Over 100,000 Indian tribal people to convert to Buddhism

Hindustan Times, May 10, 2007

Dalai Lama to perform the rites

Mumbai, India -- India’s largest religious mass conversion will be held at Mahalaxmi Racecourse on May 27. Laxman Mane, a nomadic tribal whose autobiography Upara (Outsider) is a celebrated work of Marathi Dalit literature, will preside as lakhs of his supporters from 42 nomadic tribes convert to Buddhism. Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama will perform the rites.

The Bombay High Court on Tuesday allowed the Royal Western India Turf Club to let the organisers hold the rally. A citizens’ group, Public Concern for Governance Trust, had filed a petition in 2005 requesting the court to disallow such public functions at the racecourse.

The mass conversion, expected to be a social and political landmark, comes 51 years after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar called on lower castes to abandon Hinduism and become Buddhists at a function to be held at the racecourse.

But he passed away before the event could be held.

“It’s a small effort to realise Ambedkar’s dream,” said Mane, who converted to Buddhism in Nagpur on October 2, 2006.

On May 27, Mane said, 1,000-odd nomadic families will be brought before the gathering — organisers say about 5 lakh people will attend in all — to lead the conversions. Over one lakh others will embrace the religion simultaneously.

Asked why he chose Buddhism, Mane (56) said tribals had been following Lord Buddha’s teachings without knowing it. “But now we’ve realised that our practices are similar to Buddhism’s,” he told HT. Mane refused to term the rally as an exercise in conversions. “We tribals never followed Hinduism, so there’s no question of relinquishing it,” he said.

Mane said the conversions were a protest against “government apathy”. “Forget a decent standard of living, most of us don’t even get shelter and food. Our literacy level is just 0.06 per cent,” he pointed out.