Dalits in Conversion Ceremony

October 20, 2006

Source: BBC News


Thousands of people have been attending mass ceremonies in India at which hundreds of Hindu Dalits converted to Buddhism and Christianity. The events in the central city of Nagpur are part of a protest against the injustices of India's caste system, activists say. The Dalits - once known as Untouchables - hope to escape the prejudice and discrimination they often face. Laws designed to protect Dalit rights are ineffective, critics say.

The ceremonies mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of Buddhism by the scholar Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. He was the first prominent Dalit to urge low-caste Indians to embrace Buddhism. As the chief architect of India's constitution, he wrote anti-discrimination provisions and quota systems into the country's law. The Dalits arrived by the truckload at a public park in Nagpur for ceremonies, which began with religious leaders giving fiery speeches against the treatment of lower castes. Reuters reported that dozens of riot policemen had turned out at the sprawling park. Udit Raj, a Dalit leader, told the BBC that around 2,500 people converted to Christianity and Buddhism.

Joseph D'Souza, the president of the Dalit Freedom Network and a Christian convert, described the conversions as a "celebratory occasion". "I think it's important to understand that this is a cry for human dignity, it's a cry for human worth," he told the BBC. He said that Dalits could seek dignity by converting to Christianity, Jainism or Sikhism as well as Buddhism.