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At yet another historic mass conversion rally Indian Dalits renounce Hinduism and seek emancipation from the oppressive caste system through Buddhism in New Delhi. Budhism Today brings this historic event and its sidelights live to you.

Deeksha ceremony being performed at Ambedkar Bhawan

Deeksha ceremony being performed at Ambedkar Bhawan

History repeated itself in the land of Buddhism’s birthplace when over 50,000 Hindu Dalits (Untouchables or lower-caste) marched with flags, shouting slogans against the upper caste Hindu’s oppression and joined Buddhism in Indian Capital New Delhi on November 4.

Nearly half a century ago, in 1956, over 5 million Dalits led by the popular Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar who framed the Indian constitution, had renounced Hinduism and joined Buddhism to escape from the caste system which discriminates them as untouchables and forces slavery. About 300 million Dalits have been facing social inequality and the stigma of low-caste for 3,000 years in India. 

 Writer, Manpreet Singh, covering the historic rally

Buddhism Today's Editor, Thich Nhat Tu (right), great to be a part of it, he says along with second preceptor
Text and Pictures by Manpreet Singh.

Mr. Singh is an international freelance journalist in India and can be reached at: mpreet@hotmail.com

Buddhism Today's Editor, Thich Nhat Tu, (right) with the second preceptor at the rally says it was a great priviledge to be part of the historical event. For Vietnamese coverage, click here.

The Sunday November 4 mass conversion rally which aimed at converting one million Dalits to Buddhism was banned by the authorities under pressure from Hindu radicals who called it a “Christian conspiracy”. The National Commission for Minorities said the rally would lead to law and order problem and sought its ban.

Conversion is an extremely sensitive issue in India and Christians are often blamed for indulging in converting low-castes by fraudulent means and enticement. However, the Hindu radicals have not been able to prove Christians’ forced conversions and many a times Christians have been persecuted.

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When the whole world watched: strong media presence at the historic event

Defying the ban and restrictions the police put in form of barricades, thousands of Dalits from far flung corners of the country gathered at the Ambedkar Bhawan, named after the Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar who had led a mass conversion rally to Buddhism in Nagpur.

The rallyists’ enthusiasm was to be seen to be believed. Many groups flowed in from thousands of miles away, carrying flags and shouting slogans against upper caste Hindus’ oppression and praising Buddhism which they said “treats all human beings equally”. Crowds sat cross-legged in the sweltering heat listening to their leaders for hours and witnessing the historic religious ceremony where thousands took deeksha (conversion).  The crowds stood on the roofs to be a witness to this historic ceremony.

A moment towards freedom and hope!The Dalits were apparently angry at the restrictions put by the authorities to prevent the rally. A fuming Dalit leader, Net Raj, criticised the authorities’ coercive attitude, “Is it done anywhere in the world to put barricades for the citizens of the country to stop them from performing a peaceful religious ceremony, the right which the constitution of the country guarantees. It’s the upper class Hindu’s who are doing it as they are angry that we are walking away from their slavery and they are losing control.”

 The organisers blamed police for detaining a large number the Dalits at Delhi’s borders and misleading them by putting “fraud” banners at the rally’s original venue, Ram Rila Grounds, reading that the rally had been cancelled. While the police said only 8,000 turned up, the BBC and international media reported the number at 60,000. The national and international media was present in good strength to witness this hyped day; the world was all eyes to this historic day.

The All-India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organisations (AICOSCSTO), which organised the rally, said that rally was meant only for conversion to Buddhism, though they had sought the support of Christians. “It’s a misleading propaganda by the Hindutva forces,” said Ram Raj, chairman of AICOSCSTO, who had been working hard for the last four years to make the rally a success. “No literature of any other religion would be distributed at the rally and all would be converted to Buddhism.”

The conversion ceremony was performed by Bhante Buddha Priya Rahul, who gave deeksha to Ram Raj. Ram Raj’s name was changed to Udit Raj after he received deeksha. Thousands of the Dalits who had gathered also took deeksha by chanting the prayers after the Buddhist priests clad in impressive saffron robes.

Baggage to leave: Dalits join from all corners of the country to unburden the pastA bronze idol of Buddha was brought on the dais and the monks publicly performed the deeksha ceremony in an open ground with new converts chanting religious oaths. The newly-converts to Buddhism also took the oath of not to pray Hindu gods and goddesses.

“Today, I am no more an achoot (untouchable). The Hindu gods and goddesses have only given Dalits indignity, hunger and slavery. We refuse to accept this code of domination anymore. Dalits must liberate themselves from the shackles of their oppressed past and usher in a new renaissance through education and the awareness of human rights. Buddhism is the path to this liberation,” said Udit Raj, after the deeksha ceremony.

