Thursday, 23rd May 2013 3:29pm.
Ashling O’Connor, The Times October 13, 2006
Photo: Converts at a Roman Catholic retreat in southern India chant prayers. Minority religious groups fer that Hindu extremists are growing increasingly hostile (John McConnico/AP)
A mass ceremony will highlight India’s unjust caste system
ABOUT 100,000 outcast Hindus are expected to attend a mass conversion ceremony in central India tomorrow to be freed from the social injustices of the caste system and to protest at curbs on religious freedom.
The rally in Nagpur will mark the 50th anniversary of the conversion to Buddhism of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a scholar and constitutionalist who fought for the rights of India’s “untouchables” — the downtrodden people now known as Dalits.
There are an estimated 180million Dalits in India and 70million tribespeople. Traditionally compelled to perform the most menial, degrading and dangerous tasks, Dalits occupy the bottom rung of the caste ladder, at the opposite end of the social spectrum to the Brahmins, who constitute less than 5 per cent of the population.
Dr Ambedkar, a Buddhist revivalist, publicly rejected the scriptures of Hinduism before converting about 380,000 of his supporters. Tomorrow’s ceremony, led by Dr Udit Raj, the president of the India Justice Party, and expected to be attended by Bollywood stars, is part of a wave of Buddhist conversions across India this month. Events are also planned in Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Punjab, when millions of people are expected to embrace a new religion.
The mass conversion in central India’s largest city comes at a politically sensitive time as minority religious groups fear that Hindu extremists are becoming increasingly antagonistic towards them. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the western state of Gujarat caused an outcry last month by amending an anti-conversion law to classify Buddhism and Jainism as branches of the Hindu religion, denying them status as unique religions.
Five other BJP-led states, including Rajasthan, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, have introduced or strengthened anti-conversion laws, which local leaders say are designed to protect low-caste, often illiterate, Hindus from being put under pressure to convert. Critics say they are chiefly designed to keep them within the caste system.Religious leaders suspected of forcibly converting Hindus, particularly women and children, or converting without a government permit, face harsh penalties including prison.
Right-wing nationalists have accused Christian missionaries of offering enticements to poor tribesmen to change religion. Leaders of India’s 26 million Christian population reject the allegations.
Opposition politicians say the BJP is trying to polarise voters along religious lines in an effort to shore up its political support. “Anti-conversion legislation is blatantly unconstitutional and against the provisions of international law,” David Griffiths, an advocacy officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a specialist human rights group, said. “It imposes restrictions on conversions, which should be free. There is ostensibly an agenda to keep the Dalits and tribespeople oppressed within the caste system.”
Dalits who do gain access to education are hampered by discrimination. A recent survey in 565 villages in 11 states revealed that up to 38 per cent of government schools segregated Dalit children at meal times.
In 20 per cent of schools they were not permitted to drink water from the same source as other classmates.
According to the 2001 census, there are 7.95 million Buddhists in India, although the true figure is thought to be much higher as people hide their religion.
Joseph D’Souza, the president of the Dalit Freedom Network, which is co-sponsoring tomorrow’s mass conversion, described the caste system as modern-day slavery. He said: “We believe this peaceful rally will be the start of a nationwide movement promoting the most basic human right — the freedom of conscience and the ability to choose one’s religion.”
The Times October 13, 2006
Outcasts switch faith to gain freedom