Nagpur is the third largest city in Maharashtra State in India. It is located at the Zero Mile Marker meaning that is literally at the center of India. The river Nag flows through the city. In the Marathi language ‘Nag’ means cobra. According to the famous activist for justice for dalits or untouchables Dr. B. R. Ambedkar the people of Nagpur belong to the dynasty of the Nag who were followers of the Buddha. This post will look at the movement started by the late Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and the present condition of the dalits in Nagpur.
The system of caste and of untouchability is perhaps the greatest stain on the religion of Hinduism. Many Indian religious leaders and intellectuals have tried to fight the inherent discrimination found in the notion of the untouchable. Mahatma Gandhi implored the Hindus to view dalits as harijan meaning ‘children of God’. Gandhi’s immense influence did have some impact in improving the lot of untouchable people. Many inspired by the great leader changed their notions of caste, and the Congress Party enacted laws to make it mandatory to employ a quota of dalits in government jobs.
However, sadly the prejudice that makes the dalits dirty people who have to live on the outskirts of town, who cannot drink from the main water supply, who can be beaten or killed for just casting his or her shadow on a Brahmin, who can only do the filthiest jobs still continues. Dalits function as the ‘other’ in Hinduism: they define the holy purity of those within the caste system by their contrasting impurity. Dalits are not members of the caste system but they are members of Hinduism. Hinduism ironically needs the untouchables to make its social hierarchy work.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar understood that despite the law and the implorations of Gandhi nothing would greatly improve for the dalits. In Nagpur the dalits were particularly poorly treated. It is a city that is famous for its Hindu extremism.
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was born an untouchable. He was one the first of his caste to get a university education. He went on to be a respected professor in history and philosophy. He had fought the Chaturvarna system (the categorization of Hindu society into four varnas) and all the discrimination that it caused. His great contribution to the fight for social justice in India was to fight religion with religion. He pointed out the fact that Buddhism started in India and that philosophically and ethically the two religions are similar. Buddhism was the birthright of the Indian, not a foreign religion. Most importantly Buddhism treated everyone as equal. On 14 October 1956 in Nagpur B. R. Ambedkar along with his supporters converted to Buddhism starting the Dalit Buddhist movement which is still active. It was a masterful attempt at restoring the human dignity of millions of people. Simply put it gave the dalits the means to say ‘enough is enough’ I refuse to be your whipping boy any longer’.
The system of untouchability is still a strong presence in India and Nagpur. It is a prejudice like racism that is hard to combat because it is based on irrational fear. The dalits who remained Hindu in Nagpur still largely face the same uphill struggle to gain their human rights. What the great Dr. Ambedkar did along with others is to change the heart and minds of many Indian intellectuals, to show them the need to reform Hinduism. Today, many famous Hindus are not ashamed to come forward and say the caste system is wrong.
It is interesting to note that Buddhism is perhaps India’s great cultural contribution to the world. Since its inception it has spread over much of Asia. Buddhist Thailand has managed to integrate the largest group of Chinese ethnicity outside of China into its own culture. Thai-Chinese make up 11% of the population of Thailand and are regarded no differently to any other Thais. It is the great blot on an otherwise profound religion that Hinduism cannot learn to be inclusive and fair handed with all its myriad members.