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How UK-based Ambedkarite-Buddhist 'fought' within-community traditional onslaught

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*

The journey of Daulata Ram Balley from Phillor to Birmingham is the story of a strong willed Ambedkarite who fought against all odds both of caste as well as of class in society. Ambedkarism and Buddhism were the tools that ensured him a dignified life in England.
I first met Balley in 2011 when I went to Birmingham to participate in a conference at the Birmingham University, and after the conference, I was to stay with my Ambedkarite friend Devinder Chandar, editor, "Samaj Weekly", at his house. Both Chandar and Balley came to pick me up at the university guest house, where I was staying.
Chandar took me to the house of Balley first. It was around 7 pm and his wife had prepared samosa and other dishes for me. They allowed me to leave only after our dinner. I found the love and affection that he gave me amazing. It felt like my own family in India.
Balley has written several books in Punjabi, and the latest one is ‘Sada Geda’. A deeply dedicated Ambedkarite, Balley speaks from his heart, and is one among very few who strengthened the Ambedkarite movement in Birmingham in particular and UK in general.
He was particularly interested in the growth of Buddhism among the Ambedkarite fraternity in Punjab. His wife Balbir Kaur is a strong pillar of support to him. She too follows Ambedkarism and Buddhism. They have two daughters and one son.
Balley was born in a village near Phillor in district Jalandhar, Punjab, on April 12, 1953. His father Sant Ram used to do leather work in Punjab and did not have enough land to feed the family, hence he migrated to England in the late fifties or early sixties and started working in a foundry along with his elder brother.
When Balley was in his 9th standard, his father called him to England in 1968. On December 27, 1975 he got married to Balbir Kaur, who arrived in the UK from Punjab. She flew from Delhi to London via Frankfurt all alone during her maiden journey out of India. Her father was an army person and wanted to educate his children, but since the school of Balbir was not in her village, she had to abandon her studies after the 9th standard.
Those were the days when families would not risk the safety of their daughters if they were going outside their village for studies. The result was that Balbir had to leave her education. It was this time that her father engaged her with Balley, who too belonged to Jalandhar, and was working in a foundry in England.
As young Balley was unable to go to Jalandhar for marriage, Balbir travelled on her own to London, and they got married there. He started working at the foundry, which was extremely hard. It was more of manual work, and because of his strong body structure he was always given tough work.
Most of the time it was 12 hours work for all the seven days a week, and he used to get 4.50 pounds a week, which was considered to be a fairly good amount. His brother used to get around nine pound a week. Once a person was confirmed in the job then, he would get 8.50 pounds a week.
Their hard work paid off. All three, father, brother and he, would go to job together and come back home together. Things were very cheap that time. On weekends they would go to pub to have beer, and also go to watch movies. Labour work then was mainly confined in the midland areas such as Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry and Derby.
"We would mostly get heavy iron work, which was done mostly by Punjabis, and because they all worked over time, they became economically better off. All Indians loved heavy work because it helped them earn more money", Balley told me.
He was part of the labour movement but he felt that the labour organisations rarely spoke about caste discrimination. After work, they would go to have beer as it was cheaper than water. They were a close family and took care of their three sisters. Two of them are no more.
Balley invested in business with a friend and started a general store, which continued for nearly 10 years. With steady income, he was able to buy a good house in Birmingham nearly 35 years ago.
In 1969, Balley thought of embracing Buddhism but did not get an opportunity. But in 1974 he took ‘deeksha’ at a special ceremony organised at his house by well-known bhikkhu of that time H Sadatissa who was a close associate of Ambedkar and had come from Sri Lanka.
He said, "My brother opposed my decision. He was respectful of Ambedkar but not keen on Buddhism. All my relatives opposed my decision and stopped speaking with me".
"Many of the Ravidasis opposed my decision, too. They even lured me to become General Secretary of the Ravidas Mahasabha’’, he said, adding, "When everything failed one day I was attacked with axe, but I survived."
He faced such big challenges from his own community and relatives. This is what happens when an act is considered a challenge to traditional values and the hierarchical system of community or family.
Balley's father was also an Ambedkarite. He was founder editor of "Bhim Patrika" and was inclined to embrace Buddhism, but most of the family refused to agree. This is what normally happens in Ambedkarite families. Many accept Buddhism, but others feel no need to convert and retain their original identity as Ravidasis.
Talking to me, Balley remembered many veteran Ambedkarites of his period in England who contributed immensely for the growth of the movement in UK. The most important among them was Khush Ram Jhummat, who had passed his MA from DAV College, Lahore, and was the most educated among his peers at that point of time.
Other eminent persons were Sansari Lal, Malook Chand, Keru Ram and Darshan Ram Sarhare, who were responsible for the Buddhist Society of Birmingham since 1960s. They used to organise Buddha Purnima and other celebrations every year.
In June 1974, Balley went to the Town Hall for the conversion ceremony in which over 500 people participated. There was a lot of discussion around it. It was the first conversion in UK of the Ambedkarites into Buddhism, and those who made it possible were Bishan Das Mahay, Ratan Lal Sampla, Paramjeet Rattu alias Pahalwan, Deburam Mahay, Surjeet Singh Mahay, Gurmukh Anand and Fakir Chand Chauhan. Buddhist Society people also helped.
Balley remembered his interaction with prominent persons in UK, including BP Maurya, RPI leader, Dr Gurusharan Singh, Dr Suresh Anjat, Waman Rao Godbole, Prakash Ambedkar and Kanshiram.
Balley was a very popular figure in his youth. During emergency, the Indian Workers' Association and Ambedkarites protested against Indira Gandhi when she came to Birmingham in 1975.
I ask Balley whether there was discrimination in England. Whether he had faced caste discrimination personally.
"We had a mixed team of both the upper caste Sikhs as well as Hindus. There was good relation among them but casteist minds too were there. During the kabaddi game they used to call me chamar and yet I used to call my Sikh friend Bhai Saheb", Balley noted.
"This type of discrimination was there in the foundry, too, because of which I wanted to resign, but the manager did not accept my resignation", he said, recalling how in India, often, upper caste Sikhs used to tease him in his village. He was a hockey player and a Jat Sikh pushed him with his bamboo stick meant to lash the cattle. Balley retaliated with his hockey. He never accepted any caste slur and responded in the same language.
Balley said, he is upset that people don’t follow the Ambedkarite way of life and kept women subjugated. When he was getting married, he was asked to follow a tradition in Punjab in which the veil of the bride is first lifted by the elderly people of the family, like her father-in-law and the brother-in-law. He refused to accept this practice despite a number of his relatives getting highly upset with his decision.
Balley is concerned about Bodh Gaya and feels that it is the rightful place for the Buddhists, and it must be handed over to them. He feels that Ambedkarites must concentrate on cultural aspects by strengthening Buddhism and liberating Bodh Gaya.
A couple of years back, Balley had some health issues but with his strong will he recovered well, and now dedicates his time on Ambedkarism and Buddhism.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat. X: @freetohumanity. Skype: @vbrawat

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