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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
the confines of caste responsibilities. This duty includes strict endogamy, or marriage only within one’s caste. It was Ambedkar who dubbed the untouchables Dalits— meaning people who are “broken to pieces.” Other names have been suggested, each problematic, seen as demeaning by one group or another: Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes—accounting for some 300 million people, or 25 per- cent of India’s population—are the sanitized terms used in the Indian constitution; untouchable is a legally proscribed status; ex-untouchable is euphemism. Mahatma Gandhi’s term harijan, which means “children of god,” is dismissed as patronizing by adults who hardly feel themselves blessed by any divine presence. While Gandhi was forging a nonviolent anticolonial move- ment, Ambedkar—who often clashed with Gandhi—worked for human rights and the annihilation of caste as essential to what many saw as an otherwise elite-driven nationalism. After years of attempted collaboration with reformist Hin- dus, including Gandhi, Ambedkar, a member of the Bombay legislature and a leader of the Mahar conference, organized a 1927 satyagraha (meaning, roughly, “truth force”) of thou- sands to draw water and drink from the Chowdar Tank, a reservoir closed to untouchables despite a 1923 resolution of the Bombay Council. That same year, Ambedkar took the radical symbolic step of publicly burning the Manusmrti, the Brahmanic code of caste duty, which he and other Dalit lead- ers saw as key to the social, economic, religious, and political oppression of the untouchables. Though untouchability was legally abolished under India’s secular constitution in 1950, the reality is not much improved today. Consider Hillary Maxwell’s report in a June 2003 edi- tion of the online “National Geographic News”: India’s untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offence. Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in main- stream Indian newspapers tells their story: “Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers;” “Dalit tortured by cops for three days;” “Dalit ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar;” “Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool;” “7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash;” “5 Dalits lynched in Haryana;” “Dalit woman gang- raped, paraded naked;” “Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits.” By 1935, Ambedkar had concluded that the Brahmanic caste system could not be reformed even with support from most liberal-minded Hindus. Caste oppression was not an artifact of Brahmanism, but rather its essence. Ambedkar urged the untouchables to give up the idea of attaining Hindu religious rights. He prepared to leave Hinduism and adopt another religion. He saw caste as a “system of graded inequal- ity” in which each subcaste measured itself above some castes and below others, creating an almost infinite factionalism that divided each exploited community against another and mak- ing unity of social or political purpose almost impossible. “I was born a Hindu,” Ambedkar said, “but I solemnly assure you that I will not die as a Hindu.” He investigated Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism—and was courted by each of these Walking Buddha statue, nearly sixty feet tall, at Nagarjuna Training Institute, also known as Nagaloka, in Nagpur PhotoRoshiJoanhalifax Photos alan senauke 65 spRing 2 01 1 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly