'Became Buddhist for haircut, shave... mental untouchability persists'
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At Vishal Hadmatiya village in Bhesan taluka, 21 km from Junagadh, a statue of Dr B R Ambedkar greets visitors. It's been a week since all the 60 families in this Dalit neighbourhood 'converted' to Buddhism at an event in Junagadh. The organisers of the event have claimed that a total of 60,000 Dalits converted to Buddhism.
Dahya Vaghela, 65, a respected elder, says he attended the conversion rally for a 'haircut and shave'. "Local barbers refuse to give me a haircut or shave, saying that he will not get any upper caste customers. So I have to travel all the way to Junagadh. We also have a separate temple," he says. Paintings and photographs of Ambedkar adorn the walls of his house.
While Dalit families in the area get water from the same tank as upper caste Hindus, they are not allowed to enter the local Ram temple.
"My children play with upper caste children. But they have to sit separately while eating their lunch. They ask me why they are not allowed to eat with those children," says Dahya's son, Magan, 35, a farm labourer.
"The main issue is of self-pride. The concept of defilement due to physical contact with a Dalit has waned, but mental untouchability still persists. The contempt that an upper-caste Hindu shows towards a Dalit is humiliating. While the situation will not change overnight, embracing Buddhism is an ideological revolution which will bear fruit in future. Maharashtra is witnessing a change six decades after Ambedkar and others led by him embraced Buddhism," says Ravji Vaghela, Dahya's brother who retired as a head postmaster.
"Our descendants can now simply say they are Buddhists when someone asks them about their caste. They would thus be saved of the humiliation attached with the term Dalit," he adds.