The intertwined history of Christianity, Dalits of India

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By Rev. Vijayesh Lal

India boasts of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world – the Thomas, or Syrian Christians of Kerala in the South.

It also has a large underground church of people who believe in Jesus but cannot witness it in public because of the societal pressure of their Hindu communities, and in some cases, government penalties. But today, India is known worldwide for the brave struggle of its Dalit Christians, converts from Hinduism’s former untouchable castes, who are waging a lonely battle for their human rights, and regaining civil guarantees of affirmative action and opportunity in economic and political empowerment denied them since India became a Republic in 1950.

The Dalits may constitute as much as 60 per cent of the country’s Christian population. Officially Christians are a small minority in India, their numbers recorded at 2.3 per cent of the national population of 1.21 billion. But the official Census is not the best guide to the number of Christians in India. Anyway, the desegregated Census data on the religion-wise composition of the population is not available after 2001 because the Indian government feels the disclosure of such information will ignite and inflame passions in a society deeply divided in faith and belief identities.

Recent years have seen rising fears amongst a section of the majority Hindus that the religious minorities, and in particular the Muslim population with its relatively higher rate of growth because of large families, will either overtake them or overwhelm them. The decadal growth rate of the Muslims was around 36 per cent, which was up from 30 per cent between 1981 and 1991 respectively.

The Hindu growth rate had fallen to 20 per cent from 23 per cent in the same corresponding period. This paranoia, and the continuing rift between religious communities created by the partition of India in 1947, has led to repeated confrontation and violence. Over 30,000 major incidents of religious violence have been recorded in more than 65 years of independence. [Based on data disclosed in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, and civil society surveys.]

According to the 2001 Census, Hindus constitute 80.5 per cent of the population which was 1.02 billion at that time (Census 2011: 1,21 billion). The Muslims were 11.4 per cent, Christians constituted 2.3 per cent, Sikhs 1.9 per cent, Buddhists 0.8 per cent, Jains 0.4 per cent. India also has Jews, Zoroastrians and Baha’is, while many tribal people profess traditional faiths including ancestor worship.

However, no one believed the official figures that Christians constituted just 2.3 per cent of the population. The Catholic Church, Protestant groups and particularly the Pentecostal churches collectively claim a total figure that may be two or three times the official Census numbers. Social scientists and researchers say there are a number of reasons why this may in fact be true.

The enumerators’ questions in the Census operations discouraged members of the former untouchable castes, who call themselves Dalits and are called Scheduled Castes by the government, from registering themselves as Christians. These are communities, especially in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, who avoid registering officially as such to continue taking advantage of the government’s affirmative action programmes that include reservations in academic institutions, the civil service, and legislatures.

Official conversion to Christianity would make them ineligible under Article 341 (iii) of the Constitution, which holds such affirmative action only for Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. This law has been challenged twice in the Supreme Court, which upheld it the first time, but five years ago reopened hearings on public interest litigation by Dalit Christians.

Other Christians profess their faith only secretly, to avoid the negative ramifications of doing so more openly, especially in their families or villages; others, such as the Kristu Bhaktas of Varanasi, express devotion to Christ, but not exclusively. Their Hindu critics call these “hidden faithful” or “silent believers”, many of whom regularly come to small village churches, “Crypto Christians” and “quasi Christians”.

Statisticians Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross estimate that India’s Christians constitute 4.8 per cent of the population at 58 million, a figure accepted by some academicians such as Chad Bauman, Vice President of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies in the United States. Jason Mandryk puts the figure even higher, at 71 million, or 5.84 per cent of the population, and reports that others estimate it as high as 9 per cent.

The Indian Christian population is unevenly distributed. In some states and districts, the Christian population is negligible, whereas in other Christians predominate. In the South, Christians constitute 35.5 per cent of the population of Kerala and 19 per cent of the population of Tamil Nadu. But the biggest concentration is in the culturally and ethnically distinct small North-eastern states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram.

With 17 million members, Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination in India. The Catholic Church has three Rites in India – the universal Latin Rite which dominates with over 10 million, the Syro Malabar Rite with a claimed 6 million, and the Syro Malankara, with a million. With 2 million, the Church of South India is the largest protestant church.

