The man who promised to lead one million Indian "untouchables" out of caste slavery showed the way yesterday at a mass meeting in Delhi, having his head and moustache shaved off by a Buddist priest to initiate him into Buddhism.
His name was Ram Raj at the start of the ceremony; at the end he was Udit Raj, "the Reign of the Rising Sun". Mr Raj is an assistant commissioner for income tax in Delhi. He is also a leader of the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and, as such, claims to represent a good chunk of the 250 million-odd Indians whose status is so low that caste Hindus have traditionally regarded their presence as virtually polluting.
These days, they usually call themselves "Dalits" (the word means simply "the Oppressed"). According to India's Constitution, they are equal to all other Indians. After more than 50 years of theoretical emancipation they have reserved places in universities and reserved jobs in government bureaucracies; there are also Dalit political parties, there have been Dalit chief ministers and even a Dalit president (the present incumbent is K R Narayanan). But, according to Mr Raj: "We are no better off than we were 50 years ago."
The great mass of Dalits remains stuck in the primordial caste mud. They do the most degrading jobs, get the least education, have the worst health care and the lowest life expectancy. Mr Raj and his supporters say their plight is becoming worse rather than better.
The party that dominates India's ruling coalition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was founded and is still dominated by members of the Hindu priestly caste, the Brahmins, of whom Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister, is an example. This Brahminical dominance, some say, has brought a reassertion of the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy. "In the past four years," said Philip d'Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, which has strongly supported Mr Raj's conversion programme, "right-wing Hindus have recruited hundreds of thousands of members and trained them in the use of weapons ... Every day, there are new atrocities committed against Dalits."
But now the Dalits are fighting back: without weapons, and in a way that is both new and very old. In 1956, the Dalits' great champion, the LSE-educated Dr Bheem Rao Ambedkar, organised the conversion of millions of Dalits to Buddhism, the religion that sprang from Indian soil and had its roots in Hinduism but which has unequivocally rejected the iniquities of caste discrimination.
Now Ram/Udit Raj has revived the idea. In mid-October he announced, as founder of the Lord Buddha Club, his intention of bringing one million of his fellow Dalits to Buddhism.
Banned at the last minute by the police from meeting at Ram Lila Ground, tens of thousands flocked at 10am yesterday to the grounds of Ambedkar Bhawan, a hall in Delhi dedicated to Dr Ambedkar. They heard speeches, chanted sutras, then Mr Raj read out a 20-point oath – sworn by Dr Ambedkar in the Fifties – beginning with a solemn renunciation of Hinduism and Hindu gods and ending with a promise to abstain from alcohol. Then the huge crowd recited en masse the three vows that made Buddhists of them.
Mr Raj has rediscovered Ambedkar's old idea. "As long as you are part of the caste system," he said recently, "you cannot do anything. You cannot be part of it and then abuse it. If you dislike it, leave it. That's the best way.
"We have given a call to the entire Dalit community to leave the tyrannical Brahminical social order."