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Over 30,000 lower-caste Hindus convert to Buddhism in Delhi ceremony
Agence France-Presse (via ClariNet)

New Dehli (Sunday, 04-Nov-2001) More than 30,000 lower-caste Hindus publicly converted to Buddhism on Sunday in the Indian capital, declaring their freedom from ill-treatment at the hands of the upper castes.

In an outdoor ceremony denounced by Hindu hardliners, the low-caste Hindus, or Dalits, shaved their heads in ceremonial fashion and chanted Buddhist mantras to signal their conversion.

Ram Raj, head of the All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, a lobby group for downtrodden castes, said the converts had "walked out" of India's 3,000-year-old caste system, under which millions of Indians are relegated to lower social status.

"We have embraced a new religion from today. It also symbolises the beginning of a new life for each and everyone of us. Our stand has won support from people all over the world," said Raj, who took the Buddhist vows himself.

Witnesses said about 30,000 Dalits took part in the ceremony, although Raj said the figure was higher. Organisers had previously said that one million Dalits would convert to Buddhism on Sunday.

Buddhist leader Sudhir Kumar said the faith was attractive to Dalits because it was also Indian-born but did not have a caste system.

"It is a religion for the common people and not for God. It teaches humility and appreciation for mankind," Kumar said.

Conversion and caste are volatile issues in India, where hardline members of the Hindu majority have long denounced Christian missionaries for alleged attempts to convert the population.

Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since China crushed an insurgency in Tibet in 1959, has distanced himself from the conversion event.

Members of the hardline Hindu movement Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have insisted they have no problem with the Dalits' conversion in principle but charged that there was a "Christian design" behind the ceremony Sunday and had urged that it be banned.

Christian groups have denied involvement in the conversions but expressed their support for the Dalits.

"We support this fundamental right of the Dalits to choose a religion of their choice, as guaranteed by the constitution," said a statement by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

Raj said Hindu fundamentalists in Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government had tried to scuttle the mass conversion ceremony because they did not want to see Dalits enjoy equality.

"We were put through a lot of trouble in organising the event right from the start. Our venue for the Buddhist oath-taking ceremony changed several times during the course of this week because of the whims and fancies of the government," Raj charged.

"I do not know what the political parties are trying to do by stopping us but the forces of change are here to stay. I promise that," Raj said.

Leading VHP official Acharya Giriraj Kishore has in turn charged that Raj was trying to build political influence through the event.

The caste system was described in Hinduism's ancient sacred text, the Rig Veda, as a social order intended to maintain harmony in society. It divides people into four main castes.

The Dalits, the lowest rank account for around 16 percent of India's overwhelmingly Hindu population.

Although the caste system is supposed to have been abolished in India and discrimination on the grounds of caste is illegal, it continues in thousands of Indian villages and small villages.

In some parts of India, Brahmins, members of the top caste, have used private armies to terrorise peasants who have risen up against the caste order.

Under the traditional Hindu social system, so much as the shadow or touch of a lower caste Hindu was considered unholy and dirty.


November 2001

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