Subj: India – Tamil Nadu: shaking off the shackles of Hindu caste.
On 5 October 2002, the state government of Tamil Nadu, India, issued an ordinance that effectively (when interpreted according to Hindutva ideology) outlawed religious conversion. To read the WEA http://www.worldevangelical.org/persec_india_10oct02.html
The law was designed to keep the low caste Dalits, who are counted as Hindus, enslaved in the caste system for the benefit of the high castes. The law also threatens Christian witness and ministry as both the person being baptised and the person doing the baptism can be charged.
However, in recent years a wave of discontent has been gathering momentum. The Dalits (low castes) are rising up in what has been described as a “Dalit Awakening” (Gospel for Asia) or “Dalit Revolt” (All India Christian Council). The Dalits are shaking off the shackles of Hindu caste and looking for a new and living way. In their search, multitudes are embracing the way of Jesus Christ in defiance of the anti-conversion ordinance and the threat of reprisals.
The following posting contains two statements regarding the 6 December 2002 mass conversion of Dalits in Tamil Nadu, India. The first is an article by Joshua Newton, a reporter for Christianity Today magazine, who was an eyewitness at the mass conversion event. The second is a selection of excerpts from a statement by Dr. Joseph D’souza, President of the All India Christian Council.
— Elizabeth Kendal
POLICE ARREST INDIAN CHRISTIANS OVER DALIT CONVERSION Low-caste Indians reject Hinduism, turn to Christianity or Buddhism. By Joshua Newton in Chennai, India. For Christianity Today magazine http://www.christianitytoday.com
Overcoming police blockades, legal threats, and lashing rain, hundreds of low-caste Hindus (Dalits) converted to Christianity and Buddhism today in the southern Indian city of Chennai.
Police arrested 10 Christian activists and threatened the Dalit pastor who rented his premises for the meeting. Authorities also blocked Dalit Hindus from hundreds of villages in Tamil Nadu state from reaching the venue. Organizers said police blocked or misdirected around 24 trucks, four buses, and seven vans carrying Dalits. In addition, four persons were missing in the melee.
Several Dalit groups organized the public event in part to protest a new Tamil Nadu law outlawing conversions. In October, the state government passed an ordinance that bans conversions by “force, allurement, or fraudulent means.” Christian and human rights observers decry the law as a blatant attack by fundamentalists among the Hindu majority on India’s constitutionally protected freedom of religion.
In recent years Dalits, known informally as untouchables, have become increasingly vocal about their systemic mistreatment at the hands of high-caste Hindus. In November 2001, 50,000 Dalits renounced their low-caste status within Hinduism and became Buddhists. Police hindered many more from participating in that rally in New Delhi. Still, conversions were evident today.
“I wanted to get out of that nasty life of mine, that is why me and my family chose to become Christians,” Valliyamma, a fresh convert, told Christianity Today. “I’m sure we shall attain salvation through Jesus Christ.”
M. A. Thomas, the bishop of Believers Church, baptized, washed the feet, and welcomed two Dalits, Dilliyappan and Dayalam, into Christianity. The two represented around 2,000 lower caste Hindus who publicly received Christ. Soon after, Udit Raj, national chairman of the All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Organizations, himself a recent convert to Buddhism, initiated 25 Dalits into Buddhism by delivering an oath in the name of the late Indian political leader B. R. Ambedkar. (Today’s gathering (6/12/02) was held on the 46th anniversary of the Dalit leader’s death.) The Confederation said the motley group represented around 500 persons who could not reach the venue.
“We have delivered the message in a loud voice,” said John Dayal, the Secretary General of All India Christian Council. “This is [a] show of courage from the part of these downtrodden Hindus. We will fight against the anti-conversion law peacefully and effectively.”
Raj again ridiculed charges that the conversions from Hinduism are forced.
“How can we force such a large number of people into any religion?” asked Raj. “The tyranny of the caste system is what forces these poor souls into Christianity and Buddhism. Dalits are lynched and raped and destroyed systematically. In the name of privatization, the administration is taking away their job reservations. For them, what’s the point in being a Hindu anymore?”
Punctuated by loud applause, speakers one after another attacked the Tamil Nadu government. Kancha Iliah, a prominent secular Indian scholar, called upon attendees to work toward a spiritual democracy and against what he called the threatening spiritual fascism of the upper caste Hindu hierarchy.
