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."

Raj informed the crowds about Christian plans to start 200 English schools for Dalit students. "I respect them [Christians] from the heart," Raj said. "The whole of … Indian Christians are behind us, and Christians are also supporting us from [the] world over."

Extravagant Claims

Indian Christian leaders admitted that overseas Christian publicity for the event backfired. Hindu radicals, citing Web sites predicting a mass conversion to Christ, called the event a "Christian conspiracy." One Web site, for example, claimed that 300 million Dalits would convert to Christianity.

"We suffered due to pre-event extravagant claims by some American evangelists," says Joseph D'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council (AICC) and a speaker at the rally. "We lost what otherwise could have been a great ceremony."

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Howell agrees: "The kind of hyped publicity that was used was most unfortunate." He adds that those who "make statements without knowing the ground realities [make life] difficult for the local Christians."

India is the world's largest democracy, but Hindu radicals have great influence with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which rules the nation. In recent years, scores of Christians have died in mob attacks, including Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in January 1999.

D'Souza believes more persecution lies ahead. "As some Hindu radicals feel this is a major assault on Hinduism, now I think there will be persecution of the Dalits," he says. "I wouldn't be surprised if there's persecution of Christians, too."

At a press conference, members of the radical Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) called John Dayal, secretary general of the AICC, a "traitor." Dayal appealed to the National Commission for Human Rights for protection.

"Other Christian leaders like me are getting arrest [threats] and death threats," Dayal says.

Despite pressure from the radicals, Dayal says, "the rally will have political, religious, and socioeconomic impact."

Dalit leader Raj, who shaved his head and converted to Buddhism at the rally, praised Christians for their encouragement. "I am happy that they have extended full support," Ram says. "I am open. If any Dalit wants to join Christianity, he should. It's his fundamental right."

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today previously covered the mass conversion in November in "Christians Encouraged as 50,000 Dalits Leave Hinduism."

Mainstream media coverage of the Dalit conversion included:

Hindus convert to escape casteBBC (Nov. 4, 2001)
A million low-caste Hindus to convert to BuddhismThe Irish Times (Nov.1, 2001)
Stop 'provocative' Dalit conversion plan: National Commission of MinoritiesIndian Express (Nov.1, 2001)

Past Christianity Today articles about India's Dalits include:

New Delhi Conference Condemns 'Immense Suffering' in Caste SystemNational Campaign for Dalit Human Rights plans to appeal to United Nations. (Mar. 9, 2001)
Churches Angry that Indian Census Ignores 14 Million Christian DalitsOnly Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist members of "untouchable" caste being counted. (Mar. 2, 2001)
Justice Delayed for DalitsChristian untouchable is murdered, but police stall investigation. (Oct. 19, 2000)
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Study of Indian Clergy Exposes Inequalities in Church LeadershipMany low-caste and rural Indians are Christians, but few have positions of influence within the church. (Oct. 9, 2000)
Thousands Mourn Death of 'India's Father'Evangelist Bakht Singh led a fruitful life of teaching and founding churches (Sept. 22, 2000)
India's First Dalit Archbishop Holds 'No Grudge' Over Predecessor's AttackOnce "untouchable" Dalits make up bulk of country's Christians (May 11, 2000)
Hindu 'Untouchables' Threaten Mass Conversion in DecemberTwo hundred families using Christianity as political pressure tactic (Dec. 1, 1999)

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