Dalitness as the ordeal of personality

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By Valson Thampu

The Hindus are less hypocritical than we are at least in one respect. They have different gods for different castes. In Christianity, it is one-size-fits-all. Being monotheistic, we have only one God and so all Christians must do with the same God. But not all Christians are of equal status or worth, though we are all, presumably, God’s children. We are incurably unequal as Christians. It does not make sense that this is tenable under monotheism. 

The stark choice before Christians is either to be truthful or to be hypocritical. To be truthful is to be intolerant of caste-based inequality and discrimination in our midst. It is also to be free of presumptions of superiority and inferiority based on hierarchy. We understand God as Trinity. There is no hierarchy in Trinity. God and hierarchy are mutually exclusive. Hierarchy and communion can never co-exist. If hierarchy is spiritually valid, we have to admit that discrimination and inequality also are godly. 

It is high time to ask: Are not Dalits too created in the image and likeness of God? Going by the biblical account, the chief point of creation is not the production of the heavens, the earth, plants or animals. They have no God-consciousness and, therefore, no religion. Humankind signals the highpoint of the creation. Personality is its hallmark. It is the sublimest thing God created! That is the primary meaning of human beings being created in the image of God. There is something mysterious and indefinable about human personality. 

If God is personal, and we are created in His image, it is undeniable that human beings have personalities. To recognize personality is to respect the supreme worth of every human being. It is stupid to assume that some people have personality, and others do not. Either all have personality, or none has. To degrade the personality of any human being is to belittle one’s personality. 

God not only created human beings but also placed them in a definite and unique relationship: I-and-you. ‘I’ have self-consciousness, but my self-consciousness involves my consciousness of you. I have not only a need to meet my needs but also to be mindful of your needs, if I want to be human. Sharing and caring constitute the essence of humanity: mine as well as yours. 

In the Indian context, Dalits have never been seen or treated as fellow human beings. It is as if, they are part of, or indistinguishable from, ‘nature’ provided as the means for the sake of others. Let me explain. 

Nature exists, we assume, for humankind, even if there is no basis for such an assumption. ‘Human’ means here, for all practical purposes, people of privilege. The wretched of the earth are excluded from nature’s resources. They are deemed as a part of nature. That is how the notion is reached that Dalits must serve the upper castes, just as it is the duty, so to speak, of nature to meet their needs. Even today, for the Dalits to refuse to serve–that includes doing menial works—is to invite reprisal. Freedom of choice is a luxury they are disallowed. The Dalits coming into the ownership of land, sharing natural resources, or occupying positions of respect in public life, evokes resentment in upper-caste quarters. 

The Dalits are indistinguishable from nature; whereas caste Christians exists in the glittering sphere of culture. Culture is the marker of worth. Animals exist in and are part of, nature. So, they have no intrinsic worth, unless worth is ascribed to them on religious grounds as in the case of the cow. Life, however, is sustained by nature, not culture. Culture pertains to the superficial gloss of life. But it is assumed that nature exists for the sake of culture.

Correspondingly, the Dalits must exist for the convenience of their betters. Child labour, to take a random example, is illegal, but rampant. Why? Because it is beneficial to the socio-economic elite. Similar is the case with bonded labour in general. 

Now consider the Christian fold. It is never stated in public; but, truth to tell, Christian Dalits are endured as an appendix to the caste-ridden Church. Consider this anomaly. If the Dalit Christians are not acceptable to us on an equal footing, isn’t it better to not have them? Why not abandon the conversion project? No, not at all! That is where the analogy between Hindu Dalits and Christian Dalits becomes glaring. For the gain of caste Christians, there must be Dalit Christians. The more, the merrier. The Church of South India and the Church of North India are 70% Dalit. If the Dalits are excluded, what will be left of it? Of the power and pelf of the church hierarchy? 

This is not unlike the system, in the olden days, when a man’s social status depended on the number of serfs or slaves he owned. Ownership is inseparable from egoism. Before Tolstoy became a Christian at heart—he was born as a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, but underwent a conversion experience in his fifties—he was a proud owner of 700 serfs. After he became a Christian by conviction, he began to be troubled and embarrassed about this. He wanted to manumit them and distribute his land among them; but was stiffly opposed in this by his wife, Sophia. So, Tolstoy started working alongside the serfs. Every day he worked for five and a half hours in the field. He believed that bread, eaten in idleness, is bread stolen from others. 

Dalitness is the touchstone for the spiritual mettle of the church and the Christian community. In this respect, there is an increasing divergence between what we preach and what we practice. In our proclamations, we are exemplary in all respects. We believe in liberty, equality, fraternity and what not. But in practice….well, you know it as well as I do! 

We proclaim a Jesus who came to set captives free. But we do not liberate and integrate those who come into our fold, trusting our proclamations. We maintain the old label of degradation upon them still. This is a fraud, pure and simple. This fraud has its roots in the elite nature of the Church and its hierarchy. 

As a rule, only victims experience the need for liberation. That is why Jesus entered history as a Dalit. Only Dalits would care to be liberators. (Had Gandhi did not experience such a state in South Africa, he would have lived and died as a barrister, and never become the Mahatma.) It is naive, even stupid, for Christian Dalits to assume that their liberation and rehabilitation will come from the church hierarchy. It has never happened in history. It is sure not to happen till the end of history; unless the Christian Dalits come fully into themselves as the children of God. To do so is to become co-workers with God. God’s quintessential mission is to liberate. Liberation, like charity, must begin at home. The Dalits have to be their Liberators. What is more, they have to be the liberators of caste Christians from their pretensions and hypocrisies.  

The Dalits must understand the difference between ‘Church Dalits’ and ‘Christian Dalits’. As Church-Dalits, we shall stay Dalit till the end of times. As Christian Dalits, it is a sin to say Dalit, as that status is understood today. Or, to be Christian-Dalits is to be saviours of caste Christians. As of now, either Jesus or the Church—not both at the same time—is the choice before the Dalit Christians. 

Long ago I published an article in The Pioneer. My tongue-in-cheek argument in that piece was that, in Christianity, human beings are more important than God. The logic? Well, God became man, through Jesus Christ, to die for humankind. One value can be legitimately sacrificed, I argued, only for a higher value; else it will be a waste, not a sacrifice. That evening there was a meeting convened by the Jains in Delhi at which I shared the podium with Shri Buta Sigh, the former Home Minister. That was the first time I was meeting him in person. He made it a point to thank me for the article. ‘The tragedy of India,’ he told me, ‘is that human life has no value.’ He told me how meaningful he, as a low caste Sikh, found the argument in the piece.  

Part of the spiritual task that Christian Dalits need to undertake is to re-interpret key biblical symbols, texts and doctrines. Upper caste Christians have turned the cross, for example, either into an identity marker or a symbol of church authority. A bishop’s signature, for example, is incomplete without the sign of the cross. (It is impertinent for a priest to do so.) Historically and scripturally, however, the Cross of Jesus is a symbol of voluntary, proactive Dalitness. What would be the essence of Jesus’ mission to ‘set the captives free’ from the Dalit perspective? What is the Dalit understanding of Trinity? What does it mean to be ‘born again’ and to become ‘a new creation’ in Jesus Christ? Well, what does it mean to become a Christian at all? 

Think of the Apostles. Or the early Christians, before Christianity got mixed up with the Roman Empire? Barring Judas Iscariot and, to an extent, Paul, they were simple folks. Christianity did not attract the high and the mighty, the socio-cultural elite. It appealed to the condition of the ordinary people, kindled hope and fervour in them. Today, Christianity is aligned to the prevailing culture and the way of the world. Culture too has its spirit. But the spirit of culture is different from the Spirit of Christ. The spirit of culture is the law. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love. 

It is not the function of law to liberate and transform. Law is wielded by man, mostly, as a weapon to safeguard the status quo. Under the Pharisees and Sadducees, Judaism became legalistic. It was against this spiritual aberration that Jesus launched his ministry of liberation. Its outcome was that the social and religious Dalits of the times became ‘children of God’. That should be the essence of the Christian mission at all times. But such a mission cannot be undertaken, except in the Spirit of love. The condemnation is that love is becoming a rarity in our midst. The alternative to love is hypocrisy. 

(Valson Thampu is a former principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi)

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