Monday, December 5, 2011

Dalit Christians' plight

I have often found it useful to revisit what one said in the past, to analyse the relevance today. In this context, I firmly believe that the following article I wrote in an edit-page article in Deccan Herald on 15 September 1990 is worthy of your consideration today. Particularly when it was written at a time when the Christian lobby, especially the Dalit warriors, was not as hysterical as it is today.

I would suggest that the present-day Christian leaders should read what was written more than twenty years ago, and realise how little their rhetoric has changed. And, more importantly, their rhetoric of the past has been responded to, but they live in a make-believe world that there is no response.

The discrimination within the Church

(Deccan Herald, 15 Sept. 1990)

OUT of the 20 million Christians in India, over 16 "million are of Scheduled Caste background. The vast majority of the Harijan Christians are poor, landless labourers and unemployed or underemployed urban slum-dwellers.

Their problems concerning land, housing, health, education and employment are as acute and grievous as those of their fellow-Harijans, or even worse. The Christians of Harijan origin suffer from the same social, economic and educational handicaps as in their Hindu and Sikh counterparts.

Conversions have neither offered a way of escape from the bondage of caste nor have they fostered the social transformation of the Harijan Christians. They still live under the same conditions of discrimination, exploitation and oppression.

Unlike the other converts, the Harijan Christians are "twice alienated," both by the Government and the Church: on the one hand, they are denied, as Christians, the rights and benefits availed of by their fellow Harijans, and on the other, as Harijans, they are dominated and persecuted by the upper castes within the Church. The Harijan Christians, (apart from a small group of their elite) suffer grave economic disparities, demoralising social discrimination and cruel denial of political privileges.

To a religion that has always prided itself on the advocacy of complete equality of all human beings, irrespective of caste, colour or race, the charge of discrimination within its own family is galling. And the charge has been made in several quarters. Strangely enough, the Church has won its adherents in the country on the strength of its teaching about the dignity of all human beings and its rejection of distinctions based on birth, colour and race. Now it finds itself charged with failures on this very score.

To the untouchables, the oppressed and those victimised in a socially stratified society, Christianity once brought a message of hope. The reason it has lost its appeal Is not that it has ceased to preach equality, but it has lost its nerve to practise it. It has compromised its own teaching.


In Indian Christian communities caste discrimination takes many forms. There are some churches built for separate groups. These places of worship even today retain their caste identity. Another example of casteist practice is allotting separate places in church. Usually, the Christians of Scheduled Caste origin occupy the rear of the church. A glaring instance of caste distinction is found among the dead. The dead of the Harijan communities are buried in separate cemeteries or separate parts of the cemeteries.
A report by Bishop Arokiasamy of the Madurai Diocese to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India meeting at Shillong last year says: Christians of Scheduled Caste origin are "not allowed to assist the priest or read scriptural passages during mass and not allowed to enter the sanctuary. They are denied participation in the church choir; when sacraments are being administered, the Harijan Christians have to receive them after the upper caste Christians. In death, they are allotted their own cemeteries ,, or a corner of the main cemetery, with a wall separating the section in some...In certain dioceses of central and south Kerala, the church hierarchy ignores the very existence of Pulayas because they are Harijans.

"Interdining is sacrilege, while intermarriage is unheard of. No caste Christian enters the home of a Harijan T Christian. During marriages in upper caste settlements Harijan Christians are given food outside the house, in little wicker baskets..:Caste Christians never attend weddings in Harijan colonies... Harijan Christian marriage and funeral processions are banned from passing through the streets where upper caste Christians live".

Could there be a more eloquent indictment of the Church's hypocrisy? Having so clearly failed to eradicate the caste system from its own sanctum sanctorum, the Christian leaders, bishops, priests and nuns, have today united to demand reservations for Harijan Christians. It is intriguing. It is un-Christian, to say the least.

It is interesting that the continued discrimination by Christians against people of their own faith, as set forth in the Kaka Kalekar Report and other studies, is now being advanced by Christian spokesmen as an argument for recognising the "Scheduled Castes" among Christians.

It has not escaped notice that while Christian spokesmen plead for the same preferential treatment to Christians of Scheduled Caste origin as is being given to those who stay in the Hindu or Sikh faiths, in the matter of recruitment to the public services, Christian establishments that have many jobs under their control, have not been known for their keenness to recruit Christians of Scheduled Caste origin for such jobs. (This, I must add, does not, however, exonerate the State from the charge of discrimination and of a lapse from strict adherence to secularism).


"There is total neglect of converts, both for appointments in the Christian institutions as well as for admission to their colleges. Just to quote an example, in the prestigious CMS College, Kottayam, Kerala, the present staff strength is 170. Out of that only two are from converted Christians. The proportion is more or less the same in the institutions of other church denominations also. The paradox is that the church leadership, which is not prepared to include Dalit Christians in any of their lists, is asking the government to do that. This exposes the politics of the church hierarchy". (Economic & Political Weekly, Dec. 3, 1988: M.J. Joseph: Class, Caste and Church).

The un-Christian treatment meted out to the Harijan Christians in the Indian Church hierarchy reminds one of the story of the Negro who, visiting a place in one of the southern States of1 the US went to a church on a Sunday. When the Black man was spotted he' was promptly thrown out by the White congregation. He walked off from the church, in tears over what! had happened. He had not proceeded-very far when he saw God walking? towards him. The Lord stopped and asked him why he was weeping. The Black told the Lord that he had gone to the church and been thrown out. The Lord comforted him, and said, "Don't take it to heart too much, my son; I have myself been trying to get into that church, and have so far failed".

To speak of the Harijan Christians and ask the government to uphold fairness and justice as enshrined in the Constitution is adding insult to injury. When a Harijan becomes a Christian he should be given a minimum chance of escaping from the "outcaste" status. He should be allowed to merge with the rest of the Christian community and the church should make it possible for him to start afresh. If Christians cannot treat "outcastes converts" as part of their fellowship it is better to leave them alone. Christ himself said: "You encompass sea and land to make one convert and then you make him twice the son of hell as you are".

Christian leaders have sinned more than others in perpetuating social injustice. A Church which champions the cause of the Dalit Christians can no longer go on claiming privileges or keep begging for benefits from the State. Its fearless stand for justice to| the converted Christians will let it no! longer remain silent about the discrimination within the Church, which is a matter of shame to its members and an embarrassment to its friends.

Its call for equal distribution of national resources will be heeded when its own resources, running into several thousands of crore of rupees, are reallocated and used for the poor and the downtrodden in the Church itself — yes, for the Harijan Christians.

Edit-page article in Deccan Herald, 15 Sept. 1990

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