Why Dalit Christians are Found in Abundance in India’s Churches. Not the Pulpits of It
Why Dalit Christians are Found in Abundance in India’s Churches. Not the Pulpits of It.
In India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Prem Chand has been in charge of a church for Dalit and non-Dalit Christians for many years. But no matter what his title is or how old he is, he keeps learning the same painful lesson.
“A Dalit will always be an outcast, even if he has a good education or a lot of money,” he said. “Both people who believe and people who don’t believe don’t respect a Dalit pastor as much as they respect a high-caste Hindu convert pastor.”
Dalit Christians have been kept out of church leadership for a long time, even though they make up a big part of both Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Chand has seen for himself that many Christian Dalits have to deal with caste discrimination in their churches. Outside of the church, the government doesn’t give them the same affirmative action benefits as Hindu Dalits. This keeps millions of believers stuck in poverty and keeps them from getting a formal education.
In some Southern Indian congregations, Christians from different castes still go to church in different places and bury their dead in different graveyards. In the north and center of the country, where many Christians are also from Dalit or Tribal backgrounds, discrimination against Dalit Christians is less obvious. Even though some parts of community life are shared, there is still a line that makes people feel different.
“People have been living by the rules of caste for generations, and it stays with them even if they become Christians,” said Chand. “Even after having faith for a long time and being friendly with Dalits on the surface, high-caste Christians will look for brides and grooms from their own castes when it comes time for their children to get married. They will not go for marriages between castes.”
People are trying to stop the discrimination, but no church or Christian leader has promised to make any decisions that are legally binding. These are just the efforts of one church, and there is still a long way to go.
“When a Dalit hears Genesis 1:27, it is the first time in their whole life that they feel like a human,” said Ram Surat, an activist and Dalit scholar who prefers to be called a Balijan or Mulnivasi Christian (see sidebar). “But it breaks my heart when a Dalit converts to Christianity to gain respect and freedom from untouchability and the caste system, only to find that she or he still faces discrimination because of their religion. This puts them on the outside twice, once because of their caste and once because of their religion.”
What does a name mean?
The word Dalit comes from the Sanskrit word Dalita, which means “broken or scattered” and refers to how the so-called “untouchables” or “outcasts” were treated.
Ram Surat said, “Dalit is a term that people give themselves. It is an assertion of an anticaste position, of identity, and of struggle against oppression in a Brahmanical caste-based society.”
Before India got its independence, the government called this group of people the Scheduled Caste.
Today, many people choose to call themselves Dalits, but others in the community use words like Bahujan (which means “the majority”) or Mulnivasi (original natives of the land). Followers of the ideas of 19th-century Hindu social reformer Jyotiba Phule call themselves Balijan, after King Bali, whom Phule used as a symbol against caste discrimination and exploitation.
In 2008, a government report by the National Commission for Minorities said that 2.4 million Dalits are Christians. It also said, “Most scholars and activists put the proportion at between 50 and 75 percent of all Indian Christians, but it is hard to confirm these claims because the category is not officially recognized.” According to data from the Pew Research Center that came out in 2021, Dalits make up one-third of India’s Christian population right now.
Indians from other castes thought Dalits were so dirty that even their touch or shadow would pollute other groups in the Hindu social order. This belief was used as a reason to keep Dalits out of public life. Even though the Constitution of India made it illegal to practice untouchability, it is still done in India today, and it shows up in the form of regular physical and structural violence against the Dalits.
Every 18 minutes, a Dalit is a victim of a crime. This means that there are more Dalit murder, rape, and arson victims than there should be. A 2016 report from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) said that more than half of the children in the area are malnourished and that 83 out of every 1,000 children die before their first birthday.
The report says that high castes in the area often don’t give Dalit households basic things like access to water. This is because Dalit households aren’t seen as important. Public health workers won’t go to the homes of Dalits. Dalits are often not allowed into police stations, and they have to sit apart when they eat at school or at public events.
In order to avoid this kind of discrimination, many Dalits (of all religions) have changed their easy-to-recognize last names to ones that don’t show their caste or are from a higher caste. Many people who have changed their names move away from where they grew up to avoid being found.
Officially, the Indian Constitution gives affirmative action (also called reservations) to Dalits. However, these measures only apply to Dalits who are Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh. Christians and Muslims are not included.
In 2008, one government agency put out a report arguing that all Dalit people should be treated the same. Several Christian groups, such as the CBCI, had asked the Supreme Court for justice for Dalit Christians and Muslims so that they could get their reservation benefits back. The petition was filed in 2004 and is still being looked at.
