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In Depth

Indian Hindu outcasts convert to end social stigmas

YAVATMAL, India (Reuters) - Taking off his shoes and joining his palms together in prayer, young engineer Ravi Turkane stands under a sizzling sun waiting to be reborn as a Buddhist.

“From today I am not a Hindu and I shall not go to a temple to pray to a Hindu deity,” said Turkane, repeating initiation vows with thousands of other low-caste Hindus like himself.

“From today I’m reborn as a follower of Lord Buddha.”

For millions of low-caste Hindus like Turkane, a switch in their faith is not so much a spiritual choice as a matter of dignity.

Only by converting can they escape the rigidity of a 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system dominated by the once-priestly class of Brahmins.

Hindu scriptures separate people into Brahmin priests, warriors, farmers and laborers, while the rest are beyond definition - called “Dalits”.

These low-caste Hindus were once considered “untouchables”, performing the most menial and degrading jobs.

The ancient caste system has persisted in India - mostly in villages -- despite the country’s spectacular economic success and exposure to Western culture which has re-molded social paradigms in the conservative nation.

Turkane, a 29-year-old hardware engineer, is part of that urban-based economic boom and is well-accepted among his engineer friends in the southern technological hub of Hyderabad.

But, a few hundred kilometers away in his native cotton-growing village, his caste identity overshadows his achievements and his family are social outcasts, denied access to even basic amenities such as water from a community well.

“We can’t go to the temple or attend marriages,” said Turkane. About 25 other families in his village face similar restrictions.

EXPLOITATION AND HUMILIATION

India’s constitution forbids caste discrimination.

But Dalits -- who constitute over 16 percent of India’s 1.1-billion population -- are still often beaten or killed if they use a well or worship at a temple reserved for upper castes. “For generations we remained in Hinduism’s fold but what have we got? Only exploitation and humiliation,” said Turkane, who converted to Buddhism with about 9,000 other Dalits this month in the central city of Nagpur.

“If we can find dignity of life in another faith then why shouldn’t we follow that path?” he asked.

Turkane’s whole family converted with him. He is not sure if they will be accepted into the social fold in their village, but says that at least they cannot be discriminated against as low-caste Hindus.

For decades, conversion has been a sensitive issue in India, with right-wing Hindus accusing Christian missionaries in particular of converting poor Hindus with inducements such as free schooling and health care.

But Christians, who have long-advocated for the rights of Dalits, say those who switch their faith do so to escape the oppressive Hindu caste system.

Minority groups also say Hindu right-wingers polarise voters on religious lines to gain political mileage.

“An Indian has the right to pursue the religion of his choice. Why should that right be violated?,” asked Udit Raj, a convert to Buddhism who helped conduct the ceremony in Nagpur and whose small Justice Party champions Dalit rights.

“That right is being diluted by the Hindutva (Hindu) parties for political reasons,” he said.

Christian missionaries have been killed, churches vandalized and converts attacked as religious antagonism reaches a new high in a country where Hindu right-wing groups often hold ceremonies to “re-convert” Christians.

“Christians can’t help even a person who is ill or has met with an accident because they are immediately charged with proselytisation,” said Joseph D’Souza, president of the All-India Christian Council.

Hindus form 80 percent of secular India’s billion-plus population while Muslims account for 13 percent, Christians less than three percent and religious minorities such as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis make up the rest.

NEW LAWS

In recent months, five states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or its allies have introduced or strengthened anti-conversion laws, which they say will protect India’s religious identity and foster communal harmony.

Muslim and Christian groups accuse the party of whipping up Hindu voters’ fears to boost its political support.

“Why is it that only poor people in villages convert?” asked Prashant Harpalkar of the World Hindu Council.

Under some of the new laws, anyone planning to leave the Hindu fold must obtain certificates from officials and affidavits from courts saying they were converting out of free will and not by inducements.

“The constitution of India gives its citizens (the right) to practice any religion they choose. They are free to leave and take up any faith they want to,” said Kancha Illaih, a leading political scientist and Dalit activist.

Last month, the BJP-ruled western state of Gujarat passed a law branding Buddhism and Jainism as branches of Hinduism, sparking outrage among religious minorities who fear their unique identity would be wiped out.

“This is a conspiracy to just increase the number of Hindus by appropriating other distinctive religions into Hinduism,” said Raj, a low-caste Hindu who converted to Buddhism.

“We will not give up without a fight to save our freedom of religion which is under seizure by Hindu zealots,” he said.

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