The move is expected to create ripples across Maharashtra’s religious structure and comes half a century after the framer of the Indian Constitution, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, called on the lowest Hindu castes to abandon their religion and become Buddhists.
“It’s my small effort to realise Dr Ambedkar’s dream,” Mane said.
Asked why he chose Buddhism, Mane (55), the youngest winner of the Sahitya Academy Award, said that tribals were “unknowingly” following Lord Buddha’s teachings. “But now we’ve realised that our practices are pretty close to Buddhism.” Mane, now associated with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), said the conversions would protest “government apathy”. He said: “Forget a decent standard of living, most of us don’t even get shelter and proper food. Our literacy percentage is a mere 0.06.” There are around 350 million Buddhists worldwide, a growing number in the West. Maharashtra has 5.8 million Buddhists, according to the 2001 census, the highest in India, followed by Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
Mane expects a “sizeable number” from Maharashtra’s 42 nomadic tribes to embrace the new faith.
“We’ll organise a mass diksha (ritual of initiation) rally in Mumbai on December 16,” he said. Initially, 100 representatives will convert on October 2. The two-month conversion movement will start on October 16 at Chandrapur, a tribal district in eastern Maharashtra.
However, Mane refused to term the move ‘conversions’. He said: “We (tribals) have never followed Hinduism and its social norms. So there’s no question of relinquishing any religion.” While Mane denied any political agenda, experts said his conversion would benefit the NCP. He was recently appointed as chief of the Nomadic Tribal Welfare Board, a government undertaking. A close friend of NCP boss Sharad Pawar, Mane works in tandem with Pawar’s daughter and Member of Parliament Supriya Sule for tribal welfare.
Mane’s conversion will be held on Dhamma Parivartan Din, the day of conversion traditionally celebrated on Dussehra, in Nagpur’s Diksha Bhoomi on October 2 this year.
Ambedkar embraced Buddhism on the same day, which fell on October 14 in 1956. But he died the same year, before he could give diksha to his followers on December 16.