In 1935, B.R Ambedkar made a famous speech directed at ‘untouchables’:

“To reform the Hindu society is neither our aim nor our field of action. Our aim is to gain freedom. We have nothing to do with anything else,” he said.

“There is no place for an individual in Hindu society. The Hindu religion is constituted on a class-concept. Hindu religion does not teach how an individual should behave with another individual. A religion, which does not recognize the individual, is not personally acceptable to me.”

“The problem of untouchability is a matter of class struggle. It is the struggle between caste Hindus and the Untouchables. That is not a matter of doing injustice against one man. This is a matter of injustice being done by one class against another.

“This ‘class struggle’ has a relation with the social status. This struggle indicates, how one class should keep its relation with another class. This struggle starts as soon as you start claiming equal treatment with others…”

“The reason for their anger is very simple. Your behaving on par with them insults them. The untouchability is not a short or temporary feature; it is a permanent one… It is eternal, because the religion which has placed you at the lowest level of the society is itself eternal, according to the belief of the Hindu caste people. No change, according to time and circumstances is possible.

“You are at the lowest rung of the ladder today. You shall remain lowest forever. This means the struggle between Hindus and Untouchables shall continue forever. How will you survive through this struggle is the main question.”

“Hindus cannot destroy their castes without destroying their religion. Muslims and Christians need not destroy their religions for eradication of their castes. Rather their religion will support such movements to a great extent.”

“To get human treatment, convert yourselves…”

On October 14, 1956 Ambedkar publicly converted to Buddhism and was followed by nearly half a million Dalits, in what came to be known as the great conversion.

Besides being a matter of faith, for many conversion is a means of emancipation from an oppressive social order. Often it is met with resistance.

For instance, the Indian state does not recognise many non-Hindu castes in its lists of SCs and OBCs. So if you convert you will lose the benefits of affirmative action constitutionally guaranteed to the oppressed castes. Not only will you be cut off from these benefits that are meant to counter casteist oppression, you might also be harassed and attacked by those who want you to remain oppressed, and have police protection.

The annual report on Hate and Targeted Violence against Christians in India published in February by the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India documents 505 instances of violence against Christians across the country in 2021, including three murders, as well as other forms of harassment including disruption of worship, social boycott and ostracism, and forced conversion to Hinduism. The majority of these attacks were performed in rural areas and targeted Christian Dalits and Adivasis, the report states.

For instance, in May last year, around ten Dalit Christian families in Sikappai village, Odisha were attacked and forcibly displaced on account of their faith. Reportedly tensions arose when two Christian Dalit women went to fetch water from a public well, and the villagers approached them, tore their clothes, touched them inappropriately and told them Christians were not allowed to use the well. When they reported the incident, the perpetrators set the houses of the Christians on fire and chased them out of the village. The Dalit Christian families were forced to leave and seek refuge in the jungles using makeshift shelters. They reportedly do not feel safe to return.

In November last year mobs attacked a Dalit pastor named Chandrakant in Karnataka. Many first-generation preachers like him who come from communities kept to the margins have been at the receiving end of threats and attacks. The preachers say that the attackers are mostly from the local dominant castes. According to a report by the United Christian Forum, based on calls received on the forum’s helpline a total of 588 Adivasis and 513 Dalits were wounded in such attacks.

In late December, a Dalit Christian pastor and his family were attacked during a prayer meeting being conducted at their house. Politically aligned neighbours suddenly barged in and attacked the congregation. One woman sustained burn injuries. A series of similar attacks that month reportedly included the desecration of Christ statues and forcing worshippers to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ .

On January 14, 2022, a mob brutally assaulted a Christian pastor named Rakesh Babu and his wife in Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh. They injured the couple severely. Just days before the attack, Rakesh Babu stated, the police sub-inspector of the locality had called him up and told him not to encourage other villagers, most of whom are Dalits, to join him in prayer, and warned him of dire consequences if he did not pay heed.

These are just some of the documented cases of violence against Dalits who chose to convert to Christianity. Creation of a Hindu Rashtra (republic) is no hidden agenda for those who turn discrimination into violence. But why do they target Dalit converts specifically?

According to Dr John Prasad, an anthropologist who has done extensive research on the Mahars, a Dalit community in Maharashtra,

“The reason is that (sections of the) Upper castes want Dalits to remain oppressed. From my research back in 2004, I had found that the average income of a Dalit Buddhist was Rs 1000, a Dalit Hindu Rs 2,500 and a Dalit Christian Rs 7,000. The Dalit Hindus received government benefits, so they were slightly economically better off than Dalit Buddhists. On the other hand, many of the Dalit Christians had finished their high school and moved out of their villages and were doing economically much better.

