Features

Opening the safety valve

International | India allows "untouchables" protest, but the "cute little event" tells much about religious freedom in the world's largest democracy

Issue: "Politics Post 9/11," Nov. 17, 2001

They came lugging bloated legs and displaying open sores. They came hungry, carrying dirty sacks full of all their worldly goods. India's lower caste "untouchables" hobbled from public transportation into a New Delhi stadium on Nov. 4 for a day of public empowerment. They came to convert en masse to Buddhism as a protest against decades of discrimination at the hands of the country's ruling Hindu elites.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 Dalits, the political term for lower-caste Hindus, arrived from all over the country at Ambedkar Bhavan, a walled and cramped public meeting place named for a Dalit forefather who led the conversion of half a million Dalits to Buddhism in 1956.

Ignoring the day's sweltering heat and threats from police, the poor arrived from across the country, many with heads already shaved in the tonsured style of Buddhist monks. Then, in unified, solemn gestures, they took 22 vows before a bronze Buddha. If India's constitution cannot protect them from indignity, their actions said, perhaps conversion to a new religion will.

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As public relations, the event was a fiasco. Its chief organizer, a New Delhi tax commissioner named Ram Raj, boasted ahead of time that 1 million Dalits would attend. Less than 10 percent of that number actually showed. Mr. Raj also agreed to share the platform with India's Christian leaders and encouraged them to seek converts as well. They seized upon the political momentum leading into the rally and announced that they hoped to see at least 20,000 Dalits abandon Hinduism for Christianity.

Their projections fell flat, too. In response to last-minute threats from India's two controlling Hindu political parties known as BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), Mr. Raj minimized the Christian presence. Three church leaders joined Mr. Raj on the dais and had a brief opportunity to address the crowd; but in the end no Dalits publicly professed faith in Christ.

After four years of planning by Mr. Raj, the event began to unravel only days before it was to begin. Labeling it part of "a Christian conspiracy," VHP politicians called a press conference on Oct. 25 to demand that Delhi police stop the rally. They demanded an investigation of Mr. Raj and his suspension from the tax commission. They called for the arrest of John Dayal, general secretary of the All India Council of Churches.

Evidence available on the Internet "points towards a major conspiracy by the Christian missionary leadership at the international level," said VHP spokesman Rajendra Chaddha. "We have nothing against Buddhism," he told reporters, but his party would stand against "an attempt to get Dalits to convert to Christianity."

Indian columnist Bharat Putra poked at the government: "In this country and elsewhere, Christians have been accused of many things, from mass murder to mass conversion, but it was the first time that they were accused of aiding and abetting conversion to another religion."

Local police and Hindu authorities sided with the Hindu politicians. At first publicly outlawing the event altogether, under court order they eventually allowed it to go forward with a changed venue. Instead of gathering at New Delhi's larger Ram Lila stadium, as planned, the Dalits had to settle for the smaller grounds at Ambedkar Bhavan, which is within yards of the offices of a Hindu nationalist group, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

On the morning of Nov. 4, police stopped buses en route to the new location and delayed trains with stops in its vicinity. Some Dalits said police told them the rally had been canceled and turned them away. Organizers say those tactics explain the lowered turnout.

Mr. Raj buckled, too. He wrote a letter disavowing his liaison with Christian organizations to the Indian founder of Colorado Springs-based Bibles for the World, Rochunga Pudaite. Mr. Pudaite was to be one of the Christian leaders participating on Nov. 4 and had used his base in the United States to enlist prayer for the event.

Copies of his press material apparently turned up in the hands of Hindu politicians, who in turn told journalists that Mr. Raj intended to allow a dozen truckloads of Christian literature into the stadium. Mr. Raj wrote Mr. Pudaite: "I had not asked you to baptize anyone, including myself on November 4th or any other day and you had not been asked to invite people to join Christianity on that day. I have not permitted [you] to distribute any books on that day at the ceremony. I had been working hard for four years to mobilize the people for Buddhism."

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