Sumit Ratan is a Buddhist monk who heads the “Shraman Sanskriti Raksha Sangh,” a social organisation that aims to propagate Buddhism and work towards the welfare of the Bahujan community. The Shraman Sanskriti Raksha Sangh has held Bahujan Maitri Sammelans—Bahujan Friendship Conventions—across Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and Uttarakhand since 24 June this year. According to Ratan, these conventions have been held with the aid of local social organisations in each area. The conventions aim to promote the adoption of Buddhism, spread information about the need to have a movement to safeguard the Constitution and the need for the Bahujan community to unite as a voting bloc against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
In an interview this month, Ratan told Sunil Kashyap, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, about Buddhism in India, his support for the protests against the 2020 farm laws and his opinion about the various political players in Uttar Pradesh. The following is a translated and edited version of the interview:
Sunil Kashyap: What is the Shraman Sanskriti Raksha Sangh and the need for a movement to safeguard the Constitution?
Sumit Ratan: The Bahujan Maitri Sammelans is a gathering of those people who have been conspiratorially pushed back: the deprived, oppressed, weak people in our country. [Shraman] literally means a person who earns a living by working hard and believes in equality. All these people together form a “shraman sanskriti”—culture.
As for the movement of safeguarding the Constitution: if the Christians and Muslims are living with equal respect in this country, then it is because of the Constitution. Women are getting their rights because of the Constitution. If it was not for the Constitution, then the situation would have been much worse than it is now. If the Constitution is gone, then there will be a monarchy and only that will rule along with the [Brahminical scripture] Manusmriti. The rights that have been given by this Constitution, all of them will go away. That is why we are running a movement to save the Constitution.
Kashyap: What are the Bahujan Maitri Sammelans—what happens in them and why are they needed?
Ratan: The word “Bahujan” was given by Buddha 2,500 years ago. He had said that a huge group of more people who are of have a similar ideology and share the same problem—they are Bahujans. The [Brahmin] people who created caste categories in India are having fun now. The people that India belongs to, the people who have made this country, they are completely marginalised. And those who have not made India at all, who haven’t made any contribution, they are enjoying. We are explaining this conspiracy to people [in the Bahujan Maitri Sammelans].
We tell people that the person is not important, the organisation is not important. It is the ideology. First, we were divided into castes. Now we are divided into many organisations.
Babasaheb [Ambedkar] had asked you to stay organised. You started forming thousands of organisations. At present, lakhs of organisations are present in the country with Babasaheb’s name. And there are as many with the names of other great men. Bahujans are definitely large in number, but they are also divided into many organisations. This is why they are being looted—their rights are being snatched away.
Those who are helpless and weak, the deprived people, Bahujans—this is an effort to make them socially, politically, religiously and economically strong, by uniting them. We want to go to all the districts of India, even if it takes two years. The conventions have been held in 45 districts, including those in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Currently, we are working in the districts of Uttar Pradesh.
Kashyap: After Ambedkar, how do you see Buddhism in India and Dalits adopting the religion?
Ratan: Babasaheb gave an international identity to the people living in bad conditions by taking to Buddhism. Caste is prevalent in our country—other countries have different religions, not castes like we do.
There was never any caste among the [Indian] Buddhists. There is no discrimination of high and low castes. Whereas in the Brahmin religion, there is caste. Babasaheb had taken up the Buddhist philosophy.
But those who started getting drinking water because of Babasaheb, became wealthy because of Babasaheb, became educated and got rights because of Babasaheb, became village heads and prime ministers—they turned out to be incompetent. These people did not listen to Babasaheb. They did not accept Buddhism. If they were grateful, they would have followed him. Half the population of India would have been Buddhists today. Neither would a Dalit man be beaten, nor his wife will be raped. No one would have been able to snatch away the rights of Dalits.
Kashyap: What are the challenges in front of Buddhism under the current government?
Ratan: The struggle for Buddhism to get a different recognition and identity in India is on. Manmohan Singh’s government made the Anand Marriage Act. We do not have a Buddhist marriage act. We have to get married under Hindu Marriage Act only. We don’t have any personal law. We are engaged in fighting for this. We have been kept in the minority category. But we have no rights, no comfort, no facilities. We do not even have equal status.
This is why I say they practice untouchability. No one has a roti-beti ka rishta [family ties] with us. No one allows us to keep a moustache, to build a house. This is why I say I do not want to live with the Brahmin religion. People of the Brahmin religion believe that Jain, Sikh, Buddhists are their branches.
