Dalit Christians – The Victims of Casteism

Casteism has become pervasive in the Indian society and also in Christian churches and organisations. It has entered into the marrow and bones of a sizeable number of people, irrespective of their socio-economic and educational status and religious affiliation.

I. What is Casteism?

Casteism means prejudice or discrimination based on caste. It is a loyalty to one’s caste. In general, it may be defined as a phenomenon by virtue of which persons belonging to a certain caste group are either discriminated against or shown favour regardless of their merits and demerits, just on the basis of their caste.

Casteism exhibits a number of characteristics such as:

  1. Casteism signifies blind caste or sub-caste loyalty. It either ignores or does not care for the interests of other castes.
  2. For a casteist person “My caste man/woman and my caste only” is the principle.
  3. Casteism goes against the spirit of democracy.
  4. Casteism submits or subordinates one’s sense of justice, fair play and humanity to the interests of his/her own caste.
  5. Casteism creates caste solidarity to the extent that: a. one caste seeks to dominate over others; b. higher castes exploit the lower castes.

Factors that contribute to the growth and spread of casteism

  1. Sense of caste prestige

Sense of caste prestige constitutes an important cause of casteism. People belonging to a particular caste try to enhance the prestige of their caste. In so doing they do not hesitate to employ undesirable and harmful methods. 

  1. Endogamy

Endogamy signifies marriage within one’s own caste. Since people practice endogamy, it is quite natural that they develop a deep sense of belonging to one another within the same caste. This obviously promotes casteism.

  1. Urbanisation

Due to urbanization, people migrate from rural areas to urban areas in search of employment. There they encounter an impersonal world and feel insecure. This insecurity drives them to stay in a cluster formed on the basis of caste. They form associations through which they protect their caste interests. All these lead to casteism.

  1. Social distance

Social relations of individuals are conditioned by one’s caste norms and values. Social distance between castes is maintained through restrictions of inter-caste marriage, inter-dining etc.

II. The Impact of Casteism on Dalits

Caste, an age old social hierarchy, enjoys sanction of Hindu religion. It stratifies and discriminates more than 20 crore Dalits in India. The purity and pollution concept, based on Varna theory and geared up by four fold creation theory of Hinduism – as defined in Rig Veda[1] – bred casteism and untouchability that dehumanises Dalits to undergo social exclusion, occupational segregation, economic and political power deprivation.[2] The Varnashramadharma formulates where Dalits should reside, their occupation, access to resources and powers, whom to marry and where to be buried. It denies Dalits the right to touch and to be touched and forces to remain as “untouchables”[3], to live mainly as manual scavengers, sweepers, gutter/drainage cleaners, cobblers, cremators, drum beaters for the funerals of dominant castes.[4]

Thus, Dalits are the deprived, dispossessed and dehumanised section of Indian society. They are deprived of human dignity and rights and privileges that are being enjoyed by nonDalits, dispossessed of access to and control over resources, and dehumanised by being outcasted and made untouchables. Further, in terms of culture, Dalits are also deprived of their own way of thinking, behaving and living. The perception about themselves and the society is imposed upon them by the dominant castes.

It is this individual and collective social and historical experience of exclusion, oppression and exploitation which stimulates Dalit movements and also Dalit discourses.

A. Socio-Economic Condition of Dalits

Casteism creates barriers for the upward social mobility of Dalits by depriving them of education, property and power. Caste system is not just a religious system, but also a socio-economic system much worse than slavery. Ambedkar mentions six principles of caste system:

  1. Graded inequality between different castes;
  2. Complete disarmament of the Shudras and the Untouchables;
  3. Complete ban on the education of the Shudras and the Untouchables;
  4. Total exclusion of the Shudras and the Untouchables from places of power;
  5. Prohibition on Shudras and the Untouchables acquiring property;
  6. Total subjugation and suppression of women.

The children of the Dalits are not allowed to avail educational facilities available to the upper caste children. With the onset of privatisation of education, and dwindling of government funds for public education and as a consequence deterioration of academic standards in government educational institutions, the misery of Dalits is intensified, as they can not afford education in private educational institutions due to poverty.

The plight of the Dalits’ economic position has been the issue of landlessness. In an agricultural society like India, land is an important consideration. The landed high caste has deprived Dalits of owning land or property of any kind. This is to ensure continuous supply of permanent labour force. Landless and dependent, Dalits lead an economic unfree and impoverished life.

According to the Government of India report in 2004, the literacy rate of Dalits is only 54.70%, 77.01% still remain landless agricultural labourers, 51% are sweepers and only 16% are in government employment that too in lower and middle positions only, 21.4% Dalit villages only have electricity, 19.5% have to walk for miles for drinking water facility, 42.8% have houses, 36.25% in rural areas live under below poverty line.[5]

B. Untouchability Practices

Despite the abolition of untouchability by the Constitution of India, and despite the passage of numerous legislations classifying untouchability in any sphere as a cognizable offence, the heinous practice lives on and takes on new expressions.

Dalits face humiliation and harassment by a range of social exclusion practices. They are segregated from mainstream life. They are forced to dwell outside villages and denied access to water resources, natural resources, restaurants and burial grounds.

