The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Conversion message to Jaya

Chennai, Dec. 6: Two rounds of conversions unfolded here today to send a message to the Jayalalithaa government that a controversial new law will not succeed when people want to leave Hinduism on their own and fight caste oppression.

The promised thousands did not make it to the event, christened ‘mass conversion mela’, but the organisers — blamed the low turnout on a police cordon thrown overnight on roads leading to the venue on the outskirts of the city.

Instead of the scheduled 5,000, 50 Dalits embraced Buddhism and 30 Christianity. The organisers — the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Castes/Tribes Organisations — said the symbolic gesture was intended at proving that the new state law against “forcible” conversions would not slow the rate of switchover from Hinduism.

Supporters of conversions said the huge police presence and the extraordinary effort to block the roads lent credence to charges that the state government was bent on targeting even voluntary change of faith.

Alan Hobson, who came from the UK representing a human rights organisation, said the “underlying reason” for the law was to curb all conversions. “If the government was serious, it could have sent observers today to the venue to see if the conversions were voluntary or forced,” he said.

The organisers had kept at least 500 stamp papers ready at the venue to facilitate the converts to inform the government as is required under the new law.

The conversion to Christianity was termed a “liberation to casteless faiths that met the aspirations for self-respect and freedom”. The mela also resolved to take “open conversions” to the villages.

The event, coinciding with the Babri Masjid demolition anniversary and the death anniversary of Babasaheb B.R. Ambedkar, kept the police on their toes.

The police did not let the organisers erect a shamiana in front of the church where the conversions were held. The pandal workers and their contractor were picked up last night. But the police denied having made any arrest.

Shreds of thatched leaves were strewn on the ground under a large unfinished portion in the roof today. “This is a private place and we are not required to inform the police; rather they have trespassed,” said the confederation’s chief, Udit Raj. He alleged that vehicles and buses carrying hundreds of Dalits from different parts of Tamil Nadu were stopped at various places.

It looked more like a preaching session than a conversion ceremony till a small group of Dalits trooped in from the nearby districts in the afternoon.

The potential converts raised hands to let know their preferred religion — Christianity or Buddhism.

In a symbolic initiation ceremony, the Archbishop of the Immanuel Church washed the feet of a Dalit man and woman and asked them to chant a prayer with him before baptism. “There is no high or low,” he said.

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