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Low-Caste Hindus Defy State Law, Convert To Buddhism


October 09 2003

Challenging a law on religious conversions, about 3,000 members of low Hindu castes converted to Buddhism in India´s Gujarat state to free themselves from the caste system.

Vishwa Boudh Sangh (VBS, world Buddhist council), which organized the mass conversion, originally planned it for June 15 but delayed the ceremony until Oct. 5 following threats from Hindu groups.

About 5,000 people gathered for the ceremony in Vadodara, 1,000 kilometers southwest of New Delhi, 2,000 of them Buddhists already.

The 3,000 converts took an oath together to follow the principles of Buddhism and declared themselves Buddhists. VBS national president Budhapriya Rahul read out the oath, which the converts repeated, facing a statue of Buddha on the podium.

Participants were far fewer than the 100,000 earlier predicted by the VBS.

According to Bhante Sanghpriye, general secretary of the council, "The numbers are not important. Their emancipation from the clutches of the caste web is more significant."

People belonging to numerous caste divisions ranked below the four recognized tiers of the caste system were formerly called untouchables. They are now collectively called dalit, which in Sanskrit means "trampled upon." The caste system is part of Hinduism, but its influence extends throughout Indian society.

Over the years there have been occasional mass conversions from these groups to Buddhism and Islam in several parts of India. Most Christians in Gujarat also are from these groups. Sociologists say these conversions are made primarily in an attempt to escape caste discrimination.

Earlier this year, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian peoples´ party) government in Gujarat passed the Freedom of Religion Bill 2003.

Besides imposing up to three years´ imprisonment and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (US$2,100) on anyone who converts another "by use of force or any fraudulent means," the law also sets procedural rules for other conversions.

Sanghpriye said such moves would not deter people. " In the next five years, there will be hardly any dalit left in the Hindu fold," he told UCA News.

National Crime Records Bureau figures indicate that Gujarat ranks third in the list of states where crimes and discrimination are reported against dalit.

The trend of dalit converting to Buddhism to free themselves from caste oppression started in an organized way in 1956 when B.R Ambedkar, who championed the cause of low-caste people, embraced Buddhism along with hundreds of his followers at a public function.

That, however, was years before any of the five states that have passed laws regulating conversions did so.

Sudhir Sinha, police commissioner in Vadodara, told UCA News the dalit converts and the organizers of the Oct. 5 ceremony failed to meet "certain legal preconditions" set by the Gujarat law.

He pointed out that according to the law, the names of persons to be converted and their consent must be presented to district authorities for formal permission. "They did not do this," he said. The law also requires the convert and the religious official who is to formalize the conversion to obtain prior permission from the district magistrate for the conversion.

Ramesh Manwar, an organizer of the Buddhist ceremony, counters that it is not necessary to meet these requirements since the Gujarat High Court ruled in July that the law has not yet been promulgated.

Though passed by the legislature and ratified by the governor, the law technically comes into effect only after publication in the official gazette.

Manwar said Buddhists and Christians asked the court to declare the conversion law unconstitutional, but the court dismissed the petition on the ground that the legislation had not been promulgated and so was not yet a law.

"This means that the status quo remains, and then how can they threaten us under that act which has never been promulgated?" Manwar asked.

Rajeshbhai Parmar, 34, who converted at the ceremony in Vadodara, said he volunteered to become a Buddhist after rejecting what he called "indoctrination" by Hindu groups that urged him to kill Muslims.

"I was confused as to which religion I should go to. Between Christianity and Buddhism, I chose Buddhism," the rickshaw driver told UCA News.

Parmar, who claimed he was a member of Bajrang Dal (party of strong and stout), a militant offshoots Hindu nationalist group, said sectarian violence has targeted Christians and Muslims. About 1,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat in four months of riots beginning in March 2002.

"The sad part," Parmar said, "is that I was also party to it, though I did not kill anyone. I realized too late that people like me (dalit) were used as shields when one of my friends got arrested."

Some leaders of Hindu-nationalist organizations are not openly upset about low-caste Hindus becoming Buddhists.

According to one such leader based in Vadodara, Markand Patel of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world council of Hindus): "Buddha is an incarnation in Hinduism and so Buddhists are technically Hindus. Why should we object to it? Our objection is against abusive language used against Hinduism in these functions. We will not tolerate it at any cost."

Loriben Rohit, a 23-year-old widow, echoed sociologists´ contentions when she said she converted to Buddhism seeking "dignity and emancipation" from caste discrimination.

"For generations on end we could not get out of this, and I don´t want the next generation to suffer," said Rohit, who added she soon will marry a Buddhist. Marriage of widows is not encouraged in orthodox Hinduism.