national’ news nowadays only with ‘ghar wapasi’-like incidents in which minoritized communities are targeted, often violently; while violence against such communities continues unabated everyday. The conversion of the Vemulas is, therefore, a very different report and as such should be used as an occasion to reflect on the place of conversion in the social and political landscape of India.
Radhika and Raja Vemula’s actions should be understood as a form of political protest and an assertion of the essential dignity of the human being. The conversion to Buddhism of the Vemulas came after their repeated calls for justice, to the State and civil society, fell on deaf ears. Such a mode of protest is not new to the Dalit movement in India. One can refer to the first of such protests in 1956 when Dr. B. R. Ambedkar along with half-a-million followers embraced Buddhism, in order to walk out of the oppression of the Hindu caste system. Of course this conversion took years in preparation and theological reflection.
This sentiment of protest is precisely what Raja Vemula expressed in his press note before embracing Buddhism. He said that the conversion was due to a desire to change their lives, a life of “[t]he kind…that Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted us to lead. A life without blind belief. A life based on compassion and respect for fellow human beings. A life of dignity and self respect. A life outside the Hindu caste system”.
Though conversion-as-protest has more than half-a-century of history, yet conversions are generally perceived as ‘de-stabilizing’ by the ‘secular’ or left-wing and right-wing elites in India, thus necessitating suspicion. In this imagination, conversion is an act that violates the soul of India.
That conversion movements have been markers of protest against violence and oppression of marginalized communities is something that Indian nationalism has never properly acknowledged. Thus, the violence that has marked – and continues to mark – everyday realities of marginalized groups is conveniently not discussed. Which is precisely why the recent conversion of the Vemulas should remind us of the banal and non-banal violent conditions prevailing in India and that through conversion communities attempt to better their lives.
Following this line of thought, one should also re-think about how we feel and understand the history of Christianization in Goa. That today if we find a Goan landscape dotted by whitewashed churches it is not because of a violent process of proselytization but because Christianization had provided a way out of the violence that had marred the social and political landscape of Goa. Indeed, recent historical scholarship has strongly emphasized this point.
The fact that conversion to Christianity and Islam is seen as ‘de-stabilizing’ while that to Buddhism is not seen as such, exposes the cunning logic of Indian nationalism. The logic operates on two levels. The ‘foreign’ or Abrahamic religions are assumed to be fundamentally violent. Thus, Christianity is represented as responsible for forced conversions and Islam identified as having spread through the sword. However, conversion to Buddhism is understood differently. Buddhism cast as an Indic religion – or a religious tradition emerging from India – and in many ways appropriated as a sect of Hinduism could be used to deflect the radical, anti-caste edge of that re-articulated religious tradition.
Mass conversion, whether to Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism, have always been a response to pre-existing violence and oppression of the society, and often also involves a spiritual preparation. These facts are always downplayed. The case of Ambedkar’s conversion in the textbooks is quite illustrative, for it is portrayed as an aberration in an otherwise peaceful Indian society.
Finally, detractors of the conversion of the Vemulas would predictably complain about the ‘ulterior’ political motives and how such conversions lack the necessary religiosity and spirituality fundamental to any religious practice. To them we could, perhaps, point out that religions such as Buddhism and Christianity emerged as political protests: the former against the excesses of the Brahmanical religion, and the latter against the oppression of the Roman Empire.
To protest oppression is not to have ‘ulterior’ political motives, but to articulate a utopian and humane vision for the society. In the words of Raja Vemula, “From today, my mother and I will be truly free. Free from shame. Free from daily humiliation. Free from the guilt of praying to the same God in whose name our people have been tortured for centuries”.