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Citizenship in religious clothing?: Navayana Buddhism and Dalit emancipation in late 1990s Uttar Pradesh

Nicolas Jaoul

Keywords: Ambedkar; BSP; Dalit movement; Dalit Panthers; Navayana Buddhism; Uttar Pradesh

Abstract

B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) advocated the religious conversion of Dalits to Navayana Buddhism as the pillar of the future struggle against caste. This article examines the implications of this turn to religion for the Dalit movement. As shown by its convergence with Marx’s critique of bourgeois citizenship, Navayana exceeds the framework of political liberalism. It is argued, though, that Navayana is neither an orientalized version of liberal politics, nor is it fully contained by Marxism. The ethnography highlights the revival of Navayana in the 1990s in a context of disillusion with institutional politics. With the rise to political power of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in this period, Uttar Pradesh emerged as the new center of Dalit politics. However, the BSP government also disappointed many former activists, who then turned to the Navayana movement. What spaces and possibilities did Navayana open up to further the task of Dalit emancipation that political power failed to achieve? The ethnography highlights the Navayana movement’s practical difficulties and dilemmas, caused by its being advocated and practiced by secular minded activists hostile to popular religiosity.

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