Plight of Dalit Christians
As per the 2001 census, there are 24.20 million Christians in India of which the Christians of South India constitute 12.5 million, more than half the total Christian population of India, and those of the North-east, 5.4 million. The total population of Tamil Nadu Christians is 3.8 million, Karnataka one million, Kerala 6 million, Andhra Pradesh 1.2 million and Goa 0.4 million. Dalits constitute 65% of the total South Indian Christian population. Some Christian groups even claim that dalits constitute 70% of the Christians of Tamil Nadu.
To corrupt George Orwell's famous aphorism: "all Indian Christians are equal, but some are more equal than others". By embracing Christianity, the Dalits have not found themselves emancipated from economic and social inequalities. Conversions have neither offered the Dalits a way of escape from the bondage of caste nor have they fostered the social transformation of the Dalit Christians. They still live under the same conditions of discrimination, exploitation and oppression.
Bishop Dr D.K. Sahu, a former general secretary of the National Christian Council of India (NCCI) once said: "The Indian church has to make a confession first. If you are alienated in society and you become a Christian, you are alienated again. We tell them, 'if you become Christian then there is no discrimination', but once they become Christian they are looked down upon by Christians of higher castes. A higher caste Christian will never marry a Dalit Christian, yet we say we are all one."
By embracing Christianity the Dalits have not found themselves emancipated from economic and social inequities. On the other hand they even find themselves to be victims of double discrimination in their new religion. Jesus himself has said that those who proselytize end up making their "victims" twice as miserable. That is what is happening in the case of Dalits, regardless of whether they seek refuge in Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. Their initial caste identity persists unless they relocate and live in areas where no one knows their antecedents. But, then they become caught up in a quandary when they would like to access the benefits of affirmative action programs such as admissions to educational institutions, government jobs etc by reclaiming their Dalit status. It becomes a CATCH-22 situation.
The Church has sinned more than others in perpetuating social injustices against Dalit Christians. Casteism is rampant in the Church. Caste discrimination takes many forms among Indian Christians. In rural areas they cannot own or rent houses, however well placed they may be. Inter-caste marriages are frowned upon and caste tags are still appended to the Christian names of high caste people. Humiliating discrimination on the basis of caste does not spare the Dalit Christians even in death. Separate places are marked out for them in the parish churches and burial grounds.
Charity begins at home. But, the home (Church) where it begins, the Dalits Christians do not belong. According to a study, all the landed properties of churches in India put together, the church is the second biggest landlord in the country, next only to the Government. In addition, the Church - Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal and all other denominations- its institutions and Church-led NGOs receive millions of dollars worth foreign financial support every year. However, there is no transparency with regard to these funds as well the massive income accruing from the elite schools, colleges and hospitals and also shopping complexes built all over the major cities in the country.
“Christians are a mere 2.5 per cent of the Indian population. But the Church in India suffers from a case of plenty, says Remy Denis, All India Catholic Union President. According to him Church authorities control funds equivalent to the Indian Navy’s annual budget. But, the poor Dalit Christian does not even get the crumbs, leave alone participation in Church matters. The Indian Church has miserably failed to take care of Dalits converted to Christianity
Besides, indiscriminate conversions have ruined the spirit of Christianity into savagery. Christianity is a path paved with suffering and service. Christ said: "If any one wants to follow me, let him take up the Cross and follow me”. But, the Indian Church leaders want the Government to carry the cross of Dalit Christians. That’s why they have been demanding reservation to Dalit Christians in education, Central and State Government jobs and social welfare schemes.
Church leaders have tamed the Dalit Christians and reduced them to eternal slaves of organized Church bodies. On the one hand, the Church demands reservation for Dalit Christians from the government while on the other, it opposes and refuses to provide them reservation in the Church structure.
Thus, the Church's call for re-distribution of national resources in favor of Dalit Christians will be heeded only when its own resources are re-allocated and used with a clear partiality for Dalits in its own fold. The Church's fearless stand for justice will no longer let it remain silent about the discrimination within the Church - a matter of shame to its members and an embarrassment to its friends.
Dalit Christians have been used as cannon fodder by Church leaders and Dalit NGOs. These leaders have grown fat and powerful and enjoy better standards of living and greater prestige than the poor and ordinary Dalit Christians. Their eyes are turned westward even more than during the Pax Britannica, and they draw their inspiration not so much from the poverty, inequality and indignities faced by the Dalit Christians within the Church but from the next seminar in Geneva or other western capitals.
It is time Dalit Christians stood united and fought for their rights in the Church until they are equals in the Christian fraternity first before seeking equal treatment from the government. It would be futile to expect others to give them support with a real change of heart. This goal can be achieved by following intelligently Ambedkar's exhortation: "educate, organize and agitate.
Dalit Christians' plight calls for a deeper analysis of the problem so that Christian leaders do not throw stones at the caste system prevailing in Hinduism but look to something more meaningful and constructive. Without going into details of how enlightened Hindus have dealt with the unconscionable practice of untouchability, the Church in India must audit its own record with regard to the dalit Christians.
Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD)