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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

India’s Christian Untouchables

Christian Dalits fight for equality in their communities and nation

Upon arriving in Pappala, a 75-family village in Kerala’s southernmost district of Trivandrum, Father John Ariekal takes a call on his cell phone, which has been ringing incessantly for several minutes. The Syro-Malankara Catholic priest engages in a brief but intense conversation. Hanging up, he relays the terrible news.

A nun who advocated for low-caste communities in eastern India had just been murdered. In recent months, she had led protests against a large coal-mining company that tried to evict local low-caste residents.

“A revenge killing for her efforts to bring the offenders to justice,” says Father Ariekal, “and no one’s been arrested.”

The priest takes the news with relative calm. As secretary of the Dalit Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, he knows well the dangers of working on behalf of India’s downtrodden castes and tribes.

The village of Pappala is entirely Dalit, a Sanskrit word meaning “broken” or “oppressed.” Better known as “untouchables,” Dalits are a mixed population consisting of several castes that together constitute the lowest and most disdained group in India’s ancient caste system.

“I go to visit only,” says the priest.

“I’m proud to say I know their mentality. I know the pulse of this low-caste community. Most of the fathers [before me] failed to connect with them. They saw their caste, not their face.”

Word of Father Ariekal’s arrival spreads fast. Villagers gather at St. Thomas Syro-Malankara Catholic Church to welcome him. He consecrated the church in 1999.

“They will come one by one,” he says.

“Soon, everybody will come.” Indeed, a line starts to form before Father Ariekal, who greets each villager with warm embraces. Laughter fills the air.

“They have no money,” says the priest.

“That’s why they say to me: ‘We have nothing but loving hearts to give you.’ ”

Suseelain Kamalain, a 55-year-old day laborer, eagerly waits his turn to meet Father Ariekal. The man wears a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, exposing his skeletal frame and sinewy muscles. A red cotton scarf — typical attire among India’s working poor — is draped over his bony shoulder. His wide grin reveals a broken front tooth. And around his neck hangs a cracked crucifix.

For Mr. Kamalain, today was a good day. That morning, he found a job at nearby warehouse loading cement, for which he earned 100 Indian rupees (about $2). In his hands, he holds the fruits of his day’s labor: three fried bananas wrapped in a newspaper and a plastic bag containing two boxes of toothpaste, four and a half pounds of rice — which when mixed with a little fish curry, will feed his family for three days — and candles for the altar in his home.

Father Ariekal warmly receives Mr. Kamalain and invites him and the others to join him in the church for evening prayer. Delighted, the group slowly makes its way into the nave and settles in the pews. Father Ariekal then leads the congregation in a prayer and song. By the brief ceremony’s end, night has fallen on Pappala. Still, many parishioners linger. Father Ariekal has brought loaves of bread, not to celebrate the Eucharist, but as gifts to help feed the families in attendance.

The priest visits with the parishioners who remain. Led by Father Ariekal, a town hall-style conversation breaks out among them. Some members of the group seize the moment to vent their hardships and worries.

“Every night before bed, I ask God to give me life to get up tomorrow and find work,” says 43-year-old Kumary L.K. “I ask: ‘How will I get a job tomorrow?’ We all feel this. Every day, early morning we race to look for a job. Then, win or lose, we come home and sleep.”

The topic of conversation quickly changes to that of the village’s children and their education.

To underscore the families’ tough circumstances, Father Ariekal polls the group. “How many here can’t read or write?” he asks. Half of the adults raise their hands — an astounding sight, considering Kerala boasts the highest literacy rate in the country.

Everyone in the group expresses hope that their children will receive a better education than they themselves did. They also thank Father Ariekal, who personally sees that the local children attend school and have the necessary school supplies, as well as a place to study. With support from CNEWA, the priest led efforts to construct a simple chapel next to the church that doubles as a study hall for children and youth.

“If they stay in the village, many of these kids have no chair to sit on and no table to study on,” says Father Ariekal. “So I try to accommodate them in hostels, if feasible. Yes, they’ll study better. But, you know, these are abandoned people. … They have no proper documents. Like all nomadic people, they like to live together. They live in a crowd and move in a crowd. In such a way, people will not grow. You see how they earn money.

“But if they live among people from other castes,” he adds, “they will immediately develop in education, personality, everything.”

