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India: Thousands embrace Buddhism

by Shobhan Saxena, TIMES NEWS NETWORK, May 28, 2007

MUMBAI, India -- In a hugely symbolic gesture that may have a long-term effect on state and national politics, thousands of tribals and Dalits converted to Buddhism at a massive gathering here on Sunday, marking the 50th year of Dr B R Ambedkar's conversion to the religion to escape the rigid Hindu caste system.

Though the number of people present at Mahalaxmi Race Course was a little less than the expected figure of 100,000, it was definitely one of the biggest mass conversions in modern Indian history.

In the past few years, thousands of Dalits and tribals have converted to Buddhism in different parts of the country, a move seen by political observers as an assertion of their identity that is influencing politics in a big way.

At the crack of dawn on Sunday, buses loaded with Dalits and tribals began to roll into the grounds surrounded by glass-and-steel highrises in the country's financial hub. On a hot, sweltering summer day, men, women and children from 42 different castes brought to Mumbai by Dalit writer Laxman Mane, sat quietly throughout the day waiting for the moment they would be initiated into Buddhism. By evening, their number had swelled to at least 50,000.

As the day turned to dusk and speeches by Buddhist leaders like Rahul Bodhi were wrapped up, thousands of eager hands went up in the air amid loud Buddhist chants and 'Jai Bhim' slogans, initiating hundreds of new converts into the Buddhist fold. Organised by Babasaheb Ambedkar Pratishthan, the rally was just not a simple religious ceremony, it was also a show of strength by Maharashtra's Dalit leader, Ramdas Athawale, who time and again is at loggerheads with other leaders in the country to claim Ambedkar's true legacy.

Although the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, who was supposed to lead the "largest religious conversion in modern India", could not make it to the ceremony, there was a huge gathering of Buddhist monks in their maroon robes from different parts of India, as well as from other countries.

And, the absence of the world's best-known Buddhist monk did not dampen the spirits of the people taking refuge in Buddhism as a symbol of turning their backs on caste discrimination and oppression. Carrying multi-coloured flags of the Republican Party of India and Ambedkar's photos, and little Buddha statues and booklets, the Dalits and tribals waited with great patience as the event started late in the afternoon and meandered through long sessions of songs, dances and speeches.

Oblivious of the political implications of the ceremony, thousands turned the posh Race Course into a sea of white, waiting for the 'major change' in their social status.



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