Still very much the wretched of the earth

Dalit Christians do not receive fair and equal treatment, as prejudices prevail even in the Church
( [email protected] ) Feb 04, 2004 12:09 PM EST

Bangalore, India., Jan. 30 - Twenty-two bishops and nearly 300 delegates from dioceses spread all over the four Southern states will descend on Bangalore to attend the four-day Synod meeting of the Church of South India (CSI), that began on January 10. The CSI runs 2000 schools, 130 colleges and 104 hospitals. More than 75 per cent of its 4 million members are Dalit Christians.

Social justice has been one of the main concerns of the Catholic and Protestant churches in India since the 1960s. Though social justice is a profound idea, yet, like many other profound ideas, it gets profaned when men who mouth it are sans character. That is why "almost 20 million Dalit Christians have been tamed and reduced to eternal slaves of the organised church bodies," as a statement issued by a Dalit Christian organisation revealed recently.

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 Dalit Christians. They still live under the same conditions of discrimination, exploitation and oppression. The Dalit 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 Dalits, and on the other, as Dalits, they are dominated and persecuted by the upper castes and the elite Dalits within the Church. The majority of Dalit Christians suffer from economic disparities and social discrimination.

The Church has sinned more than others in perpetuating social injustices against Dalit Christians. 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 churches.

Usually, the Christians of Scheduled Caste origin occupy the rear of the church. Caste distinction is found even among the dead. The dead of the Dalit communities are buried in separate cemeteries.

It is said that charity begins at home. But, the home (Church) where it begins, the Dalits Christians do not belong. According to a study, the church is the second biggest landlord in the country, next only to the government. In addition, the Church institutions and Church or Christians-led NGOs receive foreign financial support amounting to over Rs. 2500 crore per year.

There is no transparency with regard to these funds as well the massive income accruing from the elite schools, colleges, hospitals and shopping complexes built in all major cities in the country. The poor Dalit Christian does not even get the crumbs, leave alone participation in Church matters. There seems to be a vested interest in keeping the Dalit Christians where they are in order to maintain the status quo in the Church.

The Church’s call for re-distribution of national resources in favour 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 not let it remain silent about the discrimination within the Church – a matter of shame to its members and an embarrassment to its friends.

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. Strangely enough, the Church has won its adherents in this 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.

The Church of South India Synod Executive Committee recently declared: "Caste discrimination is a blot against humanity. Caste is a direct assault on 200 million dalits of India denying them their dignity and humanity and as Church we condemn this draconian discrimination." After reading it, one is tempted to tell the CSI leaders: "Physician, heal thyself!"

The Church must realise that the 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 within itself.