10/17/2008, 00.00
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Defending religious freedom in India protects all other freedoms

The All India Christian Council commemorates Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism. Born into Hinduism he is the father of India’s constitution. The Council slams Hindu groups who persecute Christians in order to perpetuate the country’s caste division.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The All India Christian Council (AICC) celebrated in Nagpur (Maharashtra) the ‘Dhammadiksha’ to remember when the father of the Indian constitution, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (pictured), left Hinduism for another religion.  AICC Secretary General John Dayal bemoaned the fact that 52 years later freedom of religion and conscience are now in danger in India and that conversion is considered by many a crime.

In a speech titled “Mukti kon pathe?” (What path to liberation?) delivered on 20 June 1936, B.R. Ambedkar said that to “remain in a religion because it is ancestral is only suited to a fool. No thinking man can take such a policy. Remaining in a situation in which one finds oneself fits an animal; it cannot satisfy a human being.” Under his leadership, millions of people embraced Buddhism.

Today many Indian states claim that converting from Hinduism is not against the law; they contend however that they are against those who carry out conversion through violence, threats and deception

Catholic leaders could not agree more; for them conversion can only be free. And they are the first to condemn forcing anyone to embrace any faith.

“As long as laws of the land are respected and other faiths are not denigrated,” said AICC President Joseph D’Souza, “each person has the right to convert.” For him this means that “Indians have the right to tell fellow citizens about different choices in religion so they have the knowledge and options to convert. We believe each Indian citizen must be allowed to shop in the marketplace of religions and choose a faith. We appeal to Indians of all religions to protect this freedom. Conversion is the sign of a healthy democracy. Conversion is the ultimate symbol of freedom of conscience.”

For this reason he is against the so-called “moratorium on conversions” promoted by Hindu extremist groups, something that has found much echo in the media.

However, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party asked Christians to take part in talks to stop low caste conversions, the Hindu extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) told the media that Christians were in favour of stopping conversions. This amounts to “a theatre of the absurd,” D’Souza said. In his view the AICC wants dialogue but does not want the kind of dialogue that includes “killers, arsonists, and rapists of Christians.”

“If our country does not give Dalits, Tribals and members of other lower castes the right to choose their religion, we have permanently imposed slavery on top of the caste system,” he explained.

“As Ambedkar put it: ‘I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu.’ In 1956 he realised that dream along with hundreds of thousands of his followers. Since then rightly or wrongly, the liberation of oppressed castes has been linked to the possibility of leaving the religion that imposes the caste system.”

Even if the government tries to eliminate caste discrimination, “Hindu fundamentalist groups led by the RSS have reinforced religious practices that underpin the caste system that demean Dalits and women. . . .”

In fact “after five young Dalits were lynched in Jhajjar (Haryana) for skinning a dead cow, the vice president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad said that the life of a cow is worth more than that of a Dalit. He said this.”

Likewise “Hindu groups are trying to reintroduce the ancient practice of Sati (in which widows are immolated on their dead husband’s funeral pyre) and are handing out copies of the Manu Smriti or Laws of Manu, a text which codified the caste system.”

“Without freedom of conscience and the right to choose one’s faith, every other freedom is meaningless,” D’Souza said.

“Violence against Dalits who exercise their freedom of conscience is blatant. [None the less,] Dalit leader Ambedkar showed the way. Neither the government nor any religious leader can tell them what faith to choose.”

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