Remembering days of conversion

Dr. K. Jamanadas,

Dr. Ambedkar's Conversion

It was not within my capacity to be born in a particular religion. But though I was born as so called Hindu, I will not die as a Hindu. This was the declaration of Dr. Ambedkar made by him as early as 1935, at Yeola in Nashik district in Maharashtra. The Purpose of this writing is not to write about it, there is already a vast literature available on the subject. But there are many small points not known to public at large, and not publicized. These are of nature of personal knowledge of people like me and many like me. These are talked by me to many people on many occasions and in public meetings, specially on Deeksha Bhoomi at Chandrapur. A few friends of mine in the Ambedkarite movement, have urged strongly, that I put these facts on paper for record, on this occasion of Buddha Jayanti andstarting of Buddhist New Year.

Background preparations

It had become clear, early in 1956, that conversion to Buddhism will take place this year, but neither the venue nor the date was fixed. Perhaps, Kanpur or Bombay were the likely places. But about three months in advance, Babasaheb decided Nagpur as the venue, and 14th October as date. Mr. Wamanrao Godbole was running a Library on Buddhism, only of its kind in this region, in Sitabuldi area of Nagpur. He was summoned by Babasaheb and intimated him of the decision of Nagpur. After that, the whole atmosphere was changed for a few months. Every leader, big and small, started earnestly for the preparation. There were public meetings at all mohollas in Nagpur. S. M. Meshram, Babu Hardas Awale and Bar. Rajabhau Khobaragade were the main political leaders of Nagpur, who started organizing public opinion. The whole atmosphere was charged with a feeling of enthusiasm, vigor, excitement, and zeal about the coming event. I was hectically preparing for my final year MBBS exam in Nov./Dec. We as students decided to hold the Students' Convention on this occasion, in the Dhanwate Chambers, which was nearly next door to Hotel Shyam, where Babasaheb was scheduled to stay.

Conversion at Nagpur

All the events about the Grand Conversion ceremony are well recorded. The crowd was more than the present "Deeksha Bhoomi" could accommodate. The area beyond the road, where today there are big building was a vacant plot of land. The Deputy Mayor being an Ambedkarite the whole labour gangs of Corporation along with volunteers of Samta Sainik Dals were busy in uprooting small shrubs and clearing and cleaning the wasteland into a vast ground for the function. The stage was huge, and protected from all sides. By the side, there was a road built right from the main street to the stage for Babasaheb's car and protected by bamboo mattings from both sides. Excellent arrangement was for sound projection. All the stalls of eatables and free meals were arranged beyond the streets by various organizations.

It was ordained that those who wish to get converted, must come in white apparel, but in the markets no white cloth remained, everything exhausted, and then it had to be announced that, any clean clothes of any colour would do.

Similarly, it was declared that all those wishing to be converted should enroll themselves in Godbole's office. The rush was so much that in spite of hundreds of volunteers for record keeping, the arrangement broke down. That was the magnitude of the numbers. A conservative estimate was half a million people.

The ceremony of conversion and Babasaheb's historical speech are well documented. Prahlad Keshav Atre had come out with a special issue of "Navayug" which sold out in black at four times the price.

Students Convention

As the President of Students' organization, I led a deputation to Dr. Babasaheb to ask for his blessings for students' Convention and congratulate him on the occasion. We were led to a small hall on the second floor of Hotel Shyam after a strong security check by SSD volunteers.

As we stood in the corner, Dadasaheb Gaikwad told Babasaheb that some students have come to see him. Babasaheb thundered as to what we wanted. Everybody kept mum. Nobody dared to utter a word. After a long pause, I dared to stammer out that we came to congratulate him, and we wanted his blessings. He said something soothing and Adv. Sakharam Meshram, it was I think, who said, "Do you wish to ask Babasaheb, anything?" I gathered courage to say, Babasaheb! we are worried about our scholarships. No sooner, I uttered these words, Babasaheb started talking loudly, everybody around, and there would be about hundred people around, all sat down the floor, Babasaheb kept on talking. He said how, we students have gone lazy, are reluctant to study and avoid hard work. In spite of facilities we don't do exams. well, and the lot. Lastly, he consoled us, the facilities, he got for us was his effort and he will snatch it again for us, and that the scholarships are in his pocket. After about ten minutes speech, it was time for us to leave.