They don’t want them to be empowered and rise up to their status in society. This is why they try to stop them from converting.”

In recent years eight state legislatures namely Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand have enacted anti-conversion laws that are intended to prevent any person from converting others by force or fraud or bribe.

Some of the laws offer harsher punishment if the alleged converts are from the Dalit castes. Under the Madhya Pradesh anti-conversion law for instance, a person can be sentenced for a period of one to five years if found guilty of converting or attempting to convert people unlawfully. But if the person converted belongs to a Schedule Caste or Tribe, the sentence is two to ten years.

So if you are a Dalit Hindu who converts to Christianity, not only do you have to forfeit the public benefits guaranteed to oppressed classes and castes, you are also at greater risk of attacks by motivated mobs. And to add to it, you would continue to face caste discrimination even in the church. In many parts of Tamil Nadu for instance, churches still have separate burial grounds for Dalit Christians and others. Most matrimonial ads circulated by Christians will specify the caste of the prospective bride or groom.

According to Semmalar Selvi, assistant professor of social work at Loyola College, Chennai, “Historically, the reason why people have converted from Hinduism is not just because they didn’t like it, but because they want to be liberated. That’s what Ambedkar said as well. He said you cannot annihilate caste if you don’t come out of Hinduism. All these factors have been the driving force behind people getting converted. In southern Tamil Nadu, in places like Tuticorin, Nagercoil and Kanyakumari, there is a prominent number of Christians. If you look at the history of Travancore, when it was a princely state, women were not even allowed to cover their breasts.”

She further added, “(Vested interests ) want to keep treating people like slaves. The constitution says every person has the right to propagate their religion. But these people see this as a threat. Christians need to voice out their concerns more, not just pray when they are attacked. When the whole Varna system is not disturbed, the Brahmins will be safe. But when it is disturbed, a manual scavenger can become the CEO of a company and the (vested interests) cannot allow this.”

“The major challenge the Dalit Christians are facing is that they have no protection under the SC ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. They are still being discriminated against in their villages. Changing their religion has no impact on their social status.”

The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was enacted in 1989 to prevent atrocities and hate crimes committed against people from these communities. It lists 22 offences that shatter the self-respect of Dalits and Adivasis and show how people taught casteism are trained to behave.

The offences include: perpetrating economic boycott, fabricating land records or squatting on land, employing in manual scavenging, preventing from filing election nomination papers, parading naked or semi-naked or garlanding with shoes, forcibly putting inedible or obnoxious substances in the mouth, dumping excreta in the household premises of, etc. Convictions remain low.

While people continue to perpetrate these crimes on Christian Dalits, they cannot be convicted under this law. Most of the victims and survivors of the 2008 Kandhamal attacks, the 1991 Tsundur massacre, and the recent attacks in Karnataka were Dalits who were attacked because they were seen as Dalits who had converted to Christianity to escape the hierarchy of caste. Yet the state (rashtra) denies them the act’s protections.

Attacks on Dalit Christians also go largely unreported because the police do not register FIRs. There have been several instances in the last year alone, according to reports by human rights organisations, where Christians or Dalit Christians who were attacked approached the authorities to file an FIR, but they refused. In many cases the police, who are rarely Dalits or Christians, try to get them to “compromise” in order to avoid extra work or because they themselves are under religious, political pressure. This in turn discourages survivors from approaching the police.

Scholar and activist Kancha Illaiah Shepherd told The Citizen, “The attacks on Dalit Christians are happening because of their ‘Dalit’ identity. The Upper castes don’t want Dalits to be able to have access to English medium education, which many of the Christian minority institutions provide. If they have access to that, they would be empowered and rise up to be their equals. The Upper castes don’t want this so they obviously see conversion as a threat.”

According to C.J Zeba, chief coordinator of the Tamil Nadu Christian Council,

“In most of the attacks and acts of discrimination that happen against Christians in the state, the victims are usually Dalits or Tribals. This is mainly because Dalits who convert to Christianity somehow have better access to education, and others are worried if their children will be unable to compete with the Dalit children. Now a lot of Dalits are well educated and are able to secure decent jobs”.

“Dalit Christians are definitely targeted because of their Dalit identity, even within the church. Just this month, a Dalit Christian woman named Ilammal, who was a ragpicker, fell ill and both her kidneys failed. She didn’t have an Aadhar card and since she was a convert, she could not receive any of the benefits provided by the government.

“We knew she would not live long and we approached her husband to be prepared for the worst. But after she passed away, we were shocked to find out that we couldn’t even find a burial ground for her, just because she was a Dalit. It was a real struggle. She is now survived by her two-year-old daughter and husband.”