'Untouchable' Hindus convert to Buddhism

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The Independent Online

India's most disadvantaged community – the hundreds of millions of Hindus so far down the caste system that until modern times they were considered "untouchable" – is heading for its most testing confrontation with the authorities tomorrow when up to one million of them plan a public conversion to Buddhism.

India's most disadvantaged community – the hundreds of millions of Hindus so far down the caste system that until modern times they were considered "untouchable" – is heading for its most testing confrontation with the authorities tomorrow when up to one million of them plan a public conversion to Buddhism.

The Dalits now call themselves "the Oppressed", though they are equal to other Indians under the constitution. Most still live in separate communities, receive little or no education and do India's dirtiest jobs, such as rubbish disposal, tanning and burning corpses.

More than 60 years since Mahatma Gandhi vowed to set them free, their "polluted" status still condemns most to miserably circumscribed lives. The Dalits' great champion before independence from Britain and beyond was Dr Balasaheb Ambedkar. In later years, he decided the only way out of slavery was for Dalits to convert en masse to Buddhism and before his death in 1956 oversaw the conversion of 5 million.

Tomorrow, a Dalit called Ram Raj will follow Ambedkar's example by leading the conversion of a million Dalits, including himself, to Buddhism in central Delhi.

The government – a coalition led by Hindu nationalists mostly from the highest, Brahmin caste of Hinduism – opposes the rally, as do more fanatical Hindus and more moderate bodies such as the National Minorities Commission. Mr Raj insists he will go ahead whatever the opposition. "We are willing to face bullets but we will go ahead with it," he said.

He is strongly backed by Indian Christian organisations, which have been strongly critical of the Hindu nationalists since the government came to power in 1998, accusing them of allowing minorities, especially Christians, to be persecuted by Hindu groups. So will this apparently spiritual occasion in fact be a political event? "Since the 9th century, all conversions to Buddhism [in India] have been political protests," said one prominent Delhi Christian.

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