61 years have passed since the death of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The values of equality, liberty and fraternity that he fought for are still sought for by India’s Dalits – who number over 200 million today.
For most Indians, he is a household name as the architect of the Indian Constitution. But for the Dalits, he is their greatest saviour, the man who first gave them a voice after centuries of oppression. In his honour, they use the greeting “Jai Bhim” meaning “Victory to Bhim”. Thousands of miles away, in the ghettos of Hungary, the Roma people have also found an escape from oppression in the life, words and religion of Ambedkar.
Through the work of Derdák Tibor and Orsós János, Roma people in Hungary have embraced Buddhism and Ambedkar alike. Like India’s Dalits, the Roma suffer against endemic and ingrained discrimination within Hungarian society – they are segregated, their children often categorized as mentally challenged, and they remain excluded from the state’s social development. In religion, particularly emancipatory religion, they find a respite in Ambedkarite Buddhism.
Ambedkar’s final act was the renunciation of Hinduism. Around the 1930s, he started seeking a religion that wouldn’t discriminate against him or the Dalits on the basis of caste. Remaining within the Hindu fold was out of the question; he viewed Hinduism as a religion of rules with caste as its central tenet. Christianity and Islam too were ruled out, as they would ‘denationalize‘ the adherents. Ambedkar wanted an Indic religion – and Buddhism stood out for its potential to be remoulded in a modern, reformist light.
In 1956, 365,000 Dalits converted to Buddhism along with Ambedkar – the largest mass conversion of their time. For decades after this act, mass conversions of Dalits to Buddhism became a rallying moment for the community.
It is a quirk of fate that the Roma found the Dhamma almost by accident. When Tibor and Janos visited Maharashtra in 2005 and 2007, they realized just how much the ‘gypsies’ and the Dalits had in common. Janos wrote of his experience:
I visited educational institutions in a number of cities in Maharashtra: Aurangabad, Amaravati, Pune, and Nagpur. Everywhere I saw gypsies! To me the Dalits are gypsies and the gypsies are Dalits. What struck me most strongly was that the Dalit people run these institutions themselves, not white people. They believe very strongly in their work and we saw with our own eyes that many people have improved their lives in a real way through that work.
He embraced buddhism, founded a Jai Bhim network in Hungary, and opened three Ambedkar high schools in Sajokaza, Oxd, and Hegymeg. Educating disadvantaged children in Ambedkar’s name would have made the freedom-fighter proud – as he had often stressed the importance of the education of the depressed classes. As Ambedkar wrote:
The backward classes have come to realize that after all education is the greatest material benefit for which they can fight. We may forego material benefits, we may forego material benefits of civilization, but we cannot forego our right and opportunities to reap the benefit of the highest education to the fullest extent. That the importance of this question from the point of view of the backward classes who have just realized that without education their existence is not safe.
In Hungary, a predominantly Christian nation, Ambedkar Jayanti (Ambedkar’s birthday) is now celebrated by the Roma every year. What makes the encounter even more surprising is the debate of the Roma’s lineage – studies and oral histories suggest that the Roma people are descendants of Indian musicians, themselves of either the Shudra (lowest caste) or Dalit (outcaste) communities!
The newly-formed Hungarians Buddhists had a fight on their hands when they lost ‘Church’ status after the Hungarian Constitution was reformed in 2011. In Ozd, they had to shut down schools because the new regulations required that they acquire permission – which the authorities denied. They lost access to EU funds – and if they want to apply for these again, they will need the consent of the Hungarian government. The loss of religious status was also the loss of many operational privileges that had earlier allowed schools to be set up and run with ease. The documentary ‘Angry Buddha‘, on the Ambedkarite Buddhists of the Roma, highlights some of this struggle.
Like the Dalits in India, the Roma are often given absolutely inhumane treatment. In March this year, several Roma families were dragged from their homes and beaten as their houses were set on fire. It had an uncanny parallel with a similar incident in India, where in Saharanpur village in Uttar Pradesh, Thakurs chased Dalits out of their shops and houses – beating them and creating numerous ‘ghost villages‘.
Ambedkar continues to be relevant to downtrodden communities across the world. From the streets of New York to the ghettos of Hungary, Jai Bhim is the cry of the repressed finding their voice amidst society. Ambedkar’s Buddhism – itself considered a fourth path that is distinct from the traditional schools of Buddhism – has proven to be a respite for both the Roma and the Dalits.
The struggle for self-respect knows no divisions of race, caste or creed. As Ambedkar wrote:
It is disgraceful to live at the cost of one’s self-respect. Self-respect is the most vital factor in life. Without it, man is a cipher. To live worthily with self-respect, one has to overcome difficulties. It is out of hard and ceaseless struggle alone that one derives strength, confidence and recognition.
61 years since Ambedkar’s death on December 6, and his approach has proved a malleable tool for Europe’s most vulnerable community. Resistance to oppression, be it of the Dalits or the Roma, is where the values of liberty, equality and fraternity transcend cultural and national divides. Ambedkar, as always, remains relevant.
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