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CHENNAI: India’s long-oppressed ‘Dalits’ or low-caste people are being denied the one escape route open to them from social oppression — conversion to more egalitarian religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

The southern state of Tamil Nadu made it mandatory for those wishing to change their faith to first convince the district magistrate that there was no “use of force, allurements or fraudulent means” and that the conversion was indeed a personal decision.

That order, by the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaraman, has found support with the federal government, led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party has said that it would like to see similar legislation in all other states as well.

According to the BJP, and now the AIADMK, Christian missionaries have been busy inducing people, especially those from the lower castes, to change their faith with cash and other incentives — but this has been denied by church authorities.

The three-year rule of the BJP, which rode to power by whipping up majority Hindu sentiments, has been marked by unprecedented attacks on Christians and church institutions in past years and, earlier this year, by a pogrom against Muslims in western Gujarat state which left 2,000 people dead.

As a result, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended that the US Secretary of State designate India as a country of “particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, along with countries that have a dubious human rights record.

“The church opposes forcible conversions but follows the constitutionally guaranteed right to profess, practice and propagate one’s religion,” says Father Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman for the church.

Father Dominic said the ‘Dalits’, who have been converting from Hinduism to escape the stigma of the caste system, were being prevented from doing so because upper-caste people wanted to continue oppressing them.

According to social activist Lal Mohan, the new laws in Tamil Nadu would make people like Babasaheb Ambedkar, a ‘Dalit’ lawyer and statesman, responsible for drafting much of India’s Constitution, a criminal. “After all, he enticed thousand of people to shun Hinduism and embrace Buddhism.”

The new ordinance, with its rather ambiguous provisions, has alarmed minorities in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India, and Christian missionaries now fear that their well-known services to the poor and the needy now stand to be misunderstood and discredited.

The Archbishop of Madurai, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, M.Arokiasamy, has termed the ordinance “anti-minority” and condemned it as a move to “divide the people on communal lines”.

The ordinance, called the ‘Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance 2002’, imposes a three-year imprisonment and a fine of $1,000 on anyone who engages in forcible conversion.

Those who force women, children, tribal people and other oppressed individuals to convert would get a punishment of four-year imprisonment and a fine of $2,000.

Mano Thangaraj, the ‘panchayat’ (village council) chairman in Kanyakumari district, a rather sensitive area where both Hindus and minorities are equally placed in terms of number and religious zeal, identifies two types of conversions: marriage-based and healing-based.

When people of different faiths get married, either the groom persuades his bride to convert to his faith or the newly wedded wife persuades her husband to follow her religion. It is unclear if this mounts to “forcible” conversion.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for people to change their faith when they believe they are healed by a visit to a shrine or priest of another religion.

The loudest support for the ordinance came from high-caste Hindu leaders.

No Hindu leader is willing to probe the root causes of conversion among lower-caste Hindus and prefer to turn a blind eye to the outrageous treatment of ‘Dalits’ by high-caste Hindus as a matter of religious practice.

But there can be no better illustration of the allure of conversion than the lynching to death of five ‘Dalit’ men in northern Haryana state on Oct 15 by a mob convinced that they had killed a cow, sacred in the Hindu religion, for its skin.

On top of that, the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) Acharya Giriraj Kishore said he had no regrets over the incident and went on record to comment that the cow was a sacred animal and that the life of a cow is worth more than that of five ‘Dalits’.

It is small surprise then that on Sunday, 80 people in Dulina village, including the families of four of the five victims, converted to Buddhism and others embraced Islam and Christianity at an well-attended ceremony in Gurgaon, the bustling capital of Haryana.

Says Udit Raj, ‘Dalit’ leader and politician: “The lynching was unfortunate but what is worse is the inhuman attitude of the leaders of organizations like the VHP.”

“Conversion is the only solution for ‘Dalits’ if they have to live respectable, dignified and free lives devoid of oppression and humiliation,” adds Udit Raj.—Dawn/The InterPress News Service.