The British Broadcasting Corporation may still call them "Low cast Hindus" leaving the faith of their fathers, but for the 528 Hindu Dalits amongst almost ten thousand gathered in a central park in Nagpur on 14 October 2006, it was possibly the first, and so far only, real interrogation of India`s Constitutional secular pretence in which statutory guarantees of freedom of faith co-exist with State laws that demand police permission for professing religious identity.
Religious conversions are, of course, not new in Nagpur. This was the Fiftieth; possibly, in the fifty years since one time Indian Law minister Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the Mahar born in the very region, professed Buddhism just days before his death in 1956. He fulfilled his promise to his people "I may have been born a Hindu, but I will not die one," rejecting the caste system ordained by the `sage` Manu which spelt a life below that of animals for a full fifth of mankind.
In an annual ritual that now has actually become as jaded as any other, conversions to Buddhism have taken place here, and in many other cities. Sometimes the media covers them. It did the one in Karnataka this year were 30,000 turned neo Buddhist as they are called, and a smaller one in Hyderabad. It had also covered one more reluctantly five years ago when an Income Tax officer and trade unionist Ram Raj shaved his head in a ceremony in the heart of New Delhi to assume the name of Udit Raj and the political identity of a Dalit leader fighting the system for a better deal for his people. Udit Raj, who was chairman that of the Confederation of Scheduled Caste Government employees` organisations set up the Lord Buddha Club, evolved the Confederation of SC organisations going beyond government employees, and founded the Indian Justice Party to fight elections.
But it safe to become a Buddhist, or even a Sikh, if one is a Dalit. The Indian law follows the Hindu religion`s absorptive capacity, treating everyone as a Hindu for extending Constitutional benefits if they are not Muslims or Christians. Or, in fact, if they convert to Hinduism. But if they convert to Christianity, for instance, the Dalits can lose their jobs, their places in engineering and medical colleges, and perhaps their freedom if the police want to charge them with fraud or for violating the many so called "Freedom of Relgion Acts" as exist, or are sought to be imposed in Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal,
Orissa, Gujarat, and Chhattisgarh...
It was in this that the hundreds at Nagpur who were dunked in a makeshift baptism font - converted by putting a curtain across a garden fountain - by Trivandrum`s evangelical Bishop Moses Swamidoss and Bangalore`s Good Shepherd church senior pastor Kumarswamy -- were making their tryst with history. They stand to lose much of their material goods if they go back as Christians to their home States - Gujarat, to name just one. Gujarat`s chief minister Narendra Modi - internationally known for being denied an American visa for his hand in the mass murder of Muslims in riots in 2002 - is keeping the religious freedom iron hot to strike at Christians who would dare convert any of his citizens.
But for the All India Christian Council, an ecumenical non denominational confederation of a variety of church groups, NGOs and individuals, it has been an important exercise in testing if Christians in India can exercise their full citizenship rights. It was then that its president Joseph D Souza, now international head of the advocacy group Dalit Freedom Network - had extended cooperation to Raj, braving police wrath. The Council once again collaborated with Udit Raj`s Confederation to host the mass meeting in Nagpur. Maharashtra does not have a Freedom of Faith, or anti-conversion, law, but the meeting was to be symbolic for Nagpur`s association with Ambedkar`s movement, and for celebrating the Constitution of India which he had
The meeting however seemed to have been seen as a political challenge by Mayawati, the fiery woman Dalit leader who has thrice been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in a unique strategy devised by her mentor and Bahujan Samaj party founder Kanshi Ram, who died a few days ago. Kanshi Ram, like Udit Raj a former government servant, had wanted to become Buddhist, but died before he could. His cremation was however with full Buddhist rites, a belated political gesture by Mayawati. Mayawati chose to stage a rally in Nagpur to parallel the Confederation-Council venture, but chose once again not to test Freedom of faith herself. She announced she would remain a Hindu till she become prime minister, and then possibly become Buddhist.
There was no promise of political power to the Dalits of Gujarat who came to become Christians because now they can no longer do so in their home state. It remains to be seen how they are treated once they are back home. The Congress government at the Centre has said it is opposed to these new laws, though it was Congress governments back in the
Nineteen Fifties which had first enacted them. Congress Governors have so fare withheld permission to such laws enacted by Rajasthan, for instance. But it remains to be seen if the government in New Delhi and the Supreme Court of India will do anything to abrogate the existing laws against conversion, and ensure a uniform guarantee of Freedom of faith.
In an interesting aside, at the monument at Deeksha Bhumi, the ground where Ambedkar carried out his mass conversions fifty years ago, the gathering of the Christian Council and Confederation said the Lord`s Prayer [Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name...] as soon as the collected Bhikkus had stopped chanting the Buddham Sharnam Gachhami mantras. Though it looks like a stupa and has the ambience partly of a mausoleum [without a tomb or memorial slab] and partly of a temple with its massive `Hundis`, or money collecting boxes, the monument celebrates not a particular relgion, but the Freedom to profess any relgion.