Editorials by Sangharakshita

 
 

A Great Injustice

This editorial was first published in The Maha Bodhi, July 1957.

One of the greatest events of the 2500th Buddha Jayanti year was, undoubtedly, the conversion to Buddhism of the late Dr. B. R. Ambedkar together with hundreds of thousands of his followers. Certain interested parties have questioned the genuineness of a change of faith affecting such a vast number of people. But those who, under Dr. Ambedkar's guidance, took the Trisarana and Pancha Sila at Nagpur on the 14th of October last year did not change their convictions overnight. For years Dr. Ambedkar and a handful of devoted henchmen had been endeavouring to impress upon the minds and hearts of the 'Untouchables' the fact that only in Buddhism was there to be found a spiritual force strong enough to effect their all-round amelioration, and slowly but surely their efforts bore fruit. Even after the tragically sudden demise of the lion-hearted leader the great movement of mass conversion did not slacken off. Indeed it increased in momentum. This fact alone should be sufficient to convince even the most sceptical that we have to deal, not with a 'political stunt', as some of them tried to make out at the beginning, but with the greatest spiritual upheaval that India has known in modern times.

But even spiritual upheavals take place within a specific socio-economic framework. The Neo-Buddhists, as they are now generally styled (the term meaning not those who follow a new form of Buddhism, but simply those who have newly become Buddhists) are drawn almost entirely from what are officially known as the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, or in other words, from those people, numbering between seventy and eighty millions, whom the orthodox Hindus have for centuries despised and ill-treated as outcastes and untouchables. Recognizing that on account of generations of systematic degradation and social persecution these Depressed Classes, as they were also called, stood in need of special consideration, The Indian Government granted them, though on a small scale, certain special political and educational facilities. Among these facilities were scholarships for deserving untouchable students. The Constitution envisaged their continuation for a period of ten years from the date of its promulgation.

Now, however, comes the news that the Government of India and the State Government of Bombay (the State in which the majority of Neo-Buddhists are to be found) have decreed that on becoming Buddhists the Neo-Buddhists shall automatically forfeit the facilities to which as members of the Scheduled Caste communities they were formerly entitled. When an Untouchable renounces Hinduism he does, of course, cease to be an Untouchable at the same time that he ceases to be a Hindu, for from its very inception Buddhism has resolutely refused to countenance the inhumanity that, in the name of religion, degrades a fellow human being to a level lower than that of a beast. But change of religion is not necessarily synonymous with an immediate improvement of socio-economic conditions. By getting themselves converted to Buddhism the Scheduled Caste people have not automatically become rich, well educated and respected. The vast majority of them continue to live as they have lived for centuries - in poverty, ignorance and ignominy. The only difference is that while as Hindus they lived without hope, as Buddhists they live full of hope, for Buddhism tells them, not that they have been born Untouchables as a result of sins committed in past lives and that unquestioning submission to the insults of the Caste Hindus is the only means of expiation, but that they are the masters of their own fate, the architects of their own destiny, and that by right effort every man can become the peer of the Buddha.

Since the socio-economic conditions of the Neo-Buddhists are the same as what they were before their conversion it is difficult to understand why the Central Government and the State Government of Bombay should have discontinued even the meagre facilities that they were formerly enjoying. One would have thought that the government of a Secular State would have welcomed the opportunity of continuing to help a socially and economically backward section of the community without having to place itself in the anomalous position of recognizing de facto those very caste distinctions which it does not recognize de jure. By discontinuing the scholarships and other educational concessions of such Scheduled Castes students as become Buddhists the Government of India and the State of Bombay have in fact discriminated against Buddhism in favour of Hinduism. They have indirectly encouraged untouchability. They have set a premium on social injustice and inequality.

We sincerely hope that the damage so far done is not irreparable and that saner counsels may in the end prevail. In celebrating the 2500th anniversary of the Parinirvana of the Lord Buddha the Government of India set an example to the whole world. It would be a thousand pities if the Buddha Jayanti celebrations should be followed up by an action which seems strangely like a deliberate attempt to discourage people from trying to put into practise the very principles which those celebrations were intended to recall. Unless the educational concessions to which, as members of a still backward community, the Neo-Buddhists continue to be entitled are promptly restored to them, certain national leaders will find it hard to escape the charge of paying lip sympathy to Buddhism for purposes other than strictly religious.

Whether the Neo-Buddhists continue to enjoy the same social and economic concessions after conversion as they enjoyed before, or whether they do not, of one thing all those concerned would do well to be assured: that the movement of mass conversion started by Dr. Ambedkar cannot be checked or even halted. Surely it is not too much to expect that after treating the Untouchables with cruelty for centuries the majority community will now at least refrain from attempting, however vainly, to frustrate their efforts to achieve not merely a higher standard of living but a better standard of life. By helping the Neo-Buddhists at the present juncture the Caste Hindus will be sowing the seeds of future friendship. By renewing their efforts to harm they will only enlarge the gulf of hatred and misunderstanding which is already alarmingly wide.