Dignity, Fraternity, Knowledge: Lessons on Ambedkar's social democracy from Deeksha Bhoomi

Buddhists gather at Deeksha Bhoomi in Nagpur, during the annual celebration of BR Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism from Hinduism, 14 October 2010. In a caste-ridden society that is antithetical to love and any form of fraternity, Deeksha Bhoomi represents two of the principles that the Buddha taught, karuna and maitri. Kuni Takahashi / Getty Images
20 October, 2021

While nearing the conclusion of his famous last speech in the Constituent Assembly, titled Three Warnings, BR Ambedkar, India’s first law minister and the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution said, “On the 26th of January 1950”—the day India’s constitution came into effect—“we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality.” He decried the country’s caste Hindu society as antithetical to its political vision. “In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man, one vote, and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?” Mirroring a previous question he had raised about whether the Hindu religion had empathy, equality and freedom, Ambedkar pointed to three ideals that India had to achieve if it wished to become a true democracy: liberty, equality and fraternity.

Seventy years later, it is safe to say the country has yet to fully achieve this. In Three Warnings, Ambedkar argued that the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity that he espoused, were not from the French revolution. “My philosophy has roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my Master, the Buddha,” he said.

To mark his belief that only the ideals enshrined in Buddhism could ensure socially democracy in a caste-ridden country, on 14 October 1956, on the banks of the Nag River in Nagpur, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, along with more than six lakh others. Since that year, 14 October became the Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas—the day of “setting in motion the wheel of dhamma,” the Buddha’s doctrine—celebrated by Ambedkarites and Buddhists across much of the subcontinent. According to Ambedkar, the first Dhamma Chakra Pravartan was done by the Buddha in Sarnath, where he delivered his first sermon, and Ambedkar set the motion of wheel of dhamma again by breaking the age-old shackles of caste hierarchy and untouchability imposed by the Hindu religion, walking towards the same path of emancipation which the Buddha showed the world two millennia earlier.

Year upon year, decade upon decade, lakhs of Buddhists from across the subcontinent congregate at Deeksha Bhoomi, the site of the conversion in Nagpur, to remember the decision their forefathers and foremothers took, and to resolemnise their oath to achieve social democracy. They remain undeterred by the hot temperatures or by the distance. Despite the mammoth size of these gatherings and how integral they are to our community, they are barely documented either in academia or in popular culture. They largely exist only in our oral histories, passed on with pride, from one generation to the next. A festive remembrance of this comes in the Marathi singer Wamandada Kardak’s line, “Deekshabhoomi sabhoti harshane daataleli, Naaganchi Naag-nagari paahun kaal aalo.”—Deekshabhoomi was surrounded with joy, as I visited the Naag-nagari of the Nagas yesterday. (Naga refers to an ancient tribe that is supposed to have lived in the region.)

Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas is firstly a reaffirmation of the weight of the decision our elders had taken. In 1936, in Ambedkar’s speech What Path to Salvation, he told his people,

You must bear in mind that the decisions you take today will carve out a path for posterity, for future generations … But if you decide to remain slaves, your future generations will also be slaves. Hence yours is the most difficult task.

He was referring to both how hard the decision to convert away from Hinduism would be, for the least powerful members of caste Hindu society to openly revolt against its leadership and its ingrained orthodoxy. Deeksha Bhoomi is foremost a reminder of our ancestors who took that leap, not fully knowing what the consequences of it could mean. It now ensures that the legacy of conversion is passed on to later generations.

I do not remember when I first visited Deeksha Bhoomi, but my grandmother guesses it would have been the very first Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas after I was born. From the age of eight or nine, my memories of my annual visit become far clearer. I hold these memories dear. I remember being overwhelmed by the thousands of people that surrounded us, from toddlers to wizened grandmothers—they came annually, from the most rural backwaters of Maharashtra, and even from outside the state. An early memory that stuck with me was a song by the Marathi singer Prahlad Shinde, which often played at speakers around the field. “Udharli nau koti janata, rudhi moduni juni, Deeksha aamha dili Bhimani, mangal din to jani,” the refrain of the song went, roughly meaning, “Nine crore people got emancipated, breaking the age-old shackles, Deeksha was given to us by Bhima; an auspicious day it was!”