A study in 2006 by a Human Rights organisation[6] has brought out the existence of more than 124 forms of visible and invisible untouchability practices in the socio, economic and political life of Dalits. Some of them are:

  1. Discrimination in Government Services:
    1. 37.8% of the villages  – Dalits to sit separately in government school
    2. 27.6% of villages        – Dalits prevented from entering police stations
    3. 25.7% of villages        – Dalits prevented to public retail shops
    4. 33% of villages        – Public health workers refuse to visit Dalit homes
    5. 23.5% of Dalit hamlets – mails not delivered to their homes
    6. 14.4% of villages      – Dalits not permitted to enter local government buildings
    7.  12% of villages  – Dalits denied access or forced to form separate lines at polling booths
    8. 48.4% of villages – Denied access to water sources
  1. Access to Market
    1. 35% of villages – Dalits barred access to local markets
    2. 47% of village cooperatives – Dalits prevented from selling milk
    3. 25% of villages – Dalits prevented from buying milk
  1. In Work
    1. 25% of villages – Dalits paid lower wages, worked longer hours, delayed payment, suffer verbal and physical abuse
    2.  37% of villages – wages paid from distance to avoid physical contact
  1. In Religion and Rites
    1. 64% of villages – Dalits restricted from entering temples
    2. 50% of villages – Dalits denied access to cremation grounds
  1. In Private Sphere
    1. 73% of villages – Dalits are not allowed to enter nonDalit homes
    2. 70% of villages – no inter-dining
    3. 35.8% of villages – Dalits denied entry for village shops

C. Reservation

Since Dalits neither own land or other resources, nor are they educated enough to look for government and nongovernment jobs, the only recourse that is left open for them is social mobility through reservation.

Reservation is one of the ways of including the excluded. Ambedkar understood the devastating consequences of exclusion of Dalits in the areas of education, employment and power. So he demanded for the rights to representation in proportion to their population in educational institutions, public services and legislative bodies. One of the consequences of such a demand was the incorporation of the provision of reservation in educational institutions, jobs and legislatures as articulated in the Article 330 of the Constitution of India.

D. Atrocities against Dalits

Crimes committed often against Dalits reiterate the fact that their rights are more often violated. Since the upper caste people are the law makers, enforcers of law and the ones who occupy the seats of justice, rights are continuously denied to Dalits.

When Dalits are subjected to atrocities, they can take recourse to Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act of 1989 and Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 as amended in 1976. Due to the inherently oppressive and exploitative caste system, Dalits do not get justice.  So they can at least take recourse to legal provisions. But the same is not the case for Dalit Christians, since they are not considered as SCs. So they are exposed to oppression, exploitation and atrocities in the hands of high caste people.

III. Reason for Dalits to Embrace Christianity

From the historical experience of oppression and dehumanisation, and from years of reformatory work for emancipation of Dalits, Ambedkar came to the fundamental conclusion that the road to social mobility was closed for Dalits within the Hindu fold and voiced opinion that the path of political participation was sealed for the untouchables forever. He was convinced that economic opportunities had been snatched from Dalits from the very beginning of the establishment of caste system. Ambedkar strongly believed that only religious route is left open for the downtrodden of Indian society. Therefore, he advocated and urged Dalits to take the path of conversions. Arguing about the need for conversions to attain equal status Ambedkar stated, “To get human treatment, convert yourselves, convert for getting organised, convert for becoming strong, convert for securing equality, convert for getting liberty, convert so that your domestic life may be happy.” He said, “Choose any religion which gives you EQUALITY OF STATUS AND TREATMENT.” Dalits were looking for social liberation, dignity, identity and equality as human beings. 

With that desire and hope, Ambedkar and five lakh Dalits converted to Buddhism in 1956. V.T. Rajashekar argues that Ambedkar’s conversion efforts had sent shock waves throughout the country. Hindu revivalist organisations and other Hindu leaders were very much worried as they understood the adverse consequences of untouchables fleeing the Hindu fold. The upper castes were well aware of the fact that the untouchables are the ones who carry the burden of this oppressive hierarchical caste social order. Though they have been cast out of the society, it is they who constitute the work force, the labouring classes and the backbone of the Brahmanical social order. If they move out of the structure, then the entire edifice will crumble. They were, in fact, fundamentally frightened to forgo such cheap, free, obedient and ever loyal work force. 

This motive may be seen in the amendment proposed by K.M. Munshi, an ardent Brahmin leader, to the Report prepared by the Advisory Committee on Minorities that was submitted to the Constituent Assembly in August 1947: “To (a) delete Scheduled Castes from the list of the minorities, (b) include the following addition, “I-A: The section of the Hindu Community referred to as Scheduled Castes as defined 1 of the Government of India Act 1935, shall have the same rights and benefits, which are herein provided for minorities specified in the Schedule to para 1.”” The inner motive for the amendment is best expressed by the words of Munshi himself. He said, “Any safeguard as a minority, so far as the Schedule Castes are concerned, will possibly prevent their complete absorption in the Hindu fold.” He stated, “Harijans are part and parcel of the Hindu community. Safeguards are given to them till they are completely absorbed in the community.” This amendment has become fatal to the scheduled caste people who became Christians and Muslims. They were denied the same privileges enjoyed by the scheduled caste people who were not Christians and Muslims. In a way, this has restrained the conversions to Christianity and Islam. 

The efforts of High caste Hindus to contain the flow of religious conversions of Dalits have given birth to the Presidential order called the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1950, and the Anti-Conversion laws.

The Constitutional Order reads: “Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph 2 (of Article 341), no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a scheduled caste.” This Presidential SC/ST Order 1950 was amended in 1956 to include Dalit Sikhs and in 1990 to include Dalit Buddhists in the list. However, Dalits who converted to Christianity and to Islam are excluded from the list. Since they are not included in the Presidential SC/ST Order, they are ineligible to enjoy the benefits of affirmative action of the government such as reservation in education, employment and political power, and Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act of 1989

Anti-conversion laws have been passed in 7 Indian states: Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh and Rajastan. Jharkhand is also expected to pass such anti-conversion law. These laws prohibit conversion on following terms: No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by use of “force” or by “inducement” or any “fraudulent” means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.

These anti conversion laws help to keep the most maligned and powerless members of the Indian society – the Dalits or “untouchables” – performing the most menial, degrading, and dangerous jobs in India, with no prospect of upward mobility.

Conversion to Christianity

For Dalits the idea of converting to another religion is a means of fighting the caste system. Their concern is NOT what would happen to their soul after death, but to have their human dignity and honour as anybody else. Ambedkar said, “Because we have the misfortune of calling ourselves Hindus we are treated thus. If we were members of another faith none would dare treat us so. Choose any religion which gives you equality of status and treatment. We shall repair the mistakes now. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an untouchable. However, it is not my fault, but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.” Therefore, the main reason for Dalits to convert to another religion, including Christianity, is for dignity, equality and justice.