The Seventh-Day Adventists, Oriental Orthodox Churches, United Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Believers Church each claim between 1 and 2. The Church of North India claims 1.5 million. Church scholars suggest as much as half of India’s Christians are now associated with Evangelical, Charismatic, Pentecostal and other independent “Renewalist” churches and denominations.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN INDIA

There is some evidence in India and in the Levant and West Asia that speaks of lively interaction between the peoples long before Jesus Christ. Historians of the microscopic Jewish community in India believe their ancestors came to the western coast between 1,000 BCE (the era before Christ) to about 70 AD. The decrees of Persian emperor Xerxes, called Ahasuerus, speak about Jews dispersed through the length and breadth of his empire which stretched to India. The small Jewish communities lived prospered in several places along the western Malabar Coast. Thomas, the Apostle, would have found himself at home, if indeed he came to India as folklore, if not documented history, would have it.

Franciscan friars were among the first to have had come to India, albeit in rather tentative missions. Franciscan John de Montecorvino came in 1293 AD. In the next 20 years, there were isolated Franciscan missions along the Western Ghats.

Tragedy interrupted the Franciscan mission when four friars were murdered at Thana, near Bombay. Dominican Jordan Catalano of Serverac was appointed the first Latin Bishop of Quilon (today Kollam, Kerala) in 1329 AD, with the Papal envoy, Giovanni de Marignolli coming to Quilon in 1348.

But much of contemporary Christianity in the subcontinent in its modern form owes its expansion to the two swift political and missionary waves. The first flush was of the Portuguese and Spanish, in 1498, the French, and the Dutch. The second was of the British, with the East India Company, the Church of England and the British Missionary Society and the many others who followed in their footsteps. The Portuguese presence is perhaps the well-documented chapter in India’s political and religious history, and it left an indelible mark on the ancient nation. Their missionary activity was carried out under the Padroado system, the patronage of the colonial power.

The London-based East India Company received its charter from Queen Elizabeth on the last day of the year 1600. Its ships sailed to Surat in the state of Gujarat with Anglican chaplains. The local ruler issued a royal fireman giving the East India Company the right to trade.

Surat became the English headquarters, from where pincer movements established bases in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The Anglican Church when it came with the British found the foundations to be strong enough to build Christianity in its own image.

Surprisingly, the East India Company did not encourage the early missionaries, forcing many of them to initiate their work in the more hospitable nearby colonies of the Dutch or the French.

The great William Carey, considered one of the fathers of the Indian renaissance, began his missionary work in the Dutch colony of Serampore in 1801, commencing his career as a professor of Bengali which he had by then mastered, and then of Sanskrit, the tongue of the ancient Indian scriptures. Carey has earned his place in the hearts of the Indian Christians for initiating the translation of the Bible into Indian languages.

The consolidation of the Indian States under British hegemony after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 against the regime of the East India Company, or the First War of Independence as we call it in India, opened up new frontiers. It was during this period and extending into the early period of the Twentieth century, that mass conversions took place in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra, then called the Madras Presidency, in undivided Punjab, the tribal belts of Chhota Nagpur region in central India and the till then almost inaccessible hills of the north-eastern areas bordering Burma and China.

This phase of Christianity, with its close links with the foreign colonial power, was to have long-lasting and deep social and political effects which precipitated a crisis of identity for the Indian Christian of the pre-Independence era, and since Independence have continued to dog their footsteps in their endeavour to find for themselves roots as Indian Christians.

Barring a few from the upper castes, most of the conversions have been from the one-time untouchables. Analysis of church data shows that an overall 60% of all Indian Christians are of Dalit origin, with another 20% from India’s indigenous or tribal people in central and North-East India. The remaining 20% are a mix of converts from other ethnic and caste groups.

The current Indian Christian population is about 25 million, 17 million of Dalit origin. Among them are landless peasants, fisher-folks, boatmen, artisans, farmers, and unfortunately a few scavengers, especially in the Punjab and Gujarat, according to surveys by NGOs.

There are educated Dalits who are now in the bureaucracy and the private sector, in teaching, nursing and in the IT sector. Many Dalit Christians are also becoming priests, more so in the Protestant denominations than among Catholics.

Modern Church historians have mixed feelings about the mass conversions in South India, and the Punjab, which today is partitioned into a Pakistani, or West Punjab, and an Indian Punjab. Many historians and church leaders look at the mass conversions of the Dalits of India as one of the greatest reform movements in the sub-continent’s history.

It is important to understand the cultural history of the Dalits in the context of Hindu theological beliefs and social practices endorsed by religious law. The Hindu faith is structured on a complex caste structure, believed to be divinely ordained, in which situation and social status are derived by birth, as are occupations.

The Brahmins said to be born of the head of the Creator God, is the vessel of all wisdom and learning, given the task of worshipping of the deity, custodian of the Holy books and scholar of the divine language Sanskrit. From the chest and arms are born the Kshatriyas, or the warrior clans, who are born to rule, and to defend the Brahmin and the Sacred cow as their sworn duty.

The Vaisyas or the trading and business castes emerge from the belly of the god, and from his feet come the Sudras, who are farmers and do other menial jobs.

The Untouchables, or Dalits as they call themselves, are said not to be born from god, and therefore are outside the caste system. In fact, they were called outcastes, till Mahatma Gandhi first called them ‘Harijan’ or the children of God.

The touch of the Dalits said to pollute the upper castes, even their shadow being so contaminated. The Lord Manu, who gave the law in his Manu Smriti, dictated very harsh penalties for the outcastes if they deliberately or even by accident polluted the upper caste. Death penalty was to be given to any outcaste if he molested a Brahmin woman, but a Brahmin molesting an outcaste woman committed no crime, in this law. Equally harsh penalties were prescribed for outcasts learning, writing, or speaking Sanskrit verses in praise of the gods.

Till very recently, it many Indian provinces Dalits and loudly announce their coming so that a Brahmin did not even accidentally come under their shadow. In Kerala, till the early 20th Century, outcaste women had to go bare-breasted as a mark of respect to the upper castes. Christian women were exempted.

No wonder there was the enthusiastic acceptance of mass conversions which gave the outcastes a sense of dignity for the first time in 3,000 years. The process continues, though not in such large numbers and not openly.

Some latter-day historians have, however, found fault with the zealous speed of the mass conversions and the antipathy of some missionaries to the traditions of indigenous religions and customs. Mahatma Gandhi had no patience with the impoverishment of culture which he felt had resulted from the work of the missionaries.

The debate continues, now as much within the Church as outside. Eminent diplomat and Congress parliamentarian Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote in defense of the missionaries: “Christian missionary activity in almost all of mainstream India was confined to good works. We need to go no further than Mother Teresa to ask ourselves what these good works were. Their major religious successes were in those remote, far-flung areas where 5,000 years of Hinduism had failed to penetrate.”

But caste prejudices have accompanied many of the Dalits even after conversion. The Church, especially in south India, has been accused to have continued the practices against Dalits. Justice Rangnath Misra, a former Chief Justice of India would note ten years later, in India caste transcends religion.

Compared to the other religious minorities, Christians have been on the margins of the political consciousness of the Governments in power over the decades. The vast majority of Christian Dalits in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Maharashtra and Punjab, and the tribals in central and North-East India are amongst the most economically deprived.

After a relative peace between 1947 and 1997, hate crimes against the Church and the Christian community have been increasing alarmingly, mostly against Dalits and Tribals, or indigenous converts.

The violence peaked in 2007 and 2008. Orissa and 14 other states have been affected, seven seriously. Between 24 August and October 2008, Hindutva mobs burned down 5,600 houses in 300 villages, destroyed over 250 churches, killed about 100 people, and forced over 54,000 Christians to flee their homes. Many have been told they have to become Hindus if they want to return.

THE STRUGGLE OF THE DALITS

The Dalit issue impacts two-thirds of the Indian Christians. Yet, the weakness of the Indian Church is conspicuous with regard to this issue. The Indian State and its institutions display duplicity in this regard. At the root, it is the fear that concessions shown to Christian Dalits will lead to the mass conversion of Hindu Dalits to Catholic and Protestant Christianity.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar were the main authors of Indian Constitution. Whatever laws they wrote were without reference to religion. One such law was to give political, administrative, employment and educational preferential treatment, including pro rata reservations, to people of the former untouchable castes—irrespective of the religion they professed.

However, within months of the signing of the Constitution, and the Statute becoming law, the Hindu leadership forced Nehru to accept a Constitutional amendment. Thus the 1950 Presidential Order said that all affirmative action for the Dalits, or Scheduled Castes, could be enjoyed by them so long as they professed the Hindu faith. The implication was that it would not be available to Dalits of Christian faith, and certainly would be taken away from those Hindu Dalits who chose to change their religion to Islam, Christianity, even to Sikhism and Buddhism. The Sikhs and Buddhists protested, and after a 25-year struggle managed to regain the benefits.

Christians and Muslims have not been so lucky, and their struggle continues despite many agencies of the Government, including the National Commission for Minorities, and the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, popularly called the Justice Rangnath Misra Commission