The two most important mass conversions in 20th century postcolonial India were that led by Ambedkar in 1956 to Buddhism and that at the village of Meenakshipuram in 1981 to Islam. Though both involved untouchable outcaste communities and non-Hindu religions, Ambedkar’s conversion has consistently served as a shorthand for all untouchable conversions across India, not simply eclipsing the mass conversion at Meenakshipuram but often serving as its frame. Yet the converts in and observers to Meenakshipuram themselves did not refer to Ambedkar and related Dalit efforts but instead to EV Ramasami Naicker and related Non-Brahmin efforts beginning in the 1920s to challenge the caste hierarchy of Brahminism. In this lecture, Matthew Baxter argues that EVR’s interest in Islam was very different from Ambedkar’s interest in Buddhism. Such differences echo a broader political distinction between EVR’s internationalist investments in contrast to Ambedkar’s nationalist ones. More importantly, he suggests that such differences illustrate a very different approach to the means by which outcaste communities can achieve equality, freedom, and justice. Whereas Ambedkar suggests the importance of changing how one sees, where conversion marks a change in an interiority inflected by individual belief, EVR suggests the importance of changing how one is seen, where conversion marks a change in an exteriority inflected by collective appearance. In Dr. Baxter's presentation, he focuses on EVR’s emphasis on Islamic conversion as a change in being seen, in contrast to Ambedkar’s emphasis on Buddhist conversion as a change in seeing. Whereas postcolonial scholarship, à la panopticon, has tended to place power with those who see and powerlessness with those who are seen, he argues that EVR’s Non-Brahmins emphasized Islamic conversion as a way to articulate power through being seen and, in the process, emphasized the priority of the physical over the psychological in achieving equality, freedom, and justice.
Matthew H. Baxter is currently a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University's South Asia Program and Associate at Harvard University's Mahindra Humanities Center. He works on political theory and South Asia, with a focus on Tamil-speaking South India and Non-Brahmin politics. He received his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley and has served as the Associate Editor for South Asia at Asian Survey and as a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University and Harvard University. His work has appeared in The International Journal of Hindu Studies, Asian Survey, History of Political Thought, and in a recent edited volume titled Comparative Political Theory in Time and Place: Theory's Landscapes.
SAP Visiting Scholar, Harvard University
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