Students' Convention was well attended, there were more people than the hall could accommodate. Main speakers were Adv. S. M. Meshram and Dadasaheb Gaikwad. Many resolutions were passed and all that, but later, the police had come to our hostels repeatedly and wanted to know more and more details, which we had none.

Civic Reception

More important was Babasaheb's speech at the Civic Reception given by the Nagpur Municipal Corporation. After explaining the working of democracy in Parliament, he told the stunned gathering that there are many lady members of Parliament, who talk of Prime Minister Nehru as "aamche he, aamche te", the mode of addressing used, in Maharashtra, by women only while talking about their husbands. He said that he was ashamed that there were some Maharashtrian lady members among them. He said, he tried to apprise Nehru about this, but Nehru couldn't care less. All this obviously was a severe criticism about Nehru, but the organizations of upper castes women came down heavily on Ambedkar the next day in papers, curiously enough not for criticizing Nehru, but for defaming womanhood of Maharashtra. Such was the mentality of Press and Media in twisting the facts to suit their purpose, those days - not much different from today, Was it?

Tea Party

In the night there was a "Tea Party", only meant for senior workers of the Party from all over India, and entry was by passes. I was given three passes for students. I, our secretary Nagdeote, and a senior Ph.D. student from Hindi speaking area, attended. Babu Hardas Awale gave an introductory speech as usual in Hindi, and requested Babasaheb to address the gathering of, may be fifty or sixty people sitting around tables with the snacked served. I had heard Babasaheb on many occasions before, but that was the first time, I was hearing him talk in fluent Hindi. The speech though brief had many new points, and very scanty reports are available. He said, that we all cared more for politics than social and religious change. He had achieved everything in his life for himself. There was nothing more to be achieved for himself, "except perhaps the post of Prime Ministership", among cheers, he declared. But he was worried for all of us, as we keep on fighting amongst ourselves. He said, we were not used to work with people of other castes. Though the "Scheduled Castes Federation" would be in existence for some more time and though Buddhists, we could still be members of it, as he had already made provisions for "sympathizers", it was time we change our ways and start learning to work together with others. He was already in touch with other leaders like Lohia and others and he had prepared constitution of new party, which would be launched soon. He gave a lot of stress on mixing with the people of democratic thoughts, belonging to other castes. It is rather unfortunate, that this aspect of his speech, is totally neglected by the next generation of leaders, our predecessors.

Dattopant Thengadi in this secret meeting

What kills me most, about this tea party, is that about two three years ago, I read in some book by Dattopant Thengadi, one of the top most leaders of RSS, that he was present in this meeting as a "boy serving snacks dishes". The meeting was so select and admission was by passes and everybody had to be scrutinized on entry, how could an activist of RSS be allowed entry to such a meeting? Was there a slip in security by SSD? Was Dattopant a regular employee of Hotel Shyam and just happened to be there, around Dr. Ambedkar, when he came there or was he planted there to spy on Ambedkar, is a question I can not find any answer to. I honestly do not think he was a regular employee. Thengadi himself has not clarified, nor anybody else did, to the best of my knowledge. Anyway, it throws ample light on the working of RSS and its long time planning.

Chandrapur Conversion

Contrary to views expressed by some, the Conversion ceremony was arranged well in advance, by Bar. Rajabhau Khobaragade. Dadasaheb Gaikwad had come about two months earlier to Chandrapur, and addressed a gathering from all the district. He tried to explain what Buddhism was like. He talked at length on Babasaheb's interpretation of causes of Siddhartha leaving his kingdom and accepting "pravajja". He advised on organizational matters of Conversion at Chandrapur and need for collection of funds. After he left, the meeting of all leaders from all over the district was held to elect the Reception Committee, in "Netaji Nagar Bhavan", the Municipal Hall, then housed in a small building, where now a seven storied commercial complex is standing. Dewaji Bapu Khobaragade (Rajabhau's father) was elected as President and Ramrao Mogre as Secretary and Sant Guruji as Vice President, and many more to complete the body. All election was unopposed. The work of collection of funds started right earnest, and enthusiasm was so great that there was no shortage of funds. Next two months, I was shunting up and down from Nagpur and Chandrapur.

