Thousands of Hindu Dalits Convert
By RUPAN BHATTACHARYA, Associated Press Writer
LUCKNOW, India -- Thousands of Dalits, often segregated as "untouchables" in India's Hindu caste hierarchy, converted to Buddhism at in a northern Indian city.
Leaders of the late-Saturday ritual by some 6,000 Dalits said they were protesting discrimination by upper caste people and India's failure to raise caste issues at the racism conference in Durban, South Africa that concluded over the weekend.
In Kanpur, 240 miles southeast of India's capital, New Delhi, hundreds of monks in flowing robes arrived from Nepal, Japan and other countries to witness the ceremony, which was presided by a Japanese Buddhist priest.
Participants were distributed posters condemning Hinduism, the religion of India's overwhelming majority.
Several Dalit groups had met in the South African city to press for inclusion of caste-based discrimination in the U.N. World Conference on Racism. They said caste-based discrimination in India was as bad as racial discrimination in other parts of the world.
But Indian officials lobbied, and succeeded, in keeping it off the conference declaration. The New Delhi government said equating the caste system with racism would make India a racist country -- a categorization it denies.
"The Government of India misguided all at the Durban meet," Dalit leader Ram Prasad Rashik told The Associated Press after the conversion ceremony in Kanpur.
Dalits occupy the lowest rank in India's 3,000-year-old caste system that discriminates against nearly a fourth of the country's billion-plus population.
Though India's Constitution, adopted in 1950, bars discrimination based on caste, the practice still pervades society.