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Monday, 5 November, 2001, 16:20 GMT
Buddhism's appeal for low-caste Hindus
Part of the conversion ceremony
Ram Raj becomes a Buddhist, dropping his Hindu name
By Satish Jacob in Delhi

"Once sub-human, always sub-human" is the root belief animating the exquisitely cruel behaviour of upper-caste Hindus towards the lowest castes in India.

The dalits (meaning broken people) have endured contempt quietly for centuries, either because they were helpless or because they had internalised the humiliations heaped upon them, or both.

It is our mental liberation that conversion is aimed at. If we gain confidence, then the higher castes will, eventually, be compelled to change too

Raj, Buddhist convert
Escape routes were few.

A dalit (also known as an untouchable) in the north of India may run to the south to escape his place in society - but his name instantly betrays his caste.

The only real escape has been to repudiate Hinduism and embrace another faith predicated on human equality.

That is why thousands of dalits came to a huge public ground in Delhi recently, converting to Buddhism.

'No respect'

The organiser of the event, Ram Raj, was among those who converted, getting rid of his Hindu first name, Ram.

He said he was converting to Buddhism, along with his wife, mother and two children.

Buddhist monk
A Buddhist monk prepares for Sunday's conversions

"I am walking out of Hinduism because the 3,000-year old caste system will never allow me any respect or dignity. There is no future for us in it," Mr Raj, the leader of a dalit group, the Confederation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Organisations, said.

Reality supports his assertion.

Despite 50 years of reform, laws banning discrimination and education and economic development, India's 160 million dalits (about 16 % of the population) are dehumanised in a million ways every day.

Why would an upper caste Hindu listen to people deemed so dirty and vile that their very shadow was polluting?

Their children are denied education.

If allowed into a classroom, they are forced to sit apart, or even outside.

Tea shops have a 'two-cup' system which forces dalits to drink from separate cups.

In villages, they live in segregated areas, do all the dirty jobs, cannot draw water from the same well as the higher castes or worship in the same temples.

Animal treatment

Most are landless labourers at the mercy of landlords who will not flinch from lynching, raping and burning their huts if dalits dare to answer back or even defend themselves against abuse.

A prize-winning Indian journalist, P Sainath, has described a dalit man's nostrils being pierced with a packing needle and a string drawn through his nose by upper-caste villagers in Rajasthan.

His tormentors held the string like a horse's reins, made him walk in the streets and later tied him to a peg meant for cattle.

Woe betide dalits trying to better themselves.

Rage over shoes

A couple of years ago, a young village woman in the southern state of Tamil Nadu found a job as a social worker in the nearest town.

The first time she returned to visit her family, the upper castes fell into a rage because she had been 'uppity' enough to wear shoes.

She was manhandled and paraded naked for not knowing her place.
Hindus at mass ceremony to convert to Buddhism in New Delhi
Lower-caste Hindus wait to be converted

Dalits who have refused to accept their place in the past have had few options.

Trying to change the caste system was futile because it was sanctified by Hindu religious texts.

Persuasion was equally pointless.

Why would an upper caste Hindu listen to people deemed so dirty and vile that their very shadow was polluting?

So millions of dalits converted to Islam, Christianity or Buddhism over the years.

But the drawback with Islam and Christianity in India is that functioning in a caste-obsessed society, they absorbed elements of the caste system.

Some dalits still become Christians, much to the chagrin of Hindu zealots who do nothing to help them yet hate their impudence in leaving the fold.

Indigenous religion

But Buddhism has been the most popular faith for dalits ever since their hero, BR Ambedkar, a lawyer who wrote India's constitution after independence, became a Buddhist.

Another reason for dalits preferring Buddhism is that unlike Islam or Christianity, Buddhism originated in India and is, therefore, an indigenous religion.

But once dalits have converted to Buddhism, does it make any difference to how the higher castes treat them when they go back to live, work and socialise in their normal environment once the ceremony is over?

The answer is usually no. Everything goes on as before. They continue to be regarded as outside human society.

But Mr Raj says that is not the issue.

The purpose of conversion, he says, is not to change the attitudes of the higher castes but to change the 'false consciousness' of dalits.

"Many of us have consented to being degraded because we think that in some way it is pre-ordained. We lack confidence, we suffer from an inferiority complex and or experiences have given us a sense of worthlessness.

"It is our mental liberation that conversion is aimed at. If we gain confidence, then the higher castes will, eventually, be compelled to change too," Mr Raj says.

See also:

04 Nov 01 | South Asia
Hindus convert to escape caste
06 Sep 01 | South Asia
Indian groups raise caste question
11 Aug 01 | South Asia
India caste row deepens
08 Aug 01 | South Asia
Couple hanged for forbidden love
28 Sep 99 | South Asia
Dalits' political awakening
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