Frustrated with efforts to Christianize south India in the 1800s, British missionaries named Tamil Nadu's state capital "Madras" because it was full of "dogs and Mad-rascals." Despite early resistance to the gospel, Tamil Nadu state is known today for its strong evangelical Christian community, which accounts for 6 percent of the population. These send thousands of Christian missionaries into other states throughout India.
Not long ago the city of Madras reverted to its original Indian name, Chennai. Yet recent episodes of India's low-caste "untouchables" threatening mass conversions to Christianity-and the Hindu government's hasty passage of anti-conversion laws to prevent them-has caused some to wonder if Chennai is still a city of mad rascals.
"Untouchables" are the bottom-most people group in India's 3,000-year-old social caste system. Commonly called "Dalits," which means "downtrodden," untouchables make up 25 percent of the Tamil Nadu population. While the Indian constitution guarantees equality, justice, and human dignity for all people, the caste system is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of India, leaving most Dalits landless, illiterate, and politically impotent. Dalits are restricted to the most menial jobs in society, like farm labor or city sewer-cleaners. "India's constitution does protect the Dalits," says Chennai university student Praveen Emmanuel. "However, life for the Dalits is agony."
Mr. Emmanuel, along with four other students majoring in communications, recently produced a documentary film on human-rights violations and everyday cruelties against the Tamil Nadu Dalits. One Dalit told the students on camera, "My young daughter must go to the landlord and perform unspeakable acts with him each morning before she goes to school. Because I am a bonded Dalit slave I have no rights. I must send her every morning. It breaks my heart."
According to government statistics, nearly 15,000 cases of rape, murder, house burning, and other atrocities are committed against Dalits each year. However, most cases go uninvestigated or unpunished.
In 2002, Dalit leaders announced a scheme for breaking free from the lowest tier of the Hindu caste system. They called for mass gatherings where Dalits would convert from the Hindu religion to Christianity. These mass conversions initially were not conceived as spiritual renewal, but designed to be a form of political dissent.
When Tamil Nadu's chief minister, J. Jayalalitha, heard rumblings about mass religious conversions, she issued an emergency ordinance banning them as the work of "anti-social and vested interest groups exploiting people belonging to depressed classes."
The "Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance" issued by Miss Jayalalitha last October bans religious conversion "by use of force, allurement, or by fraudulent means." Terms such as "allurement" were left undefined, leaving Christians to speculate and fear just how far the interpretation will go. Christian relief agencies, for example, have been told that feeding the hungry could be considered an "allurement" if there is any mention of the gospel or even a moment of prayer associated with the meal.
The law spells out penalties. Anyone "abetting the conversion of another" is subject to a prison term of three years and a fine of $1,000. For conversion of Dalits, the penalty is four years' imprisonment and a $2,000 fine.
The law also requires those who convert from one religion to another to report their conversion to local authorities. They must fill out paperwork attesting to their new religion and swearing that their conversion was completely voluntary.
Christian leaders fear the new law will create an atmosphere that fosters false charges against ministers and intimidates new believers. "The people of my village want to come to Christ, but there is great pressure not to," said Paul Dhana Seelan, pastor of a modest rural church in Indra Nagar village. "We get constant threats saying, 'If you become a Christian today, tomorrow you won't be alive.'" Pointing to a gigantic loudspeaker set up on the rooftop across the street from his church, he said, "Fanatics blast Hindu chants at our church on Sundays in an attempt to intimidate us."
Attempts to overturn the anti-conversion law are not succeeding. The Hindu-controlled Tamil Nadu legislature ratified the Jayalalitha emergency ordinance, which gave it the force of state law. Court challenges are likely to be thwarted. India's Supreme Court has upheld similar anti-conversion laws in effect since 1968 in several northern states. And there is the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, who is quoted by judges. He once said, "Conversions [from Hindu] are harmful to India. If I had the power and could legislate, I would certainly stop all proselytizing."
India's Dalits have adopted the declaration "Seeriyezhu" as their political mantra. Though it literally means "rise up and roar," the phrase is not yet a call to social upheaval. Their plea at this time is simply for respect and dignity. One Dalit woman told WORLD, "We somehow survived this long, but we don't want our children to suffer like we did."