India's Untouchables Turn to Buddhism in Protest at Discrimination by Hindus ; WORLD

Article excerpt

Across India this month, thousands of Hindus from the former Untouchable castes are converting to Buddhism in protest at the continuing discrimination they face. Mass conversion ceremonies are being held throughout the month, from Delhi in the north, to Hyderabad in the south. Organisers are claiming that more than 100,000 people have already converted.

Conversion is a highly charged political issue. Several states have passed laws this year making it harder to convert, and the mass ceremonies will infuriate Hindu nationalist parties that have been campaigning to stop lower caste Hindus changing their religion. But for many Dalits, as Untouchables are now known, conversion is the only way to escape the oppression they still face in Hindu society.

Untouchability has been illegal in India since independence, but it is still commonly practised. In many villages Dalits are not allowed to drink clean water from a well. In some areas, tea shops keep a different glass for Dalits to use, so higher-caste Hindus are not "polluted" by drinking from the same vessel, even after it has been washed. After the 2004 tsunami, Dalit survivors in Tamil Nadu were prevented from sharing water in relief camps.

Dalits are converting in large numbers this year because it is the 50th anniversary of the conversion of their most important leader of modern times, B R Ambedkar, who first called on Dalits to become Buddhists in order to escape discrimination.

When Mahatma Gandhi was leading non-violent protests against British rule, Ambedkar was using the same methods to demand equal rights for Untouchables. He was critical of Gandhi, and outspoken in his attacks on Hinduism.

"These people are converting as a protest," says Sakya Ponnu Durai, one of the organisers of the mass conversion ceremonies. But Mr Durai, a Dalit who himself converted two years ago, says he has wholeheartedly become a practising Buddhist. "After converting, I have much more satisfaction," he says. …