The family of Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula who committed suicide over alleged caste discrimination has decided to convert to Buddhism on Thursday to break the shackles of the Hindu caste system.
The initiation of Rohith’s brother Raja and mother Radhika into Buddhism will be organised in Mumbai by Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of BR Ambedkar, whose 125th birth anniversary is being observed nationwide on Thursday.
“I have no ill feeling toward Hindus but my conscience doesn’t allow me to continue in this religion. It is because of the Hindu caste system that my brother was harassed, humiliated and forced to take his own life,” Raja told HT on Wednesday.
“Millions of Dalits have suffered, just like my brother did, for thousands of years because of the Hindu caste system.”
They will follow in the footsteps of Ambedkar, who led millions of his followers into Buddhism in 1951, months before his death.
“I was born a Hindu but will not die one,” Ambedkar famously said, as he exhorted Dalit communities to choose Buddhism because of what he called its inclusive nature and lack of discriminatory structures.
Raja told HT that Rohith’s last rites were conducted as per Buddhist traditions. “Although he did not formally convert, my brother was a Buddhist at heart,” Raja said.
The family learnt about Rohith’s inclination toward Buddhism in November last year when he visited Guntur to attend a friend’s wedding.
“He came dressed in white robes. When my mother asked him why he was dressed like that he said that this is how Buddhists dressed. He spoke to her for a long time about the religion,” Raja said.
“He kept repeating this is the only religion where everybody is treated equal. He also said conversion to Buddhism was the way out of the caste system as shown by Babasaheb Ambedkar.”
Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother who has been at the forefront of protests against the government, said she decided to convert to set an example for Dalit people.
“When Rohith was alive, I didn’t take his talk about Buddhism very seriously. But now I understand the importance of what he was trying to say. He was more enlightened than all of us. We have decided to convert not just to honor his memory but also to set an example for Dalits across the country,” she said.
Rohith’s suicide last January at the University of Hyderabad ignited a wave of protests in campuses across the country against decades of caste discrimination against lower-caste students.
Rohith and four fellow Dalit students were suspended from the hostel and subjected to social exclusion following a complaint by an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad member.