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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 May 2007, 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK
Mass Dalit conversions in Mumbai
Buddhist monks at Mumbai ceremony
Buddhist monks blessed thousands of new converts
Several thousand tribal and Dalit Hindus in India have converted en masse to Buddhism at a ceremony in Mumbai.

The ceremony was billed as the largest religious conversion in modern India, but far fewer converted than had been predicted by the organisers.

The converts hope to escape the rigid caste system in which their status is the lowest.

Right-wing Hindus have often opposed conversion, pushing some Indian states to restrict legal changes of faith.

The ceremony, which was held to mark the 50th anniversary of a leading Dalit leader Bhimrao Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism, was attended by delegates from several countries with large Buddhist communities, including Sri Lanka, Thailand and Japan.

Conversion controversies

"We estimate that close to 5,000 Dalits have chosen the path towards Buddhism by the end of the day," said Shravan Gaikwad, representative of the Samatha Sainik Dal, a Dalit group.

Dalits attending Buddhist ceremony in Mumbai
Dalits came to Mumbai's racecourse for the ceremony

Even though the number of people converted was much less than the 100,000 expected, the organisers said it sent out a strong message of an awakening among the Dalits, says the BBC's Zubair Ahmed.

"Whatever may have been your religion until now, from today you will take refuge in the teachings of the Lord Buddha," one of the monks conducting the ceremony told the crowd.

Once known as Untouchables, the Dalits hope the conversion will give them dignity and equal rights.

"Once they convert themselves to another religion, the minimum they will get is treatment as human beings," Arun Khote of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights told the BBC.

About one-sixth of India's 1.1bn people are classed as low caste.

Commentators say that despite the reservation of jobs for the Dalit and tribal communities, their social status and economic conditions have not greatly improved.

They say that Dalits still face widespread prejudice and discrimination.

Conversion is a controversial subject in India, especially if it involves Hindus converting to Christianity or Islam.

Two weeks ago two Catholic priests were publicly beaten after being accused of trying to bring a group of local people into the Catholic faith.

But converting to Buddhism does not evoke much adverse reaction, as many in India believe Buddhism is an extension of Hinduism.

Even so, several Indian states, especially the ones governed by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP, have made laws severely restricting conversion.


SEE ALSO
Escaping caste
20 Dec 06 |  Crossing Continents
In pictures: Escaping caste
21 Dec 06 |  In Pictures
Dalits stage mass rally in Mumbai
06 Dec 06 |  South Asia
Tight security amid Dalit unrest
04 Dec 06 |  South Asia
Dalits in conversion ceremony
14 Oct 06 |  South Asia
Rise of the untouchables
20 Feb 02 |  South Asia

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