Ajimon V.K., a young man in the group, exemplifies Father Ariekal’s vision of a brighter future through education. Well-educated, he speaks flawless English and teaches students from upper castes at a local school. All too often, however, youngsters in Pappala drop out and work menial jobs to support their families.

Discrimination against Dalits is deeply ingrained in Indian society and traces its origins to the 3,000-year-old Hindu caste system. Based on the core beliefs of reincarnation and karma, Hindu religious code divides people into four principal varnas, or castes, each with specific roles to play in society.

The highest caste, the Brahmin, traditionally pursued religious vocations and served as priests and spiritual leaders. They also made, upheld and taught the law. Ranked second is the Kshatriya caste, to which warriors and the military elite belonged. Next in rank is the Vaishya caste, which traditionally included cattle herders, merchants, traders and some artisans. Ranked fourth is the Shudra caste, made up of artisans, farmers and laborers.

At the very bottom of the caste system are the Dalits, below more than 3,000 sub-castes. Considered subhuman and “untouchable” until the 19th century, Dalits were treated as slaves to upper castes — denied even the most basic civil, political, economic and social rights.

The Dalits’ untouchable status dictated where they could live, work, worship, eat, collect water and even walk or sit in public places. They could only socialize and marry within their caste. They were prohibited from receiving an education, including learning to read and write. And for centuries, they were required to hide themselves in the event members of Brahmin caste approached, so as not to pollute their purity.

India gained independence from British rule in 1947, and in 1950 the Constitution of India took effect. The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on caste or tribe, specifically enumerating the groups historically oppressed, including Dalits, in the provisions “Scheduled Castes” and “Scheduled Tribes.” About a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion people belongs to one of these scheduled castes and tribes.

The Constitution also stipulates for “Reservation,” a system of affirmative action that sets aside a certain number of positions in government and enrollment slots in public universities for members of the scheduled castes and tribes. Yet despite legal protections and reservation, caste-based discrimination persists throughout the subcontinent.

“It’s very hard to be a Dalit,” says Dr. Simon John, chairman of the Backward People Development Corporation and a Christian who lives in Pathanamthitta, a predominantly non-Dalit area in the central Travancore region of Kerala. “I don’t face the first degree of untouchability as my father faced. They don’t ask me to step aside. Nowadays, they just ignore you. They don’t recognize your presence wherever you are. I face it at the higher levels, because of my family tradition, my education and where I live. But still my problem is the passive attitude, off-hand comments, non-recognition of my existence in my student days, my work days and even at present.

“Mixing is always there, but Dalits tend to have a distinct complexion. So everyone knows who’s Dalit and who isn’t. Suppose I have to get something done at a government office, I may have to go ten times to get it done. My wife is upper caste from the Syriac community. If she goes, she gets it done at the first instance. I’m angry, but I have no power or way to express it. We have a divided, unenlightened community.”

Dalits may be united by endemic poverty, but not religion. Though the vast majority of the 166 million Dalits in India are Hindu, a significant number are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Sikh.

For decades, these religious distinctions have been a source of controversy within both the Dalit community and Indian society more broadly. Much of the controversy centers on reservation as set out in the Constitution.

In the early years, reservation only applied to Hindu members of the scheduled castes and tribes. Amendments in 1956 and 1990 extended reservation to Sikh and Buddhist members, respectively. Christian and Muslim members, however, remain ineligible for reservation. In addition, the law excludes from reservation members who convert from Hinduism.

“They claimed, ‘Christianity’s a foreign religion, so therefore we cannot treat them alike,’ ” explains Dr. John. “

‘It’s an egalitarian religion with a common community. There shouldn’t be any caste within the Christian community. Brahmin converts are there. Upper caste, middle caste and even lower castes are there. So you can’t say it’s exclusively a Dalit church. Why should we impose caste on them? And the church in Kerala, even across India, is disproportionately influential because so many of the major colleges are run by churches. So they are recognizable and don’t need government assistance.’ These sorts of objections were raised.”

However, in reality, Christian and Muslim Dalits experience significant caste-based discrimination. In 2006, the Sachar Committee Report — a government-commissioned assessment of India’s Muslim community — found that Muslim Dalits generally lived in poorer conditions than many of the scheduled castes and tribes eligible for reservation.

