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.
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."
In addition to serving as a tax official, Mr. Raj heads a massive political movement in support of Dalits. In that capacity he has long worked with Christian leaders to combat discrimination and poverty visited on the lower castes. Mr. Raj wrote the foreword to a book by Christian apologist Vishal Mangalwadi (Touch Thy Neighbor: Stories and Reflections on Untouchability). In it he acknowledges India's debt to Christian missionaries for providing civic structure and education, particularly among the Dalits. But he disavowed Christianity itself, saying, "Buddhism is adequate religion to meet the requirements of my country."
At the rally, Mr. Raj was the first to convert. Head shaved, he stepped forward to receive sangha-diksha, a Buddhist initiation rite, along with his wife, two children, and several co-workers. He also announced he was changing his name to Udit Raj.
Mr. Mangalwadi told WORLD that neither he nor most church leaders felt betrayed by the Dalit leader. Mr. Mangalwadi attended the rally and planned to meet with Mr. Raj the day after his conversion. "Ram Raj had to choose between keeping his Buddhist base intact or keeping his commitment to Christian leaders. He opted to side with those who opposed Christian conversions all along," Mr. Mangalwadi said.
He warned Mr. Raj to be wary of the Hindu majority's acceptance of his conversion. "Hindus see this as a safety valve. Buddhist conversions are permitted, Christian are not," he said. Local newspapers the day after the rally, according to Mr. Mangalwadi, portrayed the conversions to Buddhism "as a cute little event, a ceremony." He said he told Mr. Raj, "Only if you become what you are not allowed to become, then it is a statement of freedom."
Dalit protest is as old as India itself. Although India's 1949 constitution and many laws enacted since attempted to free lower castes and integrate them into secular society, Hindu prohibitions have proved more durable. Public-sector quotas allow Dalits to hold jobs in government and to participate in the political process.
Like racial quotas in the United States, they have only institutionalized Dalit status. "You cannot take the benefits of being low-caste and walk away from the indignity of being low-caste at the same time," said Mr. Mangalwadi. Most Dalits today must live in separate settlements, draw water from separate pumps or wells, refrain from entering temples, and refrain from dining with the upper castes. In the streets, Dalits are made to wash and use separate tea glasses from upper-caste Hindus.
Social reformers popularized the term "dalit"-from a Sanskrit word meaning to split or crack open-for untouchables in the 19th century. Bhimrao Ambedkar applied the term to a political movement to enfranchise the lower castes after India gained independence from Britain in 1947. He borrowed the concept of conversion from Christian missionaries because he saw a radical departure from Hinduism as a powerful tool to overthrow the old social order.
With conversion, then as now, came sacrifice: leaving Hinduism means losing face, as well as family and career ties in most cases. Ironically, Buddhism attracted Mr. Ambedkar as an alternative because Christians from upper castes "closed the door on him," according to Joseph D'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council.
With the conversion movement reincarnated under Mr. Raj, the equation should be different, Mr. D'Souza believes. Christians, like Dalits, have in recent years come under increasing persecution from the Hindu majority, "so it is a natural alliance."
Even so, Mr. D'Souza, who spoke at the Nov. 4 rally, said beforehand he would not consent to baptize Dalits who might profess conversion to Christianity until they could be received into Christian communities and receive biblical teaching: "We must not make it look like this will happen in one day."
Mr. D'Souza expected converts on Nov. 4 but told WORLD before the event that his group's approach to the Dalits would remain the same, no matter how the numbers fell. "If they become Christians or not we will love them. We have taken all the care to make sure that our motive is Christ-like love, working toward giving them dignity as a human being."
To that end, 500 Christian volunteers moved among the untouchables, serving them refreshments even as they took Buddhist vows. The volunteers arrived at 5 a.m. to prepare hot tea. Later in the day they handed out over 8,000 lunches, along the way making conversation and arranging future visits with some.
Mr. Mangalwadi said that was one of several reasons for the Christian presence. "It was sad to see people bowing before Buddha and calling him lord," he said, "but I felt we needed to press the confrontation. There is no religious freedom in India. This event let the government make the statement with their police action, and with the national media watching."