Christian leaders in New Delhi see both damage and opportunity in the wake of a historic rally against India's oppressive caste system.
At the November event, 50,000 Dalits (once known as "untouchables") renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism. Meanwhile, Christians were on hand to support the right of Dalits to escape the caste system. They also invited the country's 300 million Dalits to consider Christianity.
Just before the event, police revoked permission for the Dalits to use the spacious Ram Rila Grounds. Police also prevented hundreds of thousands of Dalits from reaching the rally. Dalit organizers decided instead to hold it at the smaller B.R. Ambedkar building—a facility named for the Dalit leader who framed India's Constitution. In 1956, Ambedkar led half a million Dalits in renouncing Hinduism.
At the event, some of the overflowing crowd watched from nearby rooftops despite the sweltering heat. "We want to destroy the caste system," said Ram Raj, chairman of the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Organizations, which organized the rally.
In an interview with Christianity Today, Raj criticized radical Hindu forces. "They are angry as to why Dalits are siding with the Christians," he said. "Our only crime is that we are seeking freedom." Throughout India, low-caste Dalits live in abject poverty, are permitted to perform only menial labor, and suffer high levels of illiteracy.
Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, calls the rally "a protest conversion."
"It's a situation that goes beyond religion—people created in the image of God should be served, not exploited," Howell says. "All the church and civil society supported [the rally]. It was necessary."