Since as early as 1950, members of India’s Christian community have pressured the government to grant reservation to the country’s 16 million Christian Dalits, 600,000 of whom are Catholic. In 1980, the National Council of Dalit Christians (N.C.D.C.) was established. The N.C.D.C. has since emerged as the leading Christian Dalits’ rights organization in the country and regularly partners with India’s Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Council of Churches. Over the years, the N.C.D.C. has organized numerous high-profile demonstrations, hunger strikes, sit-ins and marches. Some rallies have attracted 100,000 people, with participants ranging from bishops and church leaders to ordinary lay people.

The N.C.D.C.’s chief objective is to compel the Supreme Court to consider a 2004 petition to remove religion as a factor in determining eligibility for reservation. If the Supreme Court favored the petition, it would effectively grant reservation to Christian and Muslim Dalits. However, before the court can consider the petition, the government must first file a reply.

“Without a government response — a counter argument — the case cannot proceed,” says Dr. John. “And as usual, for the past eight years, the government, controlled by predominantly upper-caste Brahmins, has kept it in cold storage.”

Dr. John, however, does not blame the upper castes and politicians, alone, for the impasse. He also directs frustration at Dalit elites who all too often disassociate themselves from their impoverished counterparts once they find good jobs and enter the middle class. And he wants the churches to do more.

“The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is the model organization for socioeconomic development,” asserts Dr. John. “Bio-gas production, employment programs, sustainable agriculture, self-help groups, dairy farm programs, all happen in the Syriac community.” He appreciates this, but urges the church to do more for the Dalits.

That said, Dr. John praises the bishops who have stood up for Dalits’ rights. He also acknowledges that Christian Dalits generally enjoy more social mobility than their Hindu peers.

“Dalit Christians and Muslims are socially better off than Hindu Dalits because the Hindu value system is caste oriented,” he says. “There can never be a Dalit priest in a Hindu temple. In a Syriac eparchy, on the other hand, a Dalit can be a bishop. In my Protestant diocese, out of 100 priests, 30 are Dalit. And, you can have a Dalit imam in the Muslim community, maybe not at the highest level but, still, social mobility is possible.”

However, Dr. John stresses that Christian Dalits encounter considerable discrimination within the Christian community.

“At the community level, on a person-to-person level, Dalits get little support. It’s a divided religious community and churches are caste-based communities. I worship at a Syriac church that has 400 families, of which only four are Dalit. When we break down into small prayer groups, they put all Dalits in one prayer group. On Sunday, we worship together, sit in the pews together and take Communion together. But as soon as service is over, nobody talks to me. Silently, they go that way; I go this way. It’s not seen, nobody blocks you from anything, but a Dalit is never treated equally.”

At a retreat center in Kottayam, V.J. George, the 53-year-old head of Kerala’s Council of Dalit Christians (C.D.C.), prepares for a meeting. As he sets up the room, he admits his council could use a jolt of energy.

“Kerala’s C.D.C. should be powerful, but the thing is, the Christian Dalit movement has been here in Kerala for the last 40 years,” he says. “This is the state with the longest history of struggle of Christian Dalits, so I’d say most of the people are fed up. Those who have spearheaded the movement have been totally disappointed that nothing has happened during their lifetimes and their followers also got disappointed and disillusioned. Because of that disappointment, the movement has not been able to gain the momentum that it should have otherwise. That’s the real problem we’re facing.

In the case of Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, the council doesn’t have this problem because the movement is fresh to them and people are so enlightened, interested and enthusiastic about its work.”

This afternoon, Mr. George welcomes a group of 32 Dalit women, all community leaders from their respective districts. The previous week, he convoked a meeting with youth leaders.

“In every people’s struggle, there’s a major role for women to play,” he says. “We want to use the potential of women and youth in our struggle for equal rights, development and justice.”

Shortly after the meeting commences, the women break into small groups. They discuss the issues they should tackle, the challenges they face and how they can support the C.D.C. Mr. George meanders among the groups, quietly listening in on their conversions.

“The goal of the council,” says Mr. George, “is to bring this issue into the international arena. It’s not simply an issue about the government. A section of the Christian population and a section of the Dalit population have been denied their constitutional rights as Dalits because of their beliefs, because they are Christians.

“Why are they still Dalits?” asks Mr. George, pounding his right fist into the palm of his left hand. “This question needs to be discussed by the churches of India and churches worldwide. This is not a national issue.

This is an international human rights issue.”

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