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Opening the safety valve

"Opening the safety valve" Continued...

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

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."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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