On 16th October, 1956, we left by morning passenger train for Chandrapur, in an uncontrollable crowd. Babasaheb was to come by Car via Umerd, Nagbhid and Mul. The present road direct from Nagpur to Chandrapur via Jam was not ready then. It opened for traffic in 1962.

When I reached the stage around 3 p.m., there were hardly any leaders on the stage, and huge ground was over-flooding with people. Myself and another student Ramdas Raipure, now an editor of a newspaper managed the stage for two hours, with local leaders speaking. The news came that Babasaheb has reached Mul (about 35 km. from Chandrapur) and is having rest because of tiredness of journey, thanks to the roads of that time, and all the leaders on the stage left for Mul, with three of us students to manage and pacify the crowds, and I must say, we did manage it rather magnificently, come to think of it now.

It was sunset, the stage was well lit, and some one was speaking on the mike. There was commotion on the road, I took charge of mike and started slogan shouting, Babasaheb was approaching after a long long wait. He climbed the stage and sat on the sofa there, with Mrs. Ambedkar. Some leader started welcome speech. Babasaheb was too tired and now he got irritated due to green small insects, which appear around lights in that season. He ordered the light to be switched off. I was right behind the sofa. I shouted at the electrician to switch off the light shining on face of Babasaheb. The electrician did switch off. But the wiring was such, not only one tube light but nearly half of the stage where Babasaheb was sitting, went dark, though the other half was well lit. In that partial darkness, Babasaheb asked the speaker to stop, took to mike and asked everybody to rise who wish to get converted and started "namo tassa", trisaran, panchsheela and administered 22 vows. Then he said that all he wanted to talk was talked at Nagpur, advised all to read that, if not already read and climbed down the stage and started walking back to car waiting on the road. All was over within five minutes, and the leaders who were gradually coming to stage rushed back behind him to the Circuit House, just nearby. Again the stage was vacant and I found myself shouting slogans over the dispersing crowds.

Well, everybody was very very unhappy, that he could not hear the words of Babasaheb, after hours of waiting, and for outsiders night and day of waiting. With heavy heart, everyone dispersed, only to gather around the Circuit House, which was surrounded by heavy security of SSD volunteers, just to get a glimpse or a hear a word of Babasaheb.

We requested Bar. Rajabhau, and Dadasaheb to arrange to bring Babasaheb out for a few minutes in Verandah. But Mrs. Ambedkar would not agree, neither she would let any body approach Babasaheb. Only Dadasaheb Gaikwad could enter his suite, for all those 36 hours he stayed there.

Even after long persuasion, she would not allow anybody to talk with him. And he was scheduled to leave by early morning train. Ultimately, Dadasaheb Gaikwad went in and told them, that the Railway Reservation could not be arranged and in any case, Babasaheb needed a day's rest before his journey, so morning journey was off. In addition to regular volunteers, we about two hundred students, took turns for whole night vigil around Circuit House.

The Day after Conversion

The next day started with great expectation. There was constant flow of people coming and going, but no entry was allowed by Mrs. Ambedkar to Babasaheb's suite except for Dadasaheb Gaikwad. Neither she would allow Babasaheb to come to verandah. We all were squatting in outside verandah. Ultimately, my uncle Dewajibapu and Dadasaheb conceived a plan to send Mrs. Ambedkar out for "shopping". Accordingly my cousin Shantabai (Mrs. Shahare) and my aunt accompanied Mrs. Ambedkar with plenty of money for shopping. It was arranged she would be entertained at home in a grand way and delayed as far as possible. So she departed from the scene at about 5 p.m.