Buddha challenges them because he talks about equality. They talk about inequality. Buddha doesn’t even differentiate between people.
We also do not want to live with the Brahmin religion because ancestors of different Bahujan castes have been Buddhists. So, we don’t change anyone’s religion, we work towards “ghar waapsi” [bringing them back home.]
Kashyap: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh says that Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism are all branches of Hinduism. How do you view their ideology?
Ratna: There is no word called Hindu in ancient texts. There is “Vedic” religion, there is “Sanatan Dharma.” Not Hindu religion. The original culture of India is secular. This country is a country of different languages, foods and cultures. Some people want to paint it in one colour. They are tampering with the nature of this country. They want to increase their numbers by calling other religions their own branches. But when we do not believe them, then how does it matter.
India has thousands of places where Buddha’s legacy is buried in the ground. The Archaeological Survey of India is active because of Buddha. Whatever comes out from under the ground are the things of Buddha.
Kashyap: The RSS is working among the Bahujan youth. You are also working among them. But some youngsters often get quickly associated with the RSS. How do you see this?
Ratan: The people who created the RSS are people who spread misconceptions. The [upper castes] are few in number. Those whose numbers are less, they remain more united, alert. They stay strong. They use Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes as slaves. They have been doing this for the last 90 years. I know hundred people who have left the RSS and followed Buddha’s path again.
There are two types of people in India, one type unites and the other divides. These [RSS members] are the ones who divide.
Kashyap: How do you view the engagement of backward castes with Buddhism today?
Ratan: Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav—they built forts of a [particular] caste. There are other names as well. Irrespective of the size of the forts of castes, in front of feudatories and Manuvad, their forts cannot stand. We say make a fort of the underprivileged. Manuvad will never be able to make it fall.
Even if they are Ambedkarites, they are Buddhists—the virus of Brahminism, of casteism and Manuvaad, is inside them too. An Ambedkarite and a Buddhist will also not marry each other. These people are also completely absorbed in the Brahmin system.
Kashyap: You met Akhilesh Yadav in 2019. What do you think of his politics?
Ratan: We want Akhilesh Yadav to be secular. Our Constitution and the nature of the country is secular. We said that you should love us as much as you love Hindus. Love a Sikh as much as you love a Muslim. If you also discriminate, there is no difference between you and the BJP. This is the BJP’s strategy—to love Hindus and no one else. The purpose of meeting him was this only, to communicate that Buddha’s movement is a big movement. The movement of certain castes is a small movement.
Kashyap: How do you see Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan movement and Mayawati?
Ratan: Manyavar’s movement was similar to that of Buddha. He was fighting for the rights of the underprivileged and helpless people. Votes are valuable in this democracy. He understood this very well and united scattered sections. [Their rallies] used to have slogans at that time that said that selling a vote is akin to selling a daughter. This increased self-respect in people. But they did not know that his successor would come out like this.
This drawback was born out of hero worship. Dr Ambedkar has a quote that says that if a person is hero-worshipped, he too will become a dictator. And his downfall is also certain. People of the Bahujan community have also become hero worshippers.
Kashyap: The BJP also started a Buddhist yatra from Banaras in 2016. What do you think about it?
Ratan: There was a conference in Vietnam, [the vice president of India] Venkaiah Naidu had gone there. He was trying to say that, “We are taking care of Buddha’s sanskriti.” These people are two-faced. Modi will say something in India, and something else abroad. Here, it will be “Hindu-Hindu,” outside he will take the statue of Buddha.
But we are slowly leaving them, expressing our thoughts. We are exposing their lies in front of the people.
Kashyap: A statue of Buddha was vandalised in Uttar Pradesh’s Kannauj district in August.
Ratan: There is a place in Kannauj called Chhibramau. That whole area has Buddhist followers. After getting permission from the panchayat, locals erected the statue of Buddha there. Those who removed the statue said if a Buddha statue can be erected, why can’t [the Rajput King] Maharana Pratap’s statue be erected as well. This whole incident was linked to caste.
They are opposed to Buddha because he talks about equality, not about inequality, he doesn’t believe in caste. With Buddha’s thinking, Brahmins will shut shop.
Kashyap: How was your experience of participating in the Ghazipur sit-in against the farm laws, on the Delhi–Uttar Pradesh border?
Ratan: When the police beat farmers, fired teargas shells—I was moved by seeing that injustice was being done towards India’s food givers. Who is doing it and at whose behest?
This government is run by industrialists. And after that, the RSS is running this government. Justice is expected from those who have some justice in their character. They do not have such a character. So, I am with the farmers’ movement.