Saturday, October 14, 2006

Ambedkar anniversary in India - reports from Vishvapani

October 14th saw the 50th anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism. Vishvapani was in India and has sent these two reports - a fascinating insight into how the media can make a story - but also, into how too much focus on the media by the organisers can undercut the very event they are trying to promote. The conversion movement in India is clearly gathering steam, but it will follow its own course in its own time. The picture shows some of the crowds at the Diksa-Bhumi in Nagpur.

Vishvapani, October 14th. "Search Google News for 'Ambedkar' and you'll be surprised - suddenly, the conversions in India are a world-wide story. You never know exactly how these things get picked up by the media, but the coverage sems to have started in the UK, and then spread to India and worldwide as people picked up the story. I like to think that the efforts of my UK friends and I may have helped this along.

The first major coverage came in The Guardian - I spoke to their International Newsdesk a few days previously and they forwarded the story to their Delhi correspondent. He was here in Hyderabad on the evening of 13th and filed his copy in advance. The BBC World Service people I have been working with are also in Hyderabad making a documentary, and in the afternoon Dan Isaacs, the reporter working on the documentary, started to get calls following their morning editorial meeting: having read the Guardian piece, they decided to carry it themselves. He was filing reports all day and my friend and companion here, Manidhamma (a dalit Buddhist from Nagpur, currently living in the UK) was interviewed for the news programe Newshour - which has an audience in the tens of milions.

The report also appeared on the website and even now it is ranking as the fourth most read story. Along with guardian unlimited this is one of the most read English language news channels. Then it apeared on Reuters, and a flood of international coverage has followed. There's not much US coverage yet that I can see: that may change.

Yet he also reports from Hyderabad, where vast crowds were expected on 14th -

"The much-hyped Hyderabad conversions have proved a damp squib. The ceremony I attended today where the organisers had claimed 100,000 would convert attracted perhaps one percent of that number. The day started badly when the stage supporting the assembled VIPs (including me!) collapsed beneath us - none hurt.

As it became clear that the numbers would be low and that the event would start several hours late patience started to fray, and the Taiwanese nuns and monks who had flown over with the Ven Hsing Yun were murmuring about the organisation and being there on false pretences. Hsing Yun is a major figure in Taiwan and TV crews followed his every step - but the event hardly lived up to his stature.

The simple, moving diksha ceremony went off smoothly, and a series of speeches started. Just as I came to the microphone to make my own the organisers announced that their time was up, and the police had told them they needed to reopen the road.

It is so hard to tell the reality of what is happening here from the rhetoric and the posturing. Various theories are circulating about the small size of the success, but a key issue seems to be that the organisers focused on getting high-profile guests to attend rather than mobilising ordinary people from the villages.



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