A pleasant three-hour train ride from the popular tourist destination of Varanasi transports you worlds away to the bustling town of Gaya in the less-traveled state of Bihar, widely known as one of the poorest and most lawless in India….
Deekonda Tirupathi and his bride-to-be, Sucharitha, are converting to Buddhism because they are Dalits, members of society rooted below even the bottom rung of India’s complex hierarchical system. Above them, four main Hindu classes, or varnas, occupy their own places in life: the priestly Brahmins; then the ruling class, the Kshatriyas; next are the Vaishyas, the artisans and traders; then follow the Shudras, labourers and servants. Those born without varna are seen as sub-human, or, as they used to be referred to, “untouchable”, their lives restricted to menial jobs and duties deemed impure in Hinduism: they alone work leather, dispose of dead bodies, handle carcasses, clear human and animal excrement.
Our wedding couple are the latest in a long line of Dalits who hope to rid themselves of the stigma of “untouchability” and be accepted as equals by adopting a new religion.
The journey to the heart of the violence follows a bone-shaking road east from Bhubaneswar to the district capital, Phulbani. It was here in late August that thousands of Hindus armed with swords, sticks and primitive guns began taking matters into their own hands after the murder of an elderly religious leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
The swami, a senior member of a right-wing Hindu organisation known as the Vishswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), had reportedly been working to prevent low-caste Hindus converting to Christianity. His followers claimed he had been murdered by local Christians, though police said there was no evidence of that. Either way, in the days that followed, groups of Hindus wrought a terrible revenge on Christian families whom they had lived alongside for decades. In addition to the deaths, 140 churches and prayer halls were attacked and up to 50,000 people forced to flee. In instances the violence appears staggering in its cruelty. Rabindranath Pradhan, now a refugee, had to watch helplessly while a 300-strong mob doused his disabled brother with petrol and set him alight. “He was shouting ‘Help me, Help me.’ I could not help – there were so many of them,” he said. …
And so, seventy years later, it begins again.
“We have been given these badges with different colours for those who have agreed to convert to Christianity and those who have not,” he said.