The community at Deeksha Bhoomi organically teaches many lessons about the Ambedkarite struggle in a way that academia rarely does. The site is not mere memorialisation; it continues to give dignity to people, as conversion did two generations ago. What always fascinated me was how men and women, young and old, would always wear neat white and blue clothes while visiting the stupa that sits at the centre of the field. That is the dignity Ambedkar wanted to teach his people. That is the human personality he wanted us to reclaim—to wear neat clothes, to fight for a dignified life and to live according to Buddha’s Dhamma.

But beyond being merely a reaffirmation of this covenant, the annual event at Deeksha Bhoomi has also become an example of the social democracy that Ambedkar—commonly called Babasaheb by Ambedkarites—envisioned. Central to Ambedkar’s understanding of a democratic revolution was for the process of knowledge production and dissemination to be made widely accessible. JV Pawar, the founder of Dalit Panthers, has written, “The community that reads is the community that survives. The community that does not read does not survive. It means that reading is important for a community for its stability and existence. This is what Babasaheb believed.”

At Deeksha Bhoomi, hundreds of booksellers can be found distributing anti-caste literature at impromptu stalls. Books by Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Periyar, Shahu Maharaj, Ayyankali, Narayana Guru, Annabhau Sathe and other Bahujan leaders are widely sold and read at the site. Even anti-caste literature that has gone out of print, or otherwise is very difficult to find, often pops up in the stalls. Seeing the hundreds of book stalls in the premises and the colourful books they sell, I remember as a child asking my grandmother who could possibly read so much. She proudly replied, “Babasaheb!”

Madhukar Tamgadge, a retired government officer from Nagpur, runs the Dr Ambedkar Book Depot and is among the very first people who started a book stall at Deeksha Bhoomi. “I was always interested in reading,” he told me. “After my conversion, I read Buddha and His Dhamma by Babasaheb. I have a huge collection of books that I bought for myself from Delhi, Sarnath and Kolkata, most of which were in Hindi, as very little progressive literature was available at that time in Marathi. But I felt that merely reading this literature will keep it limited only to myself.”

He told me he believed progressive and Buddhist literature belonged to, and must spread across, the masses. “And that is how the idea of opening a book stall at Deeksha Bhoomi where lakhs of people visit every year came to my mind,” he said. “My first book stall was set up in 1974 when I was still a government employee in the forest department. I started selling Buddhist and Ambedkarite literature, every year on Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas since then.” Like him, many of the book sellers in Deeksha Bhoomi are current or retired government employees, often the most well-off from our community.

Tamgadge told me that most booksellers at Deeksha Bhoomi have very small profit margins, several even incurring losses. “The logistical cost of setting up book stalls has drastically increased in the last few years,” he said. “Selling books involves a lot of effort to sit through an entire day in the extreme weather of Nagpur. And at times, we face damage and losses due to rain.” Whatever small profits the book sellers could make has also been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, Deeksha Bhoomi was completely closed to visitors. This year, it was opened only for visitors between the age of 10 and 65 who are fully vaccinated. No stalls were allowed to be set up this year.

“The local publishers and book-sellers in Nagpur could sell a few books to people who managed to come to Deeksha Bhoomi this year,” Tamgadge said. “But those book-sellers who come from other parts of Maharashtra have incurred huge losses since 2020.” He, however, did not have any doubts about whether to continue the work of the Dr Ambedkar Book Depot. “The motive is to not earn profit, but to assure that the process of ‘cultivation of mind’ should not stop,” Tamgadge said. “We see that as our commitment to the Ambedkarite movement. The resistance against the oppressive caste system has been fuelled by books and we will continue our work to spread knowledge among the community.”

The ideals of dignity and the cultivation of the mind—which Ambedkar said should be the ultimate aim of human existence—that Deeksha Bhoomi represents are reflected in the many villages from where people arrive. It is a community that has fought against the denial of equality and liberty across the region. Be it the case of Namantar struggle—to rename Marathawada University after Ambedkar—the rise of the Dalit Panthers, the fight against the Ramabai Nagar Homicide or the brutal massacre at Khairlanji. Apart from fights against atrocities, this struggle is also visible in the creation of Buddha Viharas in nearly every Ambedkarite locality in the state. Most viharas are equipped with community libraries which are accessible to everyone who wishes to read. These viharas are also the sites where men and women actively engage in community work together, often led by the latter.

This widespread effect that Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas had on rural Maharashtra is not a surprise. Ambedkar’s own conversion, and that of the lakhs of others who followed him, came alongside 22 vows. In a recent lecture organised by the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association, YS Alone, a professor at the school of arts and aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University, spoke about how, in following with the vows, the people who took Deeksha in 1956 went back to their villages and threw the Hindu gods and goddesses out of their homes, whose religion Ambedkarites argue is antithetical to human equality. They replaced their faith instead with the ninth and tenth vows, which say, “I shall believe in the equality of men. I shall endeavour to establish equality.” This has been the core tenet around which much of the community’s political organisation has been built.

What about the fraternity and empathy that Ambedkar sought? At Deeksha Bhoomi this takes the form of volunteers, such as the Samta Sainik Dal who work day and night to facilitate the visit of people and arranging for their varied needs. The SSD was established by Ambedkar as an organisation that would strive for equality and protect the community against any kind of discrimination or violence. Though founded on the principle to defend equality, the work that SSD does can also be seen as an extension to the principle of fraternity. It is only recently that the government extended its support to manage the huge crowd during the festival. But the contrast between how the government and the SSD manage crowds at the site illustrates the sense of fraternity that Deeksha Bhoomi has.

Last year, while making a short documentary on Deeksha Bhoomi, our crew interviewed Jinda Bhagat, who is a member of SSD. “The strength of SSD falls short in managing the huge crowd,” he said. “They take help from local police in their task. But police lack the empathy which volunteers of SSD have. Older people who come here go missing as they can’t navigate their way around. We help them by making regular announcements of train schedules around the railway station. After all of them leave, we have to regularly visit police station with the photos of people who are still missing.”

Food, too, becomes a site of shared fraternity. The small Buddhist localities of Nagpur pool in funds to make the food arrangements for the lakhs of visitors who come. Free food stalls stretch for more than a kilometre around the Deeksha Bhoomi every 14 October.

Along with them, teams of young medical professionals, from various government hospitals in and around Nagpur, set up small camps to attend to medical emergencies. “Every year students, resident doctors and senior doctors from the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes communities from the government medical colleges in Nagpur volunteer their service at the medical camps organised by the Dr Ambedkar Medicos National Association,” Nikhil Dorle, a casualty medical officer at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences in Sevagram, told me. “I am an Ambedkarite and I knew that many people from our community visit Deeksha Bhoomi. I thought that as a doctor, I must give my service to them in case of an emergency. The crowd is large and there is always a possibility of any trauma or any infection that can spread. Many people come from far away villages who do not get proper food to eat during their travels. Many of them are anaemic and thus face a lot of difficulty.”

In a caste-ridden society that is antithetical to love and any form of fraternity, the people that help organise Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas represent two of the principles that the Buddha taught, karuna and maitri—or compassion and friendship. I fully understood the importance of these principles only when I saw the lack of them in the Brahmin-dominated world of higher education. My undergraduate education in economics was in Delhi University’s famous Miranda House, one of the country’s top colleges, which was very hostile to students from marginalised communities. Facing structural exclusion and marginalisation, to organise and resist became inevitable for Bahujan students in such campuses.

But to organise, I first had to get to know the other Bahujan students in a heavily savarna-hegemonised campus, and this cannot happen only at protest sites. In this, my Ambedkarite Buddhist upbringing and the lessons that Deeksha Bhoomi taught were invaluable. To have the understanding of the struggles of fellow Bahujan students, to have the compassion to build shared solidarities. This had to first happen in at the personal level, in small discussions in hostel about experiences of discrimination. It had come alongside shared friendship and support, like sharing notes or preparing for exams together. It is this foundation that helped build towards larger political demands. What equipped me to do this was the Buddhist teaching of maitri.

The importance of this was most visible to me when I visited Savitribai Phule Pune University, a month ago. Unlike Delhi University, SPPU has tall statues of Ambedkar, Jotiba Phule and Shahu Maharaj. Their presence in the university campus gave me a sense of belonging that I could never find in DU, which was always alienating to me. While speaking to students from Pune, I found out about the many struggles that had to be fought to erect each of those statues, to democratise the spaces that so far had been denied to Bahujan communities.

The annual celebration of Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Divas is a symbol that a society built on mutual understanding, fraternity and equality is very much possible in the subcontinent. And yet, it is frequently written out of history and media, creating spaces that deny self-respect and alienate a majority of the subcontinent’s population. This route towards social democracy, advocated by Ambedkar, has been proven as viable, year after year, at Deeksha Bhoomi. The country need only listen.