Christianity preached that there is no discrimination and everyone who belongs to this religion is considered equal with other Christians. Because all those who believed in Jesus Christ become the children of God. Thus, it preached brotherhood of all believers in Jesus Christ. Dalits who were seeking to get an equal status in society found a ray of hope in this new religion. In an attempt to forgo their standing of the lowest strata, Dalits renounced Hindu religion and embraced Christianity. Thus, Dalits used Christianity as a way of liberation from the bondage of Hindu caste system to the new religion that promised equality, and human dignity, value and rights as anybody else. 

It is estimated that out of the 2.4 crore Christians in India, comprising 2.3% of the total population, nearly 70%, that is, 1.68 crore are Dalits.

A. Christian Dalits’ Comprehension of Christian Faith

How do Dalit Christians perceive their faith? What does it mean to them?

Dalits’ existential status, their indescribable living conditions and the consequent struggle for survival deeply affected their perception of the Christian faith. The reason to convert also shaped their understanding of Christianity. That’s why they have adopted a holistic perception of this new religion.

Christian preaching and teaching based on the western Christian theology has little or no meaning to Dalits. Dalit theology is different from the Western Christian theology, which is generally followed in Christian churches and organisations in India. According to James Massey, “Western Christian theology is based on the classical Greek dualism between this world and the other-world, between matter and spirit. In contrast, Dalit theology is deeply rooted in this world, in the this-worldly experiences and sufferings of the Dalits, and, rather than promising the Dalits a place in heaven, it inspires them to struggle for transforming this world to bring justice for the Dalits” 

Sin

Christian Dalits’ perception of sin is mostly socio-ethical in nature. So, sin means things like stealing, inequality, injustice, ill-treatment etc.  In this sense, sin is not so much perceived in a “spiritual” sense and thus, “original sin” and “bondage of sin” are of no great concern to them. Instead, sin carries a strong social or corporate and justice dimension to it.

Jesus and His Death

Dalits identify with Jesus and his experiences. Like them, Jesus was born in a desperately poor family. Like them, he also experienced alienation and rejection. They see a “Dalit” in Jesus and his experiences. That’s why to see the death of Christ and relate it to them as an idea of substitution for their sins is very difficult for them. James Massey says, “We (Dalits) don’t need anybody to die for us. We all die every day. How does the death of Christ substitute our killings every day? It doesn’t. It does not relate to us. But solidarity does. Solidarity is salvation for us.” 

Therefore, for the Dalits Jesus suffers ALONGSIDE them, and not specifically FOR them. Jesus experienced sufferings, alienation and death, in a sense became a Dalit, in order to liberate the poor, oppressed and marginalised. 

Since Jesus spent the whole of his life working for the liberation of the poor, marginalised and oppressed, as a believer in this Jesus it is a natural expression of one’s faith commitment to be involved in the movement for Dalit liberation.

So for Dalit Christians, Christian faith should contribute in improving their lives that are living in conditions worse than slavery. If Christian religion can not do so, then what is the use? So for them, religion has worth only if it helps them in their struggle for liberation from degrading and dehumanising conditions.   

IV. Discrimination against Dalit Christians

Dalits who embraced Christianity were motivated by the fact that they would be given an equal status, value, rights and dignity. But this charm of equality lasted till the day they tasted the reality. Christian churches and organisations have never lived up to their promise of equality. All those who believed in Jesus Christ becoming children of God and so having equal status, dignity, value and rights is limited to preaching, but in reality Dalits are continued to be discriminated and excluded in churches and Christian organisations due to their caste origins.

As Dalit Christians they face worse discrimination than the Dalit Hindus. Now they are subjected to multiple discriminations: discriminated by the church and Christian organisations, discriminated by the society, discriminated by the state, and discriminated by the Dalits of other faiths.

A. Discrimination of Dalit Christians in Churches

It is generally agreed that caste tends to survive conversion. Because of this Christian community has reproduced the caste structure prevalent in Hindu society. Although Christianity propagates equality and brotherhood, it practices caste discrimination within the Christian community. Caste discrimination is fully ingrained in the PRACTICES of Christianity. Therefore, the plight of Dalit Christians within Christianity is nowhere better than that in Hindu religion.

1. Historical Roots of Discrimination of Dalit Christians within the Church

Historical data abounds with the fact that there have been caste segregation and discrimination within the church right from its inception. Christianity made its presence in India in the 1st century itself with the arrival of St. Thomas, one of the disciples of Jesus Christ. The early missionaries from Syria, Portugal, Italy and Spain have converted mostly Brahmins, other dominant castes and fisher people. The gates of Christianity were open for others only in 17th and 18th centuries. Dalits started embracing Christianity in a large scale mainly after the arrival of Protestant missionaries from 1706 onwards who involved in educational, social and medical services among them.

Missionaries historically conformed to caste rules. They did not see it as diametrically opposed to the Christian faith. Moreover, for them, “winning souls” was more important than opposing caste. So they maintained the status quo. That’s why Ambedkar criticised the Christian missionaries that they “took so much pain to denounce idol worship, but did little to unseat the idol of caste.”

The lenient attitude of church towards caste is epitomised by the Letter of the Propagation of Faith, 1779 with regard to the distinctions of caste in the churches. In 1779 the congregation for the Propagation of Faith wrote: “The separation in the church and at the entrance of the church, also the distinction of cemeteries may actually be tolerated for fear of greater evil.” The Cathedral at Tiruchchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, built between 1839 and 1841 was provided with the customary caste bar. In some places Dalits had their own churches, and in other places they attended service standing outside the church. In common churches, the outcaste Christians (i.e. Dalit Christians) were seated in the side naves (“nave” is the place where laity is seated) or at the back and could take the Holy Communion only after the caste Christians. At the Synod of Pondicherry in 1844, the seating arrangement for different castes, and inequality and injustice to Dalit Christians were discussed. The Synod issued a statement regarding this. But the caste Christians accused the church authorities that they were trying to abolish the caste system, and boycotted the church till the old order was restored. 

