Why Ambedkar considered Islam the religion of choice for Dalits before opting for Buddhism


Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP

An excerpt from Anand Teltumbde’s essay in a new book framing Ambedkar as a radical and not just a reformer.

Babasaheb Ambedkar had made a historic declaration on October 13, 1935 at Yeola (in Nashik district) of his resolve to renounce Hinduism. It provoked varied reactions. The orthodox Hindus were unmoved. In nearby Nashik, where they were being harassed for the past five years by the Kalaram temple entry satyagraha, they were exceedingly jubilant.

The politically minded Hindus deplored it and felt threatened. Some had issued death threats to Ambedkar. His own people were confused, some of them having openly opposed it. The religious establishments of some minority communities were, however, enthused to make a bid to attract him towards them.

As a follow-up of this declaration and in order to have a blueprint for the tasks ahead, a conference titled Mumbai Ilakha Mahar Parishad (Mumbai Province Mahar Conference) was organised from May 30 to June 1, 1936 at Mumbai. It shared the venue with two more conferences, namely, the conference of Mahar ascetics and the conference of Matangs from the Bombay province.

In the conference, Ambedkar made a detailed and passionate speech, which was published under the title “Mukti Kon Pathe?” (“Which Path to Salvation?”).

Here he tried to systematically explain why Dalits needed to change their religion. He had just developed this explanation in his celebrated text, Annihilation of Caste. His conclusion in Annihilation of Caste was that castes being mainly part of the rules of the Hindu religion, which were sourced from the Dharmashastras (Smritis and Puranas), could not be annihilated unless the Dharmashastras were destroyed.

He divided the scriptures of the Hindu religion into two parts: the religion of rules and the religion of principles, the latter being provided in the Vedas and Upanishads, which he observed did not have much influence on the religion in practice. He assessed that the Hindus would never be prepared for destroying the Dharmashastras and hence he had decided for himself to renounce Hinduism. Ambedkar thus argued that there was no hope for Untouchables to live a respected life within Hinduism. The only way they could escape from their caste bondage was to renounce it.

In “Mukti Kon Pathe?” Ambedkar outlined two considerations in changing religion – existential and spiritual. In explaining the existential consideration, he mainly indicated the pitiful plight of Dalits. They suffered atrocities at the feeblest violation of the caste code as perceived by the caste Hindus. Ambedkar termed it a class conflict. He elaborated his point as follows:

“It is not a conflict between two individuals or two groups; it is a conflict between two classes. It is not a question of dominance or of injustice over one man; it is a question of dominance perpetrated by one class over the other. It is a question of injustice heaped by one class over the other […] The examples of this conflict enumerated above openly prove one point, which is that this conflict arises when you insist upon equality with the upper classes while dealing with them […] the cause of their anger is only one and that is your behaviour demanding equality, which hurts their esteem.”

Ambedkar then concluded: “The conflict between the touchables and the untouchables is of permanent nature and is going to last for ever. Because, according to them the religion that is responsible for assigning you the lowest rung, is sanatan (which does not have either origin or end). There cannot be any change in it.”

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