of protests against new laws in several Indian states that make such conversions difficult.
The ‘World Religious Freedom Day’ took place in Nagpur, the largest city in central India in the western state of Maharashtra, and was one of the biggest inter-faith changes in years, observers said.
It was unclear how many Dalits choose to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which evangelicals say is crucial to be a true Christian. News reports said however that at least 500 Dalits embraced Christianity by taking dips in a makeshift pool as part of the baptism process.
More than 9,000 others embraced Buddhism with Buddhist monks in orange robes asking them to say: "You are no more a Hindu. Say you will not worship any Hindu god or goddess. Say I will never go to a temple."
Dozens of riot policemen were reportedly deployed at the public park in Nagpur where the mass ceremonies took place. At the park some Dalit activists were seen burning a copy of an anti-conversion law.
Several states governed by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have introduced or strengthened laws to stop what it says are forced conversions, mainly by Christian missionaries and church leaders.
Missionaries have strongly denied the charges, saying Christianity is only based on a free, personal decision, for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The anti-conversion laws were condemned by Pope Benedict XVI this year.
"There is complete freedom in the constitution to pick up and follow any faith you chose. Today is the celebration of that freedom," Joseph D’Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, who presided over the baptism, told reporters.
As the ceremony took place, a hard-line Hindu leader claimed however the conversions were "forced".
"What are they talking about? Our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not forced conversion," Prashant Harpalkar of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) said in published remarks.
The event was backed by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a major advocacy group and its partner the All India Christian Council (AICC). Saturday’s rally "marked the 50th anniversary of Dalit icon Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s ceremonial departure from the Hindu caste system by embracing Buddhism," CSW told BosNewsLife.
Over 16 percent of India’s 1.1-billion population are Dalits, who occupy the lowest rank in a 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system and face discrimination and even violence. Christian Dalits are especially suffering persecution, their supporters say.
This week India’s Supreme Court again postponed a hearing on granting them more rights. That hearing was to decide whether Dalit Christians, also known as "untouchables", can be denied job and education rights. These rights were already extended to Dalits of other faiths, although they too experience discrimination, human rights groups say.
The government already deferred five previous scheduled hearings of the case related to the rights of India’s estimated 16 million Dalit Christians on July 12 and February 18 of this year, and on November 28, August 23 and October 18 of 2005.
Hindus form 80 percent of India’s population, Muslims more than 13 percent and Christians less than 3 percent, according to estimates. Religious minorities such as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis make up the rest. (With reports from India, BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos, and BosNewsLife Monitoring).