The Vellalars of Vadakkankulam in Tamil Nadu refused to take the Holy Communion within the sight of Nadar Christians after the priest had demolished the wall, which had kept the two groups from seeing each other in the church. That means, in Christianity the sight of an outcaste Christian pollutes a caste Christian even in the worship service in the church, just as in Hindu religion, mere shadow of an untouchable pollutes a caste Hindu. Thus, it is not religion, but social origin that determines the interaction of persons.

From 1893 to 1900, high caste students refused to dine with the students from fisher community in St. Joseph’s College at Tiruchchirappalli, where former president Abdul Kalam studied. Sit in strikes and throwing of water snakes by caste Christians and acts violence against the Adi Dravidars had taken place to prevent them from entering the church at Tiruchchirappalli.

The memorandum submitted in 1929 by the Christian Depressed Classes of South India to the Indian Statutory Commission or what is popularly known as Simon Commission sums up the plight of Dalit Christians: “In spite of our Christian religion, which teaches us fundamental truths, the equality of man and man before God, the necessity of charity and love for neighbours and mutual sympathy and forbearance, we, the large number of Depressed Classes converts remain in the same social condition as the Hindu Depressed Classes. Through the operation of several factors, the more important of them being the strong caste-retaining-Hindu-mentality of the converts to Christianity, and the indifference, powerlessness and apathy of the Missionaries, we remain today what we were before we became Christians – untouchables – degraded by the laws of social position obtaining in the land, rejected by caste Christians, despised by caste Hindus and excluded by our own Hindu Depressed Class brethren.”

In Goa, mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese missionaries from the 16th century onwards. The Hindu converts retained their caste practices. The continued maintenance of the caste system among the Christians is attributed to the nature of mass conversions of entire villages, as a result of which existing social stratification was not affected. The missionaries did not do anything to stop the entry of caste system into the church. Thus, the original Hindu Brahmins became Christian Bamons, the Kshatriyas became Christian noblemen called Chardos, Vaishyas became Gauddos, Shudras became Sudirs, and the Dalits or untouchables became Mahars and Chamars. The Christian clergy were almost exclusively Bamons

When Christian missionaries began their work in India in the decades before Independence, their promise of equal treatment and opportunity for all castes became the prime reason for Dalits who found themselves at the socio-economic lowest rung of Hinduism’s hierarchy to embrace the missionary message, but nothing had worked out and the caste prejudices continued.

2. Contemporary Situation of Discrimination of Dalit Christians within the Church

Today caste continues to dominate in the Christian communities, churches and Christian organisations. The words of Ambedkar are very much true regarding the prevalence of caste and casteism among Christians. He said, “Christianity has not succeeded in dissolving the feeling of caste from among the converts of Christians. There are Brahmin Christians and non Brahmin Christians. Among non Brahmin Christians, there are, Maratha Christians, Mahar Christians, Mang Christians, Bhangi Christians, Pariah Christians, Mala Christians and Madiga Christians. They would not marry or inter-marry. They are as much caste ridden as the Hindus are.”

The prevalence of Brahmin Christians, Kamma Christians, Reddy Christians, Nadar Christians, Caste Christians, Mala Christians, Madiga Christians etc., is an indication of the continuance of caste system even after a person has given up Hinduism and embraced Christianity. In the Legal Case of S. Anbalagan Vs B. Devarajan & Ors, the Supreme Court of India observed: “The practice of caste, however irrational it may appear to our reason and however repugnant it may appear to our moral and social science, is so deep rooted in the Indian people that its mark does not seem to really disappear even after some generations after conversion. In Andhra Pradesh and in Tamil Nadu, there are several thousands of Christian families whose forefathers became Christians and who, though they profess the Christian religion, nonetheless observe the practice of caste. There are Christian Reddies, Christian Kammas, Christian Nadars, Christian Adi-Andhras, Christian Adi-Dravidas and so on. The practice of their caste is so rigorous that there are intermarriages with Hindus of the same caste, but not with Christians of another caste.”

What the prevalence of caste and casteism in Christian community, church and Christian organisations indicates is that Christians follow two kinds of value systems that are contrary to each other. The basis of one value system is Jesus Christ and his teachings, and the basis of the other value system is “caste”. The first value system is confined to preaching and teaching others, whereas the second value system governs one’s life, values and relationships. Christians agree to a theology or belief system of equality of all believers in Jesus Christ before God, and of love, which transcends all human-made barriers that divide human beings, that governs the Christian community. They not only believe this, but also preach and teach without any inhibition. But in actual practice, they live by a different value system based on caste identity. It is their caste identity, rather than Christian identity, that governs their life, values and relationships. The ideal of “casteless” church, which they affirm and talk about, is not practiced. Because the Christian faith is privatised and compartmentalised, and the integrity of Christian ethics and theology is compromised. 

Tamil Christians have a unique way of revealing their caste, and also of trying to find out another person’s caste. Every caste will hide behind a geographical identity or will represent itself through a prominent person in that group. Nadar Christians will say, “We are from Tirunelveli (or Nagercoil)” or “We are related to Brother D.G.S. Dhinakaran.” Even a young person who was born in Chennai will say, “I was born in Chennai, but we are originally from Tirunelveli.” Many Vellalar Christians will say, “We are from Palayamkottai.” The Maravar Christians will say,”We are from Ramnad.”

In Andhra Pradesh, usually the family name (or surname) or the denomination to which one belongs reveals the caste identity. Mala Christians mainly attend either CSI or Lutheran church, whereas Madiga Christians attend Baptist church. Most of the independent churches are started by nonDalit Christians. Reddy Christians prefer to attend a church that is led by a Reddy Christian. Similarly Kamma Christians prefer to attend a church headed by a Kamma Christian.

