Last October, India's dalits – the so-called “untouchables” from lower caste Hindu families – celebrated the golden jubilee of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism. There seemed a great deal to celebrate. After all, Ambedkar, the icon of dalit dignity and the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, had inserted anti-discrimination provisions and quota systems in the country’s law to promote dalit upliftment. Moreover on October 2, 1956, he formally broke the shackles of the Hindu caste system and embraced Buddhism, together with some 380,000 of his followers. Since then, legions of dalits have followed suit – two and a half million in 2006 alone.

Ambedkar was a declared atheist and rationalist. His decision to take "diksha” and be reborn a Buddhist was made just two months before his death.

It was an unfortunate, even disastrous end to a signficant career. By suggesting that the dalits need to adopt an alternative religious identity to fight for justice and equality, he weakened the movement and its prospects of achieving genuine equality.

Fifty years later dalit mass “dikshas” are gimmicks, head counts of poor people herded together. The untouchables are used as colourful extras, exploited by a whole range of political and religious special interests. The mass conversions help political leaders to bargain for maximum seats to contest in India’s multi-party, multi-level election system.

They are not only celebrated by the Buddhist world (cited as evidence of inexorable growth), but also, suspiciously, by the Indian Bishops Conference. Why? Anti-conversion laws in several Indian states – welcomed by rationalists – prohibit conversion “by use of force or allurement or by fraudulent means”. So far no mass “diksha” has been stopped by them, but they tie the hands of Christian missionaries. Since neither the Catholic church nor Evangelicals, Baptists, Anglicans or Pentecostals can hope for much support to loosen them, they promote the “dikshas” to make conversions appear acceptable.

India’s 175 million dalits (16 per cent of its 1.1 billion population) are twice as likely to be unemployed or living under the poverty line as the national average. Nevertheless, Ambedkar’s constitutional provisions did improve their lot. Over forty years they doubled the number of dalit girls in urban schools, allowed dalits to study and teach in universities, serve in the civil service, police and army, and sit in legislatures up to the national parliament, which reserves 8 per cent of the seats for them.

Even the highest political positions are not closed. Famously, former Indian President KR Narayanan was born a dalit, as was the newly appointed Chief Justice.

According to Article 17 of the Constitution, untouchability is long abolished. But while it has withdrawn from the light of the cities, it has not lost its fury in the darkness of politically neglected rural India.

In September 2006, in the village of Khairlanji in Maharashtra, a dalit family was brutally murdered. Sureka Bhotmange and her 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, a brilliant student who wished to join the army, were dragged out of their house, paraded naked around the village and gang raped by a dozen high caste Hindus before their genitals were mutilated with sticks and knives. Sureka’s sons Sudhir and Roshan were tortured and their genitials were cut off, when they refused to rape their sister. After more than an hour of torture, all four were hacked to death. Only the father escaped. Some days before, Bhotmange and his family had witnessed in court against fifteen high caste villagers, who had brutally beaten a dalit policeman. The guilty were arrested but were out on bail when they took their revenge. That the Bhotmanges were Buddhist converts did not protect them. Despite a public outcry at the time, the murderers could well escape conviction. This is not an isolated case. Between 1999 and 2004, 4,435 cases of atrocities against dalits have been reported in Maharashtra alone – the tip of the iceberg. Only 220 of them have led to convictions.

Ambedkar’s heritage has helped to integrate many dalits into modern Indian society. There are now quotas which guarantee dalits jobs in educational institutions and the civil service. But this may also have contributed to sustaining the very caste system that it tries to overcome.

Though many dalits are able to use these quotas to get education and jobs that would otherwise be unreachable, they are viewed with derision by many upper caste students. And since access to higher education and jobs is limited to the legislated quota, many dalits feel their opportunity is still artificially limited. The Indian Supreme Court recently pointed out that while a lucky few benefit from the quota system, the really deprived are left out.

Today, quotas are a “holy cow”, an alibi for lack of political will. Meanwhile a recent survey throws new light on the state of India’s Muslims. Statistics describing their educational, economic and social situation look much like dalit statistics. Should Indian Muslims be entitled to quotas too, many are now asking.

Indian Rationalists have already proposed a solution. It lies in a secular quota system, based on new criteria beyond religion and caste. It has to benefit the needy, the deprived and the left-out in Indian society without trapping them forever in their caste or religious past. ■

Sanal Edamaruku is a journalist and broadcaster and President of the Indian Rationalist Association