The story, though, is far more interesting for lawyers than this story might otherwise suggest.
1. The focus of the conversions is on India’s untouchable caste. Sasai has chosen to continue the work of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, formerly of India’s untouchable caste, who led the first mass conversion of untouchables to Buddhism in 1956. Ambekar sought to eliminate the discrimination against untouchable caste Hindus by having them exit from Hindus entirely—through conversion to Buddhism—and then requiring the state to protect these adherents of a minority religion, to equal rights. This strategy continues to have great appeal to the untouchable caste.
2. Affirmative action programs aimed at untouchables have made the actual counting of converts to Buddhism difficult. The article suggests that untouchable caste converts might continue to identify themselves as low caste Hindus in order to take advantage of the current system of affirmative action put in place by the Indian state.
These two elements of the story reveal the strong political and legal implications of Sasai’s efforts and the role of religion in Indian politics and social life. These implications are tinged with a substantial bit of irony. First, the social framework of Indian life clearly makes existence for lower caste Hindus difficult. And because social practices based on religious status within Hinduism is so deeply ingrained within the social fabric of society, social organization itself could be said to be fundamentally tinged with subordination based on religious status. Critical race theory in the United States has done much to reveal the difficulties of eliminating systemic prejudice or subordination based on race. The story of conversion of untouchable caste Hindus to Buddhism reveals the way in which the insights of critical race theory can be used to explain subordination in the developing world as well. Prejudice, subordination and its systemic effects is not limited to the United States and its race problem. It can manifest itself in other forms of differentiation as well. For low caste Hindus, the system produces a situation in which exit—through conversion to Buddhism—becomes a (and perhaps the) principal responsive option.
Of course, this is not the first time the world has seen this sort of cause and effect. Christianity in the Mediterranean world was said to profit from the difficulties of less established sectors of society within the Roman world. Merchants, immigrants from other parts of the Mediterranean, freed slaves, rising middle class people—all those subordinated segments of society proved to be a primary market for early Christianity. The dynamic was similar. Having been excluded from local society—and the political, economic and social structures of that society—these elements of the population made a choice to set up their own self-sustaining (and ultimately competing) social organization. Untouchable caste Hindus converting to Buddhism may face the same social dynamic.
On the other hand, while converts embrace a new supportive community, they continue to face the systemic subordination from majority Hindus. They may, for example, continue to be treated as untouchables, or they may suffer prejudice directed against minority religions. In a society that might be built on majority religion privilege, conversion creates an internal support system but can do little to eliminate the very real effects of subordination in the form of discrimination in economic and political life.
Second, while conversion may alleviate social subordination, political intervention by the state complicates the value of conversion. Untouchables suffer great discrimination. Untouchables convert in order to seek relief from this subordination by placing themselves outside the social/religious system producing this subordination. The state intervenes by seeking to coerce a greater degree equality for untouchables through legislation that distributes social, economic and education goods to untouchables. But this political intervention is available only to those who have remained members, in fact, of the subordinated group. This presents converts with a dilemma. If they proclaim their conversion they may lose whatever governmental benefits they might enjoy against subordination. But if they do not convert, they lose the benefits of a protective community. Yet, whether or not they convert, they will continue to suffer subordination like untouchables. What to do? They must “pass.” Critical race theory again provides insights into the politics and sociology of passing—focusing on passing in the racial context of American society. Yet in the Indian context we see again how the idea of passing can work outside the race context of American life. In this case, untouchables—now Buddhists—must continue to pass for Hindu to benefit from the little protection extended by the state or continue to suffer the systemic consequences of subordination.
Third, the necessity of passing highlights my last point—the difficulty of using political devices like affirmative action to tweak the effects of systemic subordination, the foundations of which remain protected by the state. India may be purchasing majority Hindu privilege by conceding limited and state based benefits to subordinated groups. In return, the state is freed of any obligation to confront the systemic subordination itself. For those who believe that this dynamic is either tied to the West, or to race, the story of Sasai and his Buddhist converts reminds us of the difficulties of mediating between majority and minority in plural societies built on the norms of a single group.