Coming down heavily on the caste structure in Hindu religion, author Kancha Ilaiah today advocated adopting the Buddha's ideology as a way to achieve secularism in the country, generating a lively debate among the fellow panelists at the Jaipur Literature Festival here.
Religious conversion, caste structure within religions and position of dalits after conversion were the main talking points of the session titled "God as a Political Philospoher: Dalit Perspectives on Buddhism," where Ilaiah engaged with author Ajay Navaria and poet Nirupama Dutt.
"A dalit who converts to Christianity can become a pastor or be an equal in the mosque or can touch the Guru Granth Sahib. But he can do none of this in Hinduism. He cannot become anything," Ilaiah said. "No dalit can become a priest in a Hindu temple," said the author of "Why I am not a Hindu" who also pointed out that Buddhism has always advocated the ideas of equality, abolition of caste structure, notion of justice and women's rights. However, fellow author and panelist Ajay Navaria, whose collection of stories "Unclaimed Terrain" translated into English has recently been published, disagreed over the issue of the benefits accruing to dalits from conversion and the adoption of Buddhism as the main religion. "Conversion does not solve any problem. In fact, there is a category in administration of a 'New Buddhist' where a person's original caste is mentioned in brackets even after adopting another religion," he argued, questioning then the purpose of going through conversion. "I am not here to advocate Hinduism.
But the dalits can go into any religion but their identity is that of an untouchable. They are not liberated even there," Navaria said, adding "Religion cannot solve the problem." Furthering his argument, poet Nirupama Dutt highlighted the problem of caste structures within religions. Dutt, who hails from Punjab, drew attention to the phenomenon of Gurudwaras being based on caste. "Today one can find separate Gurudwaras for Sikh Jats, Kabir panthis and the tanners," she said. "While Sikhism does not recognize caste, just like in the case of Islam, the situation of the ground is very different from the one visualised in scriptures," added Dutt. Drawing attention to the ground realities in countries where religion forms the basis of law, Navaria said the country would not become secular and discrimination-free just by adopting Buddhism. "I don't like religion based systems because they end liberty... No religion is detached from caste," he added. Even as the panelists disagreed on various issues, they did agree on one thing – that the aim should be that of a caste-free society. "I don't agree that caste cannot be abolished or that equality cannot come to India," Ilaiah said. And while Navaria disagreed with him on how to achieve this goal, he did outline his vision for India. "What I want is neither a Ram Rajya or a Buddha Rajya, but in fact a Lok Rajya."