Most of the Dalits who came for conversion said they were fed up with being treated like “no more than animals.” Hukam Das, 22, who came with a group of 1,200 Dalits to attend the deeksha ceremony said angrily, “I want to leave casteism and Hinduism. We are disgraced every day, at every place. We have to bear the stigma of casteism.” As to why he wants to embrace Buddhism in particular, Das says, “Joining Buddhism is the only way to escape the chains of slavery. Buddhism respects and treats all human beings equally, it is the best religion.”

Anand Kumar, who came with a group of over 3,000 Dalits from Uttar Pradesh State, says, “Dalit Hindus have been exploited for centuries. We are not treated equally and not shown respect. Dalits are powerful and can change the country. This is the message we have come to give here by changing our religion to Buddhism where we would be treated as equals, not low-caste.”

The crowds swell to be paret of the historic dayThe Dalit leader Ram Raj also gave the message of a “changed nation” from the rally’s dais. “Quit casteism, quit Hinduism,” he said. “We want to destroy casteism. We are not treated as citizens of this country by the Hindutva forces. We have been suffering for three thousand years. We are fighting for the progress of the country which is not progressing due to casteism and Hindutva forces are not allowing us to walk away from caste system. We are not against any community, but I am sad—unless we have dignity and freedom we can’t progress.”

This was the second historic mass rally where India Dalits converted to Buddhism. The Dalits have a long history of oppression and slavery. The fact that they tried to break away from the shackles of discrimination, disgrace, slavery and oppression through Buddhism, for the second time in half a century speaks volumes about the image Buddhism has in India. These downtrodden people, tried to find refuge once again, in Buddhism which is their escape route to dignity and a life of freedom.

The Dalits once again sought emancipation through Buddhism, in a mass conversion rally, proving the liberation and welfare of all beings as enshrined in Buddhism which as one of the renowned Indian columnist wrote “makes it (Buddhism) the best choice.”



Rally Man: Ram Raj to Udit Raj, a man, really!

The man behind the rally, Udit Raj, (middle) giving the message of hopeUdit Raj (called Ram Raj, before who got deeksha) chairman, All-India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organisations is the man who worked for four years and organised the rally. He speaks on various issues.

A return to roots:   I am not using the word “conversion” because embracing Buddhism is a renaissance and a return to our old cultures and values of brotherhood, universal love and equality.

Why Buddhism: Because it preaches equality, non-violence, morality and dynamism. It diagnoses causes of misery and sorrow and teaches cure for suffering and how to enjoy eternal bliss. Buddhism motivates a person to believe in himself by preaching that he and he alone is master of his destiny. No gods and goddesses can solve one’s problems unless one works hard with purified mind and good intentions. The center of Buddhism is human being and his problems. Most of the religions have main consideration for super-natural or transcendental reality, which has nothing to do with day-to-day problems of men like employment, justice, equality, fraternity. They suggest believing in or worshipping gods and goddesses instead of serving, giving respect and love to humanity…Buddhism can liberate them.”

On Buddhism decline: Buddhism declined in India, its birthplace, primarily because the Bhikkus and Upaskas did not so much as resist the attacks on them. I too subscibe to the principle of Ahimsa, but subject to the condition that we must exercise our right to self-defense. If our opponents contemplate harming us in any way, we can not, and must not, allow them to do so…Since Buddhism does not cripple human beings by preaching fatalism, our movement is in keeping with Buddhist ethics… May all beings be happy!



Dalit's predicament: Indian Dalits, also known as Untouchables or low-caste are the “broken people” are trapped in the caste system (where they occupy the lowest rank).

This caste system which is dominated by the once-priestly class of Brahmins, is forced upon them. Although, the caste system was legally abolished about 50 years ago, their plight has not improved.

In rural areas they are still not allowed to enter Hindu temples, or draw water from the village wells reserved for the upper castes (they run the risk of being beaten or killed if they do this). 

They are also often exploited as slave labour. Many of them have tried to find escape from the caste’s stigma through the change of religion.

Towards Buddhism: a Hindu Dalit dresssed up to say he is going to Delhi to receive deeksha


Towards Buddhism: a Hindu Dalit all dresssed up to say, "I am going to Delhi to receive deeksha."



Solidarity or conspiracy? Hindus blamed Christians for masterminding the rallyThe rally was termed as “Christian conspiracy” by the Hindu radical leaders who pressurised the authorities to ban it. Although, many Christians were present, and some Christian leaders addressed the rally, the organisers said they just sought support from Christians and all were converted to Buddhism.

No literature of any other religion  was allowed to be distributed at the event. Conversion is a sensitive issue in India where hardline Hindu groups accuse Christian missionaries of using inducements such as schools to lure poor people into their faith's net.


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Bhante Buddha Priya Rahul, the Buddhist priest who conducted the ceremony, said they planned to launch a full-fledged campaign to convert many more Dalits to Buddhism. ``We plan to hold a similar conversion every month till April next year. On April 14, we will have a conversion that is about 10 times this size near Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh,'' he said.


November 2001

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