After she left, Dadasaheb requested Babasaheb to come out and sit in verandah, which he did. It was just getting dusky. There were lights in veranda, but none outside, but a pleasant moon light around. There was no loud speaker. As soon as the word spread that Babasaheb is sitting outside, gradually within minutes and in pin drop silence a crowd of thousands gathered and squatted in the road in front verandah and a garden outside. Then there was a session of about two hours, when Babasaheb was talking and all of us listening, with an intermittent question being asked by one or two people, but most of the prompting was done by Dadasaheb in motivating him to talk.

He talked of his childhood. How he was moving around in a "langoti" and saluting a padre always going by the locality, how they were sleeping on the ground within an island made of earth around and filling it with water so that the bed bugs could not enter. He talked how he stole some money and ran away from home, when his father once expressed concern what would happen to him as his father married again. He never returned back till last moment of his father.

Many questions about Buddhism, and its practices and new party were put to him. For all those questions, he said he would make everything clear in a meeting scheduled in mid-December in Bombay.. Unfortunately that day never arose.

Around 8 p.m., Mrs. Ambedkar came back, started scolding everybody, and took Babasaheb inside, that was the last time I saw him, so did many like me. But the people were happy that they could hear their Messiah and departed home happily. Next morning Babasaheb left by Grand Trunk Express at about 5 a.m.

I went back to Nagpur, got busy in studies, gave my last paper of final MBBS exam. and came out of the hall at 1 p.m., only to be told the tragedy of demise of our Messiah on 6th of December 1956.

Conversion and afterwards

The immediate effects of conversion were dramatic. The whole community was united, or apparently so. Even a few days before conversion ceremony, when Babu Hardas Awale announced in a public meeting that "mangal sutra" worn by women is a symbol of slavery of women - a tenet opposed to Buddhism, about 500 women removed their mangal sutras then and there.

There was an impression among Buddhist converts, that eating of meat is not permitted and many who reared hens, left them to go anywhere they liked and sold off their goats for Rs. ten or so, and stopped eating meat. But it has again started, as it became known that Buddhism never prevented meat eating and even Bhikkus were allowed to eat certain types of meat.

There were gods of all descriptions in the houses of Buddhists, they were all thrown away in wells, lakes, and rivers, some times in processions all over the villages. People stopped going to pilgrimages like "Mahadeva" and others. Has it started again? Some reports suggest so.

As Babasaheb had said, the marriages should be performed without expenses, on simple white clothes. So all the bands, barats, and "ba-shings" were discarded. A bridegroom in a marriage procession could not be pointed out from others. Unfortunately gusto could not be maintained, again the expensive marriages by taking loans and all that started later. The band has disappeared but loud speaker has taken its place. All things have now come back, as it was in Hinduism. Even system of dowry in some form or other is making appearance, a system never existed even before conversion.

Many conversion ceremonies took place later all over the place, but only the "Mahars" got converted in Maharashtra. There were some followers of Ambedkar from other SC communities, who got converted to Buddhism. It was reported by people like Herlekar, that those people faced troubles in getting their daughters married among the erstwhile "Mahars". The process of conversion is still there, but in a minimal way, and no non-Mahar is being accepted in the society. If the process continues, I am afraid, the Buddhism will not remain a religion, but become a caste like that in Hinduism and that will be the day of doom for Buddhism. This is the picture in Maharashtra. I am told things are brighter in other parts of India, about which I have no knowledge.

It was the dream of Ambedkar that he will convert whole of India to Buddhism. How are we going to do it? We are isolating ourselves from others, how are you going to convert another SC, or a ST or an OBC to Buddhism, unless you go to them, mix with them, and even accept their big-brotherly attitude. We even do not like to accept leadership of others, unless he belongs to our "caste". So the dream of Ambedkar will remain the dream only, or will there be born people who will break the curse of "Caste of Buddhism" and spread the Dhamma? The future of Buddhism in India depends upon this question.

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