Joseph D’Souza, president of All India Christian Council, said progressive Christian groups and the Dalit movement would soon move the courts against the anti-conversion law promoted by Hindu fundamentalists. “We will continue to propagate our faith in Christ and stay put with the Dalits,” he said.
Alan Hobson, advocacy officer for India of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, told Christianity Today that the state machinery had tried to hamper the event. “I’m here as an independent observer to check if forced conversions are being made. And all I can see is the force that government is using to prevent a smooth and peaceful event. I’ll certainly take up this issue all over Europe.”
Press and camera crews thronged the gathering. Organizers declared that such mass conversion events would be held throughout India.
Dr. JOSEPH D’SOUZA, President of the All India Christian Council “Insights from the ringside: the Chennai Dalit mass conversions of Dec 6th, 2002.(excerpts)
“The Dalit defiance of the unconstitutional anti-conversion law in Tamilnadu has shaken the State government. The law has begun to backfire as tens of thousands of Dalits have openly declared that they will convert to other faiths in open defiance of the law.” (Dr. D’souza notes that there are close to 20 million Dalits in Tamilnadu, and some 750 million Dalits and Sudras nation-wide struggling intensely to create a caste free society.)
“The State had not expected the Dalits to accurately interpret the sinister design of the law. But the Dalits know that this law is meant to forever freeze and enslave them in the caste system.
“This rebellion against the caste system is full blown in Tamilnadu and in the last year large number of Dalits have freely and openly come into the Churches through the act of embracing the Christian faith. Some Dalits have gone into Islam and Buddhism. Dalit village after village has consciously decided that they want to enter non-casteist faiths.
“More significantly the ‘Quit Hinduism’ movement launched on Nov 17th by about 16 Dalit organizations led by N. Natrajan and others is covering the Tamilnadu countryside.
“It is crucial to grasp that it is the Dalit people who are leading the conversion movement and not the Christians or anyone else as some of the pro-rightwing Hindu papers are saying.
“The single biggest challenge for the Indian Church and in particular the Church in Tamilnadu is whether she will support and join this open aggression shown by the Dalits against the evil caste system that has enslaved them for 3500 years. If the Indian Church seeks to save her life at this time by not coming out into the open and struggling with the Dalits she will lose it. If she loses her life for the Dalits because of Christ she will inherit the soul and heart of India.
“One way or another the Dalits and the Backward castes will break out of the dehumanising caste system in the next decade or two. One way or another they will break out of the socio-religious system that has enslaved them. What role will the Church play? Has the Church publicly offered an alternate socio-spiritual system for the Dalits and the Sudras? This is the time to shout the Gospel truths from the rooftops and demonstrate the Gospel truths through our lives in the open public sphere.
“In the open public mass conversions of 6 December, some Churches and leaders stayed indoors because of the fear of arrests and harassment. Others promised to pray from the security of their Church parsonages. One Bishop even asked one of his pastors not to open his Church in whose compound distraught Dalits had congregated! Thank God the Dalit pastor did not follow the Bishop’s directions and an initiation ceremony took place in the Church. Thank God for leaders like Dr. K. Rajaratnam of the Lutheran World Federation, Bishop M.A. Thomas, Fr. Lourdswamy, Dr. John Dayal and many other Christian leaders who came out knowing that they might be arrested!” (Dr. D’souza notes that ten Christian volunteer organisers were arrested the previous night.)
“The Dalits on the other hand fearlessly moved in the thousands towards the venue until they were stopped and threatened by the police who had picketed all the roads leading to the venue of the conversion ceremony. The Dalits were not bothered by the threats.
“If the Government had not used brute force thousands would have publicly embraced the Christian faith instead of the many hundreds who accepted Christ in the various locations. Many hundreds of Dalits who were stranded outside Chennai refused to go back till we gave the assurance that we would come to their villages and conduct the Christian initiation ceremony.
“On 8 December following the persistent request of villagers, Bishop MA Thomas baptised a whole village of nearly 100 Dalit families. A large number of such requests are now pouring in from all over the State. In the meantime the Government has announced that it will crack down on the Dalit, Christian and Buddhist activists!”
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, “Indian Police obstruct mass conversions of untouchables to Buddhism and Christianity.” 6 Dec 2002 http://www.csw.org.uk/
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