Indian Dalits in mass conversion to Buddhism and Christianity

In a protest against anti-conversion laws introduced by several Indian states, over 9,000 Indigenous Dalits were received into the Buddhist and Catholic faiths in mass ceremonies in the central city of Nagpur over the weekend.

The Age reports that the ceremonies were timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the conversion to Buddhism of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a Hindu "untouchable" and the drafter of India's democratic constitution.

The Fides agency adds that the events were part of a World Religious Freedom Rally to promote Religious Freedom in India.

"We believe this peaceful rally will be the start of a nationwide movement promoting the most basic human right - the freedom of conscience and the ability to choose one's religion. The citizens of India will overturn theses anti-conversion laws through and unrelenting campaign in the media, in the courts and in civic life", the organisers told Fides.

Several states governed by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have introduced or strengthened laws to stop what it says are forced conversions, mainly by Christian missionaries.

Most of those who converted in one of the biggest inter-faith changes in years were poor villagers from the state of Maharashtra, where Nagpur is located.

"You are no more a Hindu. Say you will not worship any Hindu god or goddess. Say I will never go to a temple," a Buddhist monk asked the crowd to repeat with him.

While more than 9,000 people converted to Buddhism chanting Buddhist mantras, more than 500 others embraced Christianity by taking dips in a makeshift pool as part of the baptism process.

Under the new laws anyone planning to leave the Hindu fold, the country's majority faith, must obtain certificates from officials and affidavits from courts, stating they were converting out of free will and not by inducements.

Christian groups say these laws are aimed at curbing religious freedom and against the Indian constitution. The anti-conversion laws were condemned by Benedict XVI this year.

"There is complete freedom in the constitution to pick up and follow any faith you chose. Today is the celebration of that freedom," said Joseph D'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, who presided over the baptism.

"This is not about religion or conversion. It is about a constitutional right, the right to practice one's own religion," said Udit Raj, president of the Indian Justice Party.

Dozens of riot policemen were deployed at a public park in Nagpur where the mass ceremonies took place. At the park some Dalit activists burnt a copy of Gujarat's anti-conversion law.

Indian low-caste Hindus convert en masse (The Age, 16/10/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Dalit Christians

Brazilian Catholic activist awarded "alternative Nobel prize" (CathNews, 29/9/06)
Dalit openly become Christians, Buddhists to protest conversion law (CathNews, 11/12/02)
Indian Bishops defend mass conversion of Dalit to Buddhism (CathNews, 6/11/01)

16 Oct 2006