India's Christian Leaders Brace for Anti-Caste Rally

Monday, March 10, 2003

by Alex Buchan

NEW DELHI, October 26 (Compass) -- Christian leaders planning to attend a large anti-caste system "conversion" rally in New Delhi on November 4 are bracing for a Hindu extremist backlash.

Indian Christian leaders have been invited to participate in the political gathering organized by some of India's Buddhists. The goal of the rally's organizers is to bring one million Dalits -- those languishing at the bottom of India's caste system -- into New Delhi to convert en masse to Buddhism as a protest against Hinduism as a basis for state oppression.

According to some observers, the rally may draw the ire of the Hindu extremist government.

"We do not know what will happen on this day, but we are prepared for the worst," said Rev. Richard Howell, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). "I have formed a committee of five Christians, and if one of us gets arrested, we are all going to jail together."

Several Christian leaders are also annoyed at what they term the "ludicrous hype" of some mission agencies claiming that the event will be instrumental in bringing "300 million Dalits to Christ." According to an EFI insider, "Some of the publicity would lead one to believe a million people were all coming to Delhi to convert to Christianity on the 4th, and this exaggerated nonsense could draw persecution down on Christians again."

"For one thing, it won't be a million coming on the day -- probably more like 100,000," said Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council. "For another, they are converting to Buddhism on the 4th, not Christianity. Also, Christian leaders have been invited to attend as guests and spread the word, but we are attending as an act of solidarity with the anti-caste message of the rally -- it is not primarily about evangelism that day."

Yet the rally is significant.

"It is the first public protest that Hinduism has failed as a political system. . It has massive implications," Dayal said. Howell added, "What the Dalits are saying to the Christians is, 'Stand with us, and oppose the oppressive caste system perpetuated by Hinduism.'"

The rally is the creation of Mr. Ram Raj, a civil servant from a Dalit background, who converted to Buddhism as a means of protesting the caste system. Raj has publicly called on the Christians of India to stop supporting the caste system by educating the Hindu elite in their schools. He wants the Dalits to exercise their freedom of religion by leaving Hinduism and choosing another religion, and thus bring the caste system down.

Sixty percent of India's 50 million Christians and are from a Dalit background. The word "Dalit," meaning "oppressed," refers to the so-called "scheduled castes," or untouchables, who are so low they are in fact outside the caste system. Dalits comprise about 15 percent of India's population, or 150 million people. But the word "Dalit" can also be used more broadly to include the so-called "scheduled tribes" -- tribals who are also outside the caste system (eight percent of the population) -- as well as some of the "other backward castes," who constitute 40 percent of the population. Depending on the definition, the number of Dalits could range from 150 to 400 million.

According to an All India Christian Council expert, the country's Hindu leadership does not see a mass conversion (to Buddhism) rally as a threat, "because Hindu leaders consider Buddhism a sect of Hinduism." But should mass conversions of Dalits to Christianity take place, it would be a different matter.

Dr. Dayal has documented 450 cases of anti-Christian violence and evidence of 36 Christians killed for their faith in the past two years in India. Rev. Howell says the actual death toll may be over 100. This has been mostly at the hands of Hindu extremists.

Thus far, India's media has avoided any reference to the rally, and some feel the government may resort to issuing a public order to prevent the rally from occurring. There are also concerns that Hindu extremists from the governing Bharatiya Janatha Party will engineer some kind of violence on November 4 in order to get such rallies banned in the future.

Copyright 2001, Compass News Direct. Used with Permission.