With the continuation of caste in Christian community, caste based discrimination is also a reality. Caste discrimination within the church marks the lives of Dalit Christians. Although Dalit Christians constitute more than 70% of total Christians and the Indian church is predominantly a Dalit church, they face discrimination and oppression, and suffer the shackles of untouchability practices at the hands of nonDalit Christians within the church and Christian organisations. Many nonDalit Christians still believe that Dalit Christians should be downtrodden and they just want to keep power in their own hands. One of the Church of South India (CSI) bishops from Vellore rightly pointed out at the World Council of Churches (WCC): “We feel we have more in common with Dalits of other faiths than with Christians of upper caste groups!” The Dalits feel alienated within the church because of the casteism.

a. Socio-Economic Situation of Dalit Christians

i. Social

The conversion of Dalits into Christianity has no effect on their social or dalit status. Earlier they were Hindu Dalits, now they are Christian Dalits. Apart from their identity as “Christians”, there has been no change in their social or economic status. Casteism in Christian community is an enduring reality in areas such as marriage, dining, education and leadership.

As in Hinduism, in Christianity too inter-caste marriage and inter-dining between Dalits and nonDalits are strictly prohibited, although stray incidents of inter-caste marriages take place out of love affairs among the educated youth. Some Christians would rather marry a Hindu who belongs to the same caste than a Christian of another caste. It is sad, but true.

Even at the level of nomenclature, discrimination is practiced against Dalit Christians. The church personnel in their conversations when they want to say anything derogatory or negative about Dalit Christians, they would use abbreviations, instead of referring to their caste. For instance, in Tamil Nadu they would say ‘pl’ to refer to Pallar and ‘pr’ to refer to Paraiyar. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, ‘ch’ is used for Chamars. Since Dalit Christians are dependent on nonDalit Christians, they do not openly oppose such practices.

ii. Education

A very worrisome place where one can find discrimination is at educational institutions. “Our children face educational discrimination because we are poor. In Jhansi, there are very good Christian schools. But while children from other castes are able to study there, poor Christian children are thrown out by sixth or seventh grade because we can not afford fees,” a Dalit Christian bemoaned. These schools are Christian institutions and the church refuses to take responsibility for this outrageous form of discrimination. James Massey says, “Take the case of elitist Christian schools. How many Dalit children have been admitted to them so far? These schools cater almost entirely to the ‘upper’ caste elites, Hindus and others. So, in this sense the churches we have are not the church of Christ. Christ tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Who are the neighbours of the leaders of the church? Are they the starving Dalits, who may share their Christian faith, or the rich industrialists who are sucking the blood of the poor and who send their children to elitist Christian schools in air-conditioned cars?”

Dalit Christians continue to be discriminated in educational institutions that belong to the church. They have brought out this fact by saying that the church at the most has made them A-B-C-D, that is, ayas, butlers, cooks and drivers. This is corroborated by the fact that a few Dalit Christians have secured any position in professional fields and in bureaucracy like caste Christians.   

iii. Economic

A myth is being perpetuated that the Dalits who converted to Christianity are better placed. But a cursory examination of Dalit Christian communities in different parts of India reveals the fact that even after conversion, Dalits remain poor and landless, and so under the thumb of landlords and money lenders. Conversion could not change this reality.

Although the church knows that Dalit Christians have been denied the constitutional privileges and safeguards that are given for Dalits, because they are Christians, it has wantonly neglected its cause. Because of this a great majority of Dalit Christians are illiterate and are living below poverty line. Instead of helping the poor and needy Dalit Christians, the church spends more money on conversions, which will help to firm its roots.

Welfare of Dalit Christians has never been an agenda for church, but a tool for the expansion of the church empire in India. The local church authorities, institutions and organisations have built up and accumulated financial and material resources and continue to get financial aid from donors and agencies all over the world, primarily with the appeal to help the underprivileged and the untouchable Dalits and poor people. But these have not really reached them – not their due share and not even a minimum share. A major reason for this is, Dalit Christians are not in leadership positions in these organisations. At the most, some Dalit Christians would be in maintenance jobs in these institutions. This surmounts to cheating and robbing of Dalit Christians of their right to social mobility within the fold of Christianity.

Most of the well established and premier institutions of the church and centres of higher learning are run under the tag of minority rights. But these institutions offer less opportunities and preferences to Dalit Christians in admissions and appointments. This amounts to an act of betrayal of the constitutional provisions provided to the minority communities. It can be concluded that in this regard, caste Christians act against Dalit Christians very much like the caste Hindus against Dalits, primarily because these institutions are managed by nonDalits.

Like caste Hindus who consider the special provisions made to Dalits by the government of India as a wastage or at the most part of vote bank politics, the caste Christians too consider even minimum provisions being extended by the church to Dalit Christians as waste.

From the above, it becomes apparent that conversion of Dalits to Christianity does not result in altering their socio-economic conditions. Hence, the demand of Dalit Christians for reservation from the government of India is justified and it is their legitimate right.

iv. Power

Dalit Christians are also discriminated within the church hierarchy. They suffer to get access to power positions.[7] NonDalit Christians do not want to share power with Dalit Christians from ecclesiastical hierarchy to the administering of Christian institutions, mainly education and health. An obvious example is “Out of 156 Catholic Bishops in India 150 Bishops belong to the upper caste community. Only 6 belong to Dalit community. Out of 12500 Catholic priests, only 600 are from Dalit community. While 75% members are from Dalit community, the 25% upper caste Christians…have complete control over the Dalits, the untouchable Christians.”[8]

Among approximately 40,000 Christian educational and health institutions, majority beneficiaries are not from Scheduled Castes or Dalit Christians.[9] In the name of “merit and excellence in education”, these institutions cater and serve to the needs of mainly nonDalits and to a lesser percentage of elite Dalit Christians. This is the same situation that occurs in the Christian hospitals. Only those who can afford to pay for costly treatments are served in these hospitals. These institutions are managed largely by nonDalits and have become institutions for the welfare of the dominant caste and class, while the poorest of the poor are largely neglected.[10] 

Although almost all 22 dioceses of the Church of South India (CSI) are predominantly Dalit represented, majority are under the power dominance of nonDalit Christians. Of course, in some dioceses Dalits have wielded power positions. But largely they – both clergy and lay – are urban based, educated and elites. The grassroot level Dalit Christians, who form majority both among Catholics and Protestants, still remain excluded and oppressed.

