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Conversion To Buddhism Has Brought Literacy, Gender Equality And Well-Being To Dalits

Manu Moudgil,
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There are more than 8.4 million Buddhists in India and 87% of them are converts from other religions, mostly Dalits who changed religion to escape Hindu caste oppression. The remaining 13% of Buddhists belong to traditional communities of the north-east and northern Himalayan regions.


Today, these converts to Buddhism–also called neo-Buddhists–enjoy better literacy rates, greater work participation and sex ratio than Scheduled Caste Hindus, the group from which most converts emerge, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of 2011 Census data.


Given that converts make for 87% of the Buddhist population in India and most of them are Dalits, our analysis goes with the assumption that the benefits of growth in the community accrue mostly to the Dalits.


Buddhists have a literacy rate of 81.29%, higher than the national average of 72.98%, according to Census data. The literacy rate among Hindus is 73.27% while Scheduled Castes have a lower literacy rate of 66.07%.


“Most Dalits at the senior levels of administration are Buddhists,” said Satpal Tanwar, a leader of Bhim Army, the activist organisation accused of the Saharanpur violence of May 5, 2017, and now mulling mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism. “This is because Buddhism lends them self-confidence as compared to the caste system which tends to rationalise their low social status through vague concepts like bad karma.”


Better literacy rates


It is only in the traditional communities of the northeast, especially in Mizoram (48.11%) and Arunachal Pradesh (57.89%), that Buddhists have a lower literacy rate than the population average.


On the other hand, Chhattisgarh (87.34%), Maharashtra (83.17%) and Jharkhand (80.41%) have the most number of literate Buddhists. The conversion movement has been the strongest in Maharashtra, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh.


Source: Census 2011; Note: Figures as percentage of population


Maharashtra’s story is unique because it has the highest proportion (5.81%) of Buddhists in its population than other Indian states–more than 6.5 million. It was the home state of  BR Ambedkar’s where he, along with 600,000 followers, switched to Buddhism in 1956. This form of protest against casteism continues to this day though, as IndiaSpend reported on June 17, 2017, the growth rate of such conversions is declining.


In Uttar Pradesh, 68.59% Buddhists are literate, higher than total population average (67.68%) and nearly eight percentage points higher than the figure for other Scheduled Castes (60.88%).


Better gender parameters


Female literacy among Buddhists in India is also considerably higher (74.04%) than the total population average (64.63%), data show. Among neo-Buddhist states, only Uttar Pradesh (57.07%) and Karnataka (64.21%) show female literacy rates lower than total population averages, but these are still considerably higher than Scheduled Castes in these two states.


Source: Census 2011;

NOTE: Figures as percentage of female population


In 2011, the sex ratio among Buddhists is 965 females per 1,000 males as compared to 945 for total Scheduled Castes. The national average sex ratio was 943. Buddhists also tend to have fewer children.


The Census 2011 data shows that there are 11.62% children in 0-6 year age group among Buddhists compared to 13.59% national average. This means, for every hundred population, Buddhists have two children less than the average.


But can it be said that neo-Buddhists are more inclined towards education than Dalits? Or is there a greater possibility that Dalits turn to Buddhism after attaining education?


Around 43% of Buddhists stay in urban areas as compared to total population average of 31%, which also increases their chances of being educated. But the reality is not simple.


Around 80% Buddhists are from Maharashtra, which has better literacy and urban ratio than the national average. Within Maharashtra, the literacy rate, urbanisation levels and child ratio among Buddhists is slightly better than for other groups.


The Maharashtra story: How the Mahars found a better life


The development among Maharashtrian Buddhists can be attributed to Ambedkar’s call for education and certain social conditions.


Ambedkar was from the Mahar community which had little agricultural land and no fixed traditional occupation in a village society. They often stayed on the periphery of their villages and acted as watchmen, messengers, wall menders, adjudicators of boundary disputes, street sweepers and so on.


This flexibility of profession ensured that Mahars were more mobile than others. Many of them, including Ambedkar’s father, joined the British Army. Even before Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, he asked the Dalits to take to education.


“Lack of farm land or traditional occupation made it easy for Mahars to take to education as the means for gainful employment,” said Nitin Tagade, assistant professor, Savitribai Phule Pune University, who has studied the economic condition of Maharashtra’s neo-Buddhists. “So, they had a head start as compared to other communities in attaining education and moving to cities.”


Around 47.76% Buddhists stay in cities compared to the Maharashtra state average of 45.22%, according to Census 2011. Among those in rural Maharashtra, most working Buddhists continue to be agricultural labourers (67%), which is much higher than the rural population average of 41.50%.


Their improved social status through education has helped neo-Buddhists contribute more to the national economy than Scheduled Castes. Their work participation ratio (43.15%) is higher than of total Scheduled Castes (40.87%) and higher also than the national average (39.79%).


(Moudgil is an independent journalist and the founder-editor of GoI Monitor, a web magazine on grassroots and development.)


We welcome feedback. Please write to respond@indiaspend.org. We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.


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  1. Harishchandra Sukhdeve Reply

    July 3, 2017 at 8:32 am

    Congratulations for giving hard data with appropriate analysis on the issue which we were highlighting (without data) to other Dalits to prove the success of Ambedkar’s wisdom.

    However, there is one misplaced conclusion (or interpretation) that Mahars converted to Buddhism because they had no permanent vocation, unlike other castes within SCs.

    Ambedkar had appealed to all castes, and he strived hard to bring them along. He waited for 20 long years. Finally, he had to embrace Buddhism and Mahars joined him almost in totality.

    His powerful opponents with power,resources and media under their control were successful in reducing Ambedkar’s status to the leader of Mahars alone.

    Now, irrespective of Census data and your findings, other Dalits have come to realise the importance of embracing Buddhism. The status of their vocation has not changed much under the Hindu fold to hold them back.

  2. Priya Desai Reply

    July 3, 2017 at 11:15 am

    A good story, reasonable data-intensive thus sustaining interest, short, focussed and readable.

    A good way to disseminate the info that may educate the public about some facts based on NSS data.

  3. Jagesh Somkuwar Reply

    July 12, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    An excellent article on the transformation of the so-called deprived sections of the society by following Buddha’s way of equality, justice and humanity.

    The writer deserves appreciation for his effort to present data and take it to the logical conclusion.

    Now, it’s up to all other communities to follow the message of Ambedkar for a dignified and better life for them and for the generations to come.

  4. Harishchandra Sukhdeve Reply

    August 20, 2017 at 12:26 am

    This is the first concrete proof of Ambedkar’s vision for emancipation of the marginalised sections.

    Although the article has a misplaced presumption that it was easy for Mahars to get converted because they did not have any permanent vocation and had better mobility, Mahars got converted because they believed in Ambedkar. The influence of the caste system prevented other lower castes from following him.

    Those who had control over media and social order ensured that Ambedkar, despite his all-pervading intelligence and relevance, was confined to his caste. Ambedkar had waited for twenty long years to get converted.

    I wonder if you have any research and findings on the wealth gap created because of the caste system in our society? It is visible but do we have any hard data from official sources or any reliable research agency?

    The gaps are not only in respect of possession of wealth but extends to control over resources, government, judiciary, media, industry, business and social activities like education, sports and administration.

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