Gujarat orders probe into conversion of Dalits

The Gujarat government has ordered an inquiry into the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism at Dungarpur village in Junagadh district on Sunday. Junagadh district collector Alok Pandey told The Indian Express: "I have ordered a probe into the event and asked the Superintendent of Police and sub-divisional magistrate to inquire into the issue and submit a report at the earliest."

Pandey said that though he had prior knowledge about the event, it was mandatory for the organisers to take prior permission on the conversions, under the new anti-conversion law. "The organisers had informed the administration about holding the event. But they went ahead with the programme without obtaining proper permission," Pandey told this newspaper.

He said that the administration had procured videos of the five-hour event and would conduct a thorough probe to see if there was violation of the law.

Under privisions of Section 5 of the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Rules, 2008, a proper and prior permission of the district magistrate was mandatory before any religious conversion. Any violation amounted to an offence and invited action.

Devendra Govindbhai Vanvi of the Baudh Diksha Mahotsava Samiti, an umbrella organisation of Buddhists and Dalits in the state that organised the event, however, claimed that he had secured prior permission. "The village panchayat provided its ground for the event. Mamlatdar and other officials gave us permission for using a microphone, provided us ambulance and other facilities," claimed Vanvi. "Why should the administration allow the event and provide facilities for it if the event was illegal," he stated. Vanvi alleged that a probe into the event seemed to have been ordered under political pressure.

Why did Dalits convert to Buddhism? Vanvi said that Dalits were embracing Buddhism to seek "emancipation" from the Hindu caste system that had virtually made them "social slaves" for centuries. Former minister Dinesh Parmar, who had attended the event, said that large-scale conversions of Dalits to Buddhism were planned to be held at all the district headquarters in the state in days to come.

Kirit Rathod, a Dalit activist and a representative of Navsarjan, an NGO working for the uplift of Dalits in Gujarat, felt that the conversions on large scale in the long run might change the demographic profile of the state, with the BJP going to be the clear loser in political terms. And hence, the probe by the administration was simply to discourage the organisers and put a check on such events in the future.

Former MLA and BJP leader Girish Parmar feels that "conversion to Buddhism is no solution to the problems of social inequalities, discrimination and untouchability faced by Dalits". However, he said, "It indicated a kind of unrest among Dalits to get rid of the social, physical and emotional disabilities and conversion seems to be a bid to gain dignity and respect." The Dalit families who converted to Buddhism say they took the step to overcome the social stigma attached.

gWherever I went, people asked me about my caste and I had to tell them, with a deep sense of humiliation, that I was a Dalit. My children are not allowed to take part in garba during Navratri nor are we allowed to enter temple in my village. Many refuse to give me work when they know I am a Dalit. So, by this change, I and my family want to be part of a different society," said Mansukh Vaghela (40), a resident of Kharachiya village in Bhesan taluka of Junagadh. Vaghela converted to Buddhism on Sunday with his wife and three children.

Aravind Chauhan (39), a resident of Dungarpur village in Junagadh taluka, also converted to Buddhism with his family. "There are lots of sub-castes within Dalits and I was fed up with all that. I wanted to breathe the air of freedom by breaking those shackles, hence converted to Buddhism with my entire family," said Chauhan who is also associated with construction work.

Sunday's event was attended, among others, by Buddhist leaders from Ladakh, Delhi, Maharashtra as also from Sri Lanka.

(With inputs from Gopal Kateshiya in Rajkot)

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