It is strange that given the fact that the majority of Christians are Dalits, and they have little participation in the decision making bodies of the church. Elske van Gorkum gave an example of this: “You could see this even at the Global Ecumenical Conference on Justice for Dalits of the World Council of Churches in Bangkok in March 2009. There was not one Dalit among the delegates of the Church of North India (CNI) and the Church of South India (CSI). And this conference was entirely about Dalits!”

Thus, Dalit Christians are pushed aside and reduced to insignificance in the church, in spite of being majority. Since the power is in the hands of the nonDalit Christians, they keep Dalit Christians confined as a segregated group. The lack of Dalit Christian representation in the administrative and consultative bodies means lack of opportunity to present their cause at the decision making level. Thus, the experience of Dalit Christians is one of powerlessness.

That’s why Dalit Christians feel that the high caste leadership will not secure them their rights until they take leadership into their own hands within the church.

b. Untouchability Practices

A careful observation of caste practices within the church in India reveals that blatant discrimination like separate sitting arrangements in the place of worship for the Dalits and nonDalits, separate cemeteries continue unabated even today.

In some places it is still not possible to worship God together with the high castes. For example, Dalit Christians have to sit separate from high castes in the church, often on the floor. Furthermore, in these churches Dalit Christians have absolutely no liturgical participation whatsoever. They have to partake in the Holy Communion after the high caste Christians drink from the cup. Otherwise, high caste Christians would get polluted. For these reasons there are now a lot of separate churches for Dalit Christians, mostly in rural areas, so that they don’t have to be afraid of any discrimination when they want to worship God.

Untouchability is not only practiced among the living, but also among the dead. A wall dividing burial spaces of Dalit and nonDalit Christians in a cemetery in Tiruchchirappalli, a corporation in Tamil Nadu, is another standing example of discrimination prevalent in the Christian community.

Like Dalits of other faiths, Dalit Christians are also termed as impure, polluted and forced to carry out the filthy jobs namely manual scavenging, sweeping, gutter/swage cleaning, garbage removing, cobbling and cremating the dead bodies as a service to nonDalits.[11] This reality continues even today and Dalit Christians are forced to undertake the same old polluting jobs.[12]

Rev. Fr. Antony Raj, in his study Discrimination against Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu (1989) lists out the following discriminatory practices which still continue to remain in many churches:

“Two chapels are constructed – one for the nonDalits and the other for the Dalits; in some parishes liturgical services are conducted separately; separate seating arrangements are made within the same chapel…Dalits are asked to take seats on the floor; the existence of two separate cemeteries; two separate funeral trucks to carry the dead bodies…Dalits are asked to receive communion only after nonDalits…Dalits are not invited to participate in the washing of feet ceremony during Maundy Thursdays…in cemeteries walls are raised to separate Dalit Christian graves from the upper caste ones.”[13]

B. Discrimination of Dalit Christians in the Society

Dalit Christians are unique in terms of the discrimination they face in the society. High caste Indians treat Dalit Christian as Dalits. For them a Dalit is a Dalit. But there is more to it than that. Christian Dalits are treated even worse than Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist Dalits. In the eyes of high caste people, Dalit Christians made the “mistake” of embracing a foreign religion, in addition to their “crime” of being born in an untouchable caste. The consequence of this is that Dalit Christians are twice discriminated: as Dalits, and as Christians. This becomes clear in the atrocities they have to face as Dalits, but also as Christians. For a great part this has to do with the resentment Indians feel for Christianity as a western religion. This resentment is apparent in the rebukes such as “Why do you come here for help? You go to your pastor?” and “You better go to England or America for help?” So Dalit Christians are treated with greater contempt.

However, the deeper cause for their contempt is something else. In sociological literature, there have been three schools with different views on Dalits. One held that Dalits were not part of the Hindu caste system and were called outcastes. The second held that Dalits were part of the Hindu caste system, though they shared differently in its traditions. The third view said Dalits were autonomous and had their own unique and separate traditions like tribals.

The second view suited the caste Hindus. Because they did not want Dalits to get away from their grip. The caste Hindus wanted them to remain in Hindu fold for four reasons:

1. For the sake of numbers in order to show that Hinduism is the dominant religion and Hindus are the dominant community in India. As a consequence India is predominantly a Hindu country. (Caste Hindus also consider tribals as Hindus. That’s how Hindus claim that the population of Hindus in India is about 80%). 

2. Dalits removed impurities by doing impure jobs such as scavenging, removing dead bodies etc, so that caste Hindus could remain pure.

3. Most of the Dalits supplied cheap or unpaid labour to the caste Hindus.

4. In the “one man one vote” political culture, retaining the Dalits vote bank was a necessity for the dominant castes and classes.

So, caste Hindus opposed conversions, not so much for religious reasons, but for socio-economic reasons. If the Dalits were delinked from Hinduism or caste system, then the dominant castes would be the losers. That’s why they attack Christian missionaries, evangelists and pastors in the name of Hindu religion. But on their part the caste Hindus did little, if at all, to halt exploitation, untouchability and degradation of the Dalits.

