Ambedkar was, after his famous conversion announcement of 1935, determined to seek alternatives to Hinduism. Which religion would this be? Around 1936 we can see the evidences of Ambedkar’s attraction to Sikhism. There were reasons for this attraction. Sikhism was an Indian religion, and one with traditions of equalitarianism which he thought important. It was also “close enough” to Hinduism that he felt would not so much alienate Hindus who were afraid of conversion that would increase the powers of an alien religion. In 1936 he met Dr. Moonje of the Hindu Mahasabha, with a statement that was later given out on a wider basis to other leaders like M.R. Jayakar, M.C. Rajah and others. Interestingly, Dr. Moonje gave a qualified approval while Gandhi unequivocably condemned a conversion to Sikhism.
It was at this time, in April 1936, that Ambedkar went to Amritsar for a conference of the Sikh Mission. He addressed the meeting, before huge crowds; some Dalits from Kerala converted to Sikhism at this time. Dr. Ambedkar told the group that he had decided to renounce Hinduism, but not where to go as yet. However his attendance at the conference alienated the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, which had given an invitation for him to speak in Lahore, and they wanted him to expunge some passages critical of the Vedas from his address. Ambedkar refused, and had the speech printed on his own – “Annihilation of Caste.” In it, he makes the statement, “the political revolution of the Sikhs was preceded by the religious and social revolution led by Guru Nanak.” In contrast to what he saw as the “reform” of the bhakti movement in Maharashtra, Sikhism was revolutionary. Ambedkar’s argument was that emancipation of the mind had to precede social and political revolution: “political revolutions have always been preceded by social and religious revolutions.”
Ambedkar’s statement at the time regarding reasons for looking towards Sikhism is also interesting. “Looking at these alternatives purely from the standpoint of the Hindus, which is best, Christianity, Islam or Sikhism? Obviously, Sikhism. If the Depressed Classes embrace Islam or Christiantiy, they not only go out of Hinduism but go out of Hindu culture. On the other hand, if they become Sikhs they remain within Hindu culture. This is by no means a small advantage for the Hindus. Conversion to Islam or Christianity will denationalize the Depressed Classes. If they go to Islam the number of Muslims would be doubled and the danger of Muslim domination also become real. If they go to Christianity it will strengthen the hold of Britain on the country.”
Part of the debate at the time was whether converts to Sikhism (or any other religion) would retain the rights given to them as Scheduled Castes, under the Poona Pact or whatever. Moonje had agreed that converts to Sikhism would retain these rights,
Thus on 18 September 1936 Ambedkar sent a group of his followers to the Sikh Mission at Amritsar to study the Sikh religion. These became overwhelmed by their welcome, and in the end – against original intentions – in fact converted to Sikhism. They have not much been heard of since!
On Baisakhi day in 1939 Ambedkar participated in the All India Sikh Mission conference in Amritsar with his followers wearing turbans, and deletated his nephew to take amrit and become a khalsa Sikh.
Later some conflicts came up between Ambedkar and the Sikh leader Master Tara Singh, who undoubtedly feared Ambedkar’s political influence. The massive numbers of untouchables would overwhelm the existing Sikhs, if conversion took place; and Tara Singh feared that Ambedkar himself would become the leader of the Panth. In one incident, money (twenty five thousand rupees) apparently promised to Ambedkar was given instead to a follower of Tara Singh, Master Sujan Singh Sarhali; it never reached Ambedkar.
Thus, during the middle period of his life, Ambedkar interacted with the Sikhs and their leaders, and showed some attraction to Sikhism. It is worth asking why in the end he turned away from it.
One reason was undoubtedly his awareness of the existence of untouchability within Sikhism itself. Though in principle egalitarian, in fact Dalit Sikhs retained a separate identity – as Mazbhi Sikhs, or in some cases as “Ravidasis’ – and were differently treated. There was thus a kind of segregation within Sikhism. At the social level, Dalit Sikhs in the Punjab remained landless, subordinate as agricultural laborers to the landed Jat Sikhs, the dominant community.
Then, perhaps, the very factors which he early spoke of as reasons for going to Sikhism may have dissuaded him. If Sikhism was “part of Hindu culture,” then what in the end was the use? The “Hindu culture” which was so infected with casteism would continue to infect the entire Sikh community; Dalits would remain as untouchables within it, only untouchables who perhaps wore turbans. Buddhism more and more was appearing to Ambedkar as something different; like Sikhism it was Indian and not “alien”; it would not irrevocably divide the nation or give domination to Muslims or greater continuity of power to British colonialists. It also offered, perhaps, a kind of rationalism that Sikhism did not – Ambedkar was undoubtedly attracted by this theme that the Buddha had so consistently put forward, that one must decide for oneself, on the basis of experience and rationality: atta deepa bhav. Thus Buddhism proved to have a stronger and more enduring appeal than Sikhism. Buddhism could not even offer the limited resources of community support that Sikhism could, but it was also a religion that Ambedkar could shape on his own, could mould to suit what he felt to be the spiritual and moral needs of Dalits. Sikhism already had its set religious hierarchy, to which Ambedkar – however strong and determined a leader – would have been subordinate.
Thus, in the end, Sikhism lost out to Buddhism as the goal of conversion for Ambedkar and his lakhs of followers.