Magazine article The Christian Century

Still Untouchable: The Politics of Religious Conversion

Magazine article The Christian Century

Still Untouchable: The Politics of Religious Conversion

Article excerpt

IN THEIR LONG struggle for equality, India's dalits, or "untouchables," have often exchanged their Hinduism for Islam, Christianity, Sikhism or Buddhism, believing that they will better their lives by doing so. They have been persuaded that Hinduism, with its varna ashramas (caste distinctions), has been solely responsible for all their ills. But when they switch to other religious faiths and experience the same distinctions--albeit in different forms--they realize that such a change neither improves their social status nor remedies their economic problems of unemployment and poverty--the real source of their social discrimination.

A letter written by M. Mary John, president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement, to Pope John Paul II during his 1999 visit to India speaks volumes about the treatment meted out to dalit Christians within the churches of India. The dalits are oppressed and persecuted by "the hierarchy, the congregation, the authorities and the institutions of the Catholic Church." Despite the condemnation of such practices by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, casteism still persists among Christian communities. A state commission on dalits has pointed out that they are "twice discriminated against"--in society and within the church. At the time of conversion, they are assured that they are being inducted into a religious fold that is egalitarian and free from the twin curses of caste and untouchability. But the reality is altogether different.

Sikh places of worship have separate quarters for dalit Sikhs. High-caste Muslims do not marry dalit Muslims. Dalit Christians can hardly hope to reach any high position within the church. (They are not even allowed to occupy the pews meant for higher-caste Christians.) And Buddhist monasteries have not been able to prevent their converts from continuing their earlier casteist practices.

At the same time, in breaking away from Hinduism, dalits lose out on the basic safeguards provided to them in the Indian Constitution. In 1981, thousands of dalits in southern India converted to Islam to escape social victimization--only to find that they had forfeited whatever state privileges they enjoyed earlier as Scheduled Caste Hindus. Converted dalits are now fighting for these privileges, having perceived the age-old caste system still dogging their footsteps. The very fact that they still have to label themselves as "dalits" even after conversion in order to seek special privileges exposes the futility of that exercise. Today, India's dalits are 82 per cent Hindu, 12 per cent Muslims and less than 3 per cent Christian.

A mass conversions of dalits to Buddhism in recent months in India poses the question once again whether religious conversion alone can improve the social and economic status of people who have been marginalized for centuries. Some 50,000 dalits assembled in New Delhi in November to embrace Buddhism. In January another 25,000 followed suit in the southern state of Kerala. Such conversions expose the hypocrisy of the religious and political leaders who exploit the socially and economically backward groups for their own ends.

In the November mass conversion, participants from both northern and southern states converged on India's capital city. They were led by Ram Raj, an official working for the Indian Revenue Service, who also heads the All India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Schedule Tribes Organizations. Giving himself a new name and identity after his own conversion, he used the occasion to lash out at the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government at the Center, claiming that it had denied opportunities to the dalits.

Subsequently, the converts recited the 22 vows taken by Baba Saheb Ambedkar, founder of the dalit movement in India, who in a similar exercise in 1956 had embraced Buddhism, along with half a million other dalits, "to escape the tyrannies" of Hindu society. Senior monk Buddha Priya initiated the new converts into the Buddhist fold. …

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