Caste Hindus opposed not only conversions of Dalits, but also their upward socio-economic mobility. Because if the Dalits upgrade their socio-economic status, the caste Hindus will lose workers to do impure jobs and also lose cheap or unpaid labour. Whenever Dalits tried to upgrade their status socially and economically, caste Hindus subjected them to untold atrocities. It is clear from the analysis of the atrocities that the better-off sections or upwardly mobile Dalits have been the target of upper caste atrocities all over the country. For example, Gujarat and Tsundur in Andhra Pradesh.

C. Discrimination of Dalit Christians by Fellow Dalits of Other Religions

Dalit Hindus also discriminate against Dalit Christians. This is done for several reasons.

  1. 1.  Dalit Hindus believe or made to believe that Dalit Christians are infidels since they rejected their “original” religion and have embraced a “foreign” religion.

2. Dalit Hindus believe that Dalit Christians receive support from the church and hence, should not be entitled for any provisions made by the government of India for Dalits.

 3. Dalits of other faiths fear if reservation is extended to Dalit Christians, their share will decrease.

D. Discrimination of Dalit Christians by the State

For centuries the Dalit Christians have been carrying the burden of oppression, exploitation and segregation in common with the Dalits of other faiths. But now the Indian government has brought a distinction between one kind of Dalits and another, offering one treatment to Dalits who are Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist, and an entirely different treatment to the Dalits who are Christian or Muslim.

When the Indian Constitution was drafted some special rights and privileges were extended to the social category, which was known as Scheduled Castes (SCs) in a bid to ensure equality and dignity. It was a compensation for the historical injustices and discrimination that the SCs were subjected to for many centuries. Further, it was seen as a way of equalising opportunities to those who were denied such opportunities. By making reservation available for them, it was hoped by the framers of the Constitution that such provisions would improve their lives and that SCs would gain both social and economic status. Though the entire Constitution addressed the issues of the weaker sections, some of the articles spelt out specific provisions.

Article 46 gives the rights of educational and economic benefits. Article 17 provides protection from caste related violence and atrocities. Article 15(4) provides reservation for SCs in educational institutions. Articles 330-334 provide reservation of seats in the state legislative assemblies and the Parliament. Articles 16(4), 335 and 320(4) recommended reservation in government services and posts. Social safeguards and protections were earmarked under the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act 1976, The Untouchability (Offences) Act 1955, and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989.

The SCs of Christianity and Islam, by virtue of following religions other than Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism, are denied the above Constitutional privileges and rights. The implications of this discrimination are far reaching. The Dalit Christians are deprived of not only reservations, but also protection from atrocities of caste Hindus and caste Christians.

The argument for denying Constitutional rights and privileges, which are extended to Dalits of Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, to Dalit Christians is that Christianity is an egalitarian religion and does not believe in caste. But Sikhism and Buddhism are also egalitarian religions and do not believe in caste. What is ignored in the argument of the government is, there exists in each religion a wide gap between belief and practices. Christianity, like Sikhism and Buddhism, has no caste, but Christians have caste. It is well known by now that a change of religion does not change caste status. No religion in India is free of casteism, irrespective of its egalitarian ideology or theology. Therefore, it is necessary that caste-based (SC) reservations are delinked from religion.

As of now, if a Dalit Christian reverts to Hinduism, he/she becomes eligible for reservations. This has made some Dalit Christians to revert to Hinduism. 

There is one other way in which the state discriminates the Dalit Christians, namely through the Anti-Conversion laws. These laws pose a threat to freedom of religion through their restriction of religious conversions and their damaging effect on religious minorities. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief states in her 2008 report on her mission to India that these laws raise serious human rights concerns. She is concerned that these laws are being used to belittle Christians and Muslims.

The government of India has been discriminating against Dalit Christians on the basis of religion, ignoring the undisputed evidences of their social, educational and economic backwardness which naturally qualify them for state protection and statutory rights. It is a sad commentary on the Indian policy that the state which claims to be secular disqualifies Dalit Christians from getting their rights and privileges on the basis of religious disqualification.

Due to this many Dalit Christians are forced to maintain dual identity because of their socio-economic status: “Dalit Hindu” identity in their official records in order to get the Constitutional benefits of reservation, and “Christian” identity in the society and church in order to retain their social status.

Despite the Official abolition of discrimination based on caste and religion through laws, the discrimination still continues, and even more so for the Dalit Christians. Instead of trying to end this, the government is making it worse.

III. Conclusion

Catholic and Protestant churches across the country celebrated 9th December 2012 as the “Dalit Liberation Sunday”. Catholic Bishop Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council for Churches in India (NCCI) have suddenly become worried for their Dalit brothers and sisters. 

Slogans like “Break the barriers – Build the world of equality” for Dalit brothers and sisters look pleasant from the hindsight, but reality lies in stark contrast to the “words”.

When church and Christian organisations have not been able to create equitable order for 1.68 crore Dalit Christians within their own boundaries, they are only exposing their hypocrisy by conducting “Dalit Liberation Sundays” and shouting slogans like “Break the barriers – Build the world of equality”. The church and Christian organisations have to look into the mirror and see the reality that they have put the old wine of casteism into the new bottle of Christianity. Social discrimination and untouchability are still alive within the boundaries of church and Christian organisations. Denial of access to education, power and resources for the Dalit Christians is a reality in the church and its institutions. So the Church and Christian organisation have only increased the misery of Dalit Christians. In the struggle of Dalit Christians for liberation, John Webster says, “The church has proven to be weak, ineffective and often an instrument of caste oppression, even though it is predominantly Dalit in composition.”

So the Dalit Christians challenge Indian church and Christian organisations, their theological insights, caste based hierarchy, their self-centered mission of serving the concerns and interests of mostly nonDalits. Since Dalit Christians are also created in the image of God and are God’s children, they have every right to be treated equally and with dignity.

Church and Christian organisations have to rethink and restrategise their vision and mission compatible to the ground reality of the majority of their members. As James Massey suggests, “A radical mission outlook is the need of the hour for the Indian church to be authentic and prophetic with commitment to Christ who incarnated to take sides with the forsaken and functioned as liberator.”[14] Since most of the Dalit Christians are illiterate and poor, church and Christian organisations, with their pastoral care, have to concentrate on providing educational and economic assistance. Church and Christian organisations have to understand the dual identity of Dalit Christians, “Dalit and Christian”, and come out from their Brahminical way of looking at the issues. It is high time for the leadership of these Christian institutions to drop their divisive and discriminative caste, class, patriarchal mindset to enable Dalit Christians to enjoy their human dignity, value and rights in par with others in Christ.

The “original” sin of the denial of Constitutional privileges, rights and safeguards for Dalit Christians was committed by the Christian leaders nominated to the Constituent Assembly which debated the issue. They all belonged to the elitist upper caste and never experienced or understood the sufferings of the Dalits. They were not prepared to accept the caste discrimination within the church. Hence they did not press for the inclusion of the Christian Dalits in the SCs list. Though the present day nonDalit leadership of the church supports the struggle of Dalit Christians against the state for their Constitutional rights, the same leadership is not adequately in favour of addressing the issue of casteism within the church.

The problems of Dalit Christians can not be solved by mere theological reflections and choicest verbal gestures. Various policies, administrative and structural changes have to be implemented to radically and rapidly change the structural inequalities. All these have to be seen in concrete action. In order this to happen, the clergy should also try to bring social awareness among the congregation members. Because they usually prefer prayer to social awareness, and thus go to a point in changing personal behaviour, but not in structural and institutional matters. As a result church becomes ineffective, at certain point, in initiating the process of social transformation.

In order to bring this social transformation, Dalit Christians should be proactive. Here Ambedkar’s dictum is very much relevant: “Educate, Agitate and Organise”. In his book “Religion and Dalit Liberation”, John Webster describes four strategies for freedom: 1. Acquisition of political power; 2. Economic independence; 3. Internal social reform; 4. Religious change.

Prayer: “As followers of your beloved son Jesus, we have failed to challenge attitudes, practices and structures that are contrary to the values of equality, justice and freedom that are integral to the gospel of Christ our Saviour. Through your abiding presence, give us the courage to persevere in our struggles for justice and equal rights. Amen!” 

 

Sources

Chunnu Prasad, Exclusion and Caste Based Discrimination on Dalit Christians in India.

Devasahayam, “Pollution, Poverty and Powerlessness,” in A. P. Nirmal (ed.,), A Reader in Dalit Theology.

Elze Sietzema-Riemer, Christain Dalits: A Research on Christian Dalits in India,

Franklin Caesar Thomas, Multiple Discrimination: Special Characteristics of the Situation of Dalit Christians, 2009.

Irudayam A., JayaShree  P.M and Joel G, “Dalit Women Speak Out,” NCDHR, 2006.

James Massey, Down Trodden, WCC Publications, Geneva, 2000.

John CB Webster, “From Indian Church to Indian Theology, An attempt at Theological Construction,” A.P. Nirmal (Ed.), A Reader in Dalit THeology.

Lourdusamy S., Towards Empowerment of Dalit Christians, 20

Mary John, Dalit Christian Liberation Movement in Dalit Movements in South India, Edited by Thangaraj, M, University of Madras, 2007.

Prabhakar, M.E. “The Search for a Dalit Theology,” in A Reader in Dalit Theology.

Prakash Louis, Caste-Based Discrimination & Atrocities on Dalit Christians and the Need for Reservations.

Ralph T. H. Griffiith, The Hymns of the Rigveda, Vol. II, Second ed. E.J. Lazarus and Co. Benares, 1897.

Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna, “Report Prepared for National Commission for Minorities, India,” Delhi, 2008.

Report of Sub-Group-I on Assessment of Prevailing Situation in respect of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for certain Socio-Economic Indicators, prepared and released by the Office of the Registrar General, Census, Government of India in November 2004.

Sakshi Human Rights Watch – Special Report, Hyderabad, India, 2006.

http://www.dalitchristian.com Html/arulappa.htm  -Problems and struggles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Ralph T.H. Griffiith, The Hymns of the Rigveda, tenth book, hymn 90,verse 12, Vol. II, Second ed. E.J. Lazarus and Co. Benares, 1897, p. 519.

[2] Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna, Report prepared for National Commission for Minorities, India, Delhi, 2008.

[3] M.E. Prabhakar in The Search for a Dalit Theology in A Reader in DT, p. 41

[4] Irudayam A., JayaShree  P.M and Joel G, Dalit women Speak out, NCDHR,2006, P22

 

[5] Report of Sub-Group-I on Assessment of Prevailing Situation in respect of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes for certain Socio-Economic Indicators, prepared and released by the Office of the Registrar General, Census, Government of India in November 2004.

[6] Sakshi Human Rights watch – Special Report, Hyderabad, India, 2006.

[7] Mary John, Dalit Christian Liberation Movement in Dalit Movements in South India, Edited by Thangaraj, M, University of Madras, 2007, p.115

[8] http://www.dalitchristian.com Html/arulappa.htm  -Problems and struggles

[9] Franklin Caesar Thomas, Multiple Discrimination: Special characteristics of the situation of Dalit Christians,2009,p.2

[10] Franklin Caesar Thomas, Multiple Discrimination: Special characteristics of the situation of Dalit Christians,2009,p.2

[11] V.Devasahayam, Pollution, Poverty and Powerlessness, in A. P. Nirmal (ed.,) A Reader in Dalit Theology, p, 1-4

Also see, John CB Webster, From Indian Church to Indian Theology, An attempt at Theological construction, APN (Ed.,) A Reader in DT, p. 96

[12] Satish Deshpande and Geetika Bapna,’ Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities – A Status Report  for Minorities Commission of India’, 2008, p. 7-11 

[13] Lourdusamy S., Towards empowerment of Dalit Christians, 2005

[14] James Massey, Down Trodden, WCC Publications, Geneva, 2000 p.75.

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