Untouchables Challenge Hinduism's Sway

by Alex Buchan

Untouchables Challenge Hinduism's Sway

Almost overshadowed by some Christians exaggerating the spiritual significance of the event, between 50,000 and 100,000 outcast Hindus descended on New Delhi Nov. 4 to participate in a historic anti-caste political rally.

Thousands of participants repudiated the oppression of the Hindu caste system by converting to Buddhism and calling on other Dalits (oppressed ones) to follow suit and leave Hinduism for another religion.

Invited Christian leaders such as Joseph De Souza and John Dayal of the All India Christian Council made speeches of solidarity to the assembled Dalits. "The (Buddhist) conversions are also very significant because they reject the cultural nationalism being propagated by the Hindu (extremist) groups," said Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, who also participated in the rally.

Contrary to the expectations of some foreign Christian observers, no organized Scripture distribution or Dalits' baptisms into the Christian faith took place at the rally. Some Christian organizations had spoken in terms of "300 million Dalits on the verge of conversion to Christianity" and raised funds to distribute Scriptures and to build tents on the site to baptize Dalits.

But the rally organizer, Ram Raj, wrote a stern letter on Oct. 27 demanding a halt to such claims and practices, stressing that Christian leaders had merely been invited to participate as guests and show solidarity; they had received no permission to conduct evangelistic activities during the rally itself.

Nevertheless, Hindu extremists downloaded the hype from Websites and demanded that the rally be banned. The district commissioner of police revoked the rally permit with two days to go, noting that "material downloaded from the Internet clearly indicates that there is an organized attempt to use this rally for mass scale of conversion."

Rally organizers maintained they had a right to convert to another religion in whatever numbers they chose and gathered at a second site-the Ambedkar Bhavan grounds -on the same day. Organizers claimed 350,000 Dalits were prevented from boarding trains and traveling to New Delhi for the rally. Yet in the end-despite a tense standoff with police at the original site-the crowds gathered and dispersed peacefully and were not attacked by Hindu extremist mobs.

The event was organized by the All India Federation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Organization (AICSSO), of whom Ram Raj was the main spokesperson. A civil servant, he converted to Buddhism and changed his name to Udit Raj.

Scheduled Castes refers to the 150 million so-called "untouchables" who are at the bottom of India's economic system and who in many villages today find it is still taboo to draw water from wells or enter the homes of high caste neighbors. Scheduled Tribes refers to the 80 million tribal people. Both groups are technically outside the caste system.

Hindu culture maintains that people are born into a certain social stratum due to their cycle of reincarnation. Those in lower castes are thought to be paying the cost of wrongs committed earlier. Even Mahatma Gandhi still saw caste as the essence of Hinduism and wanted merely to reform it, not abolish it.

A form of affirmative action exists in the Indian constitution to help untouchables. Approximately 15 percent of university admissions and government loans and jobs go to Dalits, but it is rare they achieve high office or promotion. Unfortunately, untouchables who convert to the Christian faith lose any such entitlements-something many feel will have to change if a large-scale conversion to Christianity is to take place. Even so, 60 percent of India's 40 million Christians are from a Dalit background.

In recent years, Hindu extremists have bolstered the caste system. The extremists are the ones who took exception to the rally, especially when Christians began claiming that conversions to their faith were to occur. Said Dayal, "Hindus consider Buddhists a sect of Hinduism." But Christians are much more threatening, since they do not support India becoming a Hindu nation-the aim of the extremists.

"For now," said one participant, "let us just celebrate that a symbolic blow on has been struck against the caste system as the secret but terrible scourge of Indian society." He added, "Later, we have to ask some hard questions of those who peddled irresponsible publicity so that we do not give the Hindu extremists more ammunition to persecute us."

Alex Buchan is a writer for Compass Direct News Service

Via Baptist Press