Bishop Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy of the Church of North India said, “As of now, Dalit Christians don’t have access to education or equal opportunities, and most don’t own any farmland” (CNI).
Even though many Dalit Christians have been Christians for generations, their social and economic status hasn’t changed much because of it. Even the Supreme Court of India noticed this.
“Conversion doesn’t change a person’s status or caste, but it can change their heart and mind,” Surat said. “I don’t see any big changes in how much money Dalit converts make. They should make plans ahead of time.”
Throughout the history of the Indian Church, Christian leaders like Saint Devasahayam, theologians Arvind P. Nirmal and James Massey, and others have been at the forefront of fighting against these abuses.
But Surat says that most Christians, especially those who are not from the Dalit community, find it embarrassing to say that caste discrimination exists in the church and the Christian community as a whole.
Mahesh, who only wanted to be called by his first name, is a pastor for the Dalit community. He runs 32 prayer houses in four places in the eastern state of Bihar and only works with Dalits. He says that he rarely tells people who are not Dalits about Jesus.
“They hear the good news and believe it. But when they go to church services, they can’t accept that Christ makes them the same as the Dalit sitting next to them, so they stop going to church,” he said.
Sanjay Kumar, a Dalit pastor who works in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, says that it is hard to share the gospel with this group because the church changes non-Dalits’ social circles so much.
“They aren’t sure how the villagers and their families who don’t believe in Christ will react to their faith,” he said. “They say straight out, ‘If we accept Christ, we will have to mix with the Dalit-background believers and marry them, which is a problem for us.'”
In recent years, Christian leaders in mainline churches like the Methodist Church in India and CNI in Delhi have tried to make church life more equal. This is because Dalit theology and rights movements have become more popular in the church.
“There is no difference between how people sit and how they eat in the church. “Neither the church nor the people are afraid to let them join,” Surat said. But “even though things are getting better, it’s not enough.”
whose problem is it anyway?
Protestant Christian leaders in India know that Dalits are there and that some of them are in leadership positions, but they admit that many of them don’t feel comfortable saying they are Dalits in public. Some people, like the former CNI bishop Karam Masih, are proud to be Dalits and work for the cause.
“If I start to name pastors and leaders from Dalit backgrounds, I could make a long list, but I don’t want to name anyone unless they are comfortable with and proud of their roots,” Surat said.
The number of Dalit people in Catholic leadership is very small. In a recent report, Crux said that only two of the country’s 31 archbishops and 11 of its 215 bishops are Dalits.
Still, many people cheered when Pope Francis chose Anthony Poola, the former Archbishop of Hyderabad, to become the first Dalit cardinal in the Catholic church earlier this year.
Poola told AsiaNews, “This is good news for Dalit Catholics and the whole Church in India.”
Samantaroy says that few non-Dalit Christians have seen the lack of Dalit leadership as a problem for years. He also says that the Christian community as a whole hasn’t done much to bridge the gap.
“The church hasn’t helped its own people because it only looks for help from the government and from outside. We (Christians) have some of the best hospitals and schools in the country, but many of our own Dalit Christians did not have access to them,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything to prepare Dalits for leadership.”
Churches have started making conscious efforts to build up Dalit leadership, but S. Duraiswamy, the senior pastor at Chennai Diocese of the Evangelical Church of India, says that almost all changes happen on an individual level.
“In the local church committees, we make sure that Dalits are represented and that there is a balance between Dalit representation and other people’s representation,” he said.
More and more Dalit Christians want to go to college because they know that going to college is often a way to move up in the Christian community.
Samantaroy said that there were less than 25 Dalit students in Punjab’s Baring Union Christian College five years ago, but that there are now 100 Dalit students in the college.
In India, Christians from Dalit backgrounds lead many of the new independent churches and house churches, but their experiences continue to point to discrimination.
Chand says that Dalit pastors may have trouble keeping their congregations going because their congregations are poor and don’t get help from outside the church.
Chand once asked a high-caste believer for advice about his job.
“He asked me my name and asked me to confirm that I was a Dalit. The way he talked to me changed right away. “When I tried to tell him what I thought, he said, ‘Will you [a Dalit] teach me now?’,” Chand said.
Surat says that if Dalit Christians and Christians who are not Dalits don’t work together, there’s not much hope for a strong Indian church.
““Church won’t make any progress if [this kind of discrimination] keeps going on. “When they come to the table to talk about bigger issues in the Christian community, they will be divided,” he said. “Caste is a very dangerous way to divide people. It will make the church very weak and split up.
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