Today, Ambedkar might have landed in jail for his actions. The Uttar Pradesh government’s recent ordinance on conversion states: ‘For mass conversion the organisation will lose its registration and face dire consequences’. A two-month notice must be given to the local administration, which will decide if your intended act is legal. This places the onus of proof on the converts and the persons converting them. Like Ambedkar, Marathi brahmins like the Sanskrit scholar Pandita Ramabai or the poet Narayan Vaman Tilak once studied religion and then converted for political or spiritual reasons. Even those relatively privileged individuals could have been harassed by the UP ordinance. What then of the common folks who may convert with the hope for a better life? If a poor man converts to Christianity in order to get education, dignity and basic amenities, the UP ordinance would treat this as ‘allurement’ and turn him into a criminal.
The UP ordinance makes special mention of SC/ STs and women, whose conversion will elicit a stricter punishment. Most of those who followed Ambedkar to Buddhism were of the Mahar caste and nearly half of them were women. Certainly, this is a vulnerable population due to poverty and lack of access to education. Should the law then assume that they have no agency in their choices or that they do not understand what is good for them? Ever since the advent of Islam and Christianity in India, lower caste people have used conversions to reject their social position and rise and gain dignity as human beings. The 15th-century poet sant Ravidas, in his poem ‘Begumpura’ saw a ‘land without sorrow’:
No taxes or cares, no one owns property there, no wrongdoing, worry, terror, or torture. They do this or that, they walk where they wish, they stroll through fabled palaces unchallenged. Oh, says Ravidas, a tanner now set free, those who walk beside me are my friends.
Kabir and Ravidas were contemporaries in UP when the liberation theology of Islam, brotherhood and compassion attracted many lower castes. Sufi movements were the culmination of liberal religious forces in North India.
The other main target of the UP ordinance are Muslim men converting Hindu women. This elicited outrage even in the 1920s in UP, as historian Charu Gupta has documented, especially when Dalit women began converting and marrying Muslim men, led by romance and the desire to escape their painful daily lives. Magazines like Chand and Abhyudaya advocated for a better treatment of ‘outcaste’ women who would otherwise marry Muslim men and produce ‘cow killers’. The Hindu Mahasabha prevented conversions of lower-caste women and married them to upper-caste Hindu boys. The British Census had started counting the populations by religion, and to prevent the loss of numbers and potential child-bearing wombs, Dalit women became significant.
The real strife is not between Hindus and Muslims. As Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya wrote in his seminal essay “Hindu Banaam Hindu”, ‘the biggest battle in Indian history is the struggle between orthodoxy and liberal forces within Hinduism, that has continued for past five thousand years. The main issues of discord are caste, class, women and tolerance’.
Dalit Women Speak Out (2014) is a report of verbal, physical and sexual violence documented through 500 interviews. Despite the legal system often colluding with high caste perpetrators, Dalit women raise their voice against violence. By refusing to accept caste injustice, they keep the faith that democracy offers justice and equality for those even at the lowest rungs of society. Dalit women, in this sense, emerge as the true citizens of Indian constitutionalism.
It is significant that the father of the Indian constitution publicly burnt the Manusmriti in 1927, and wanted to replace religious scriptures with the new book of the Constitution.
The struggle today is as it has been ever: between the orthodoxy and the progressives, a younger generation that wants to live freely and an older generation that wants to retain control, women who want to make their own choices and their families that claim to own them, upper-castes wanting to live off hierarchy and subjugation and lower castes seeking justice and equality.
We are now in the thick of this battle. Manu’s code or Ambedkar’s Constitution — which do we choose?