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

20 October 2021
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
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

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,

Tejaswini Tabhane is studying MSc in Quantitative Economics at Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi.

Keywords: BR Ambedkar Buddhism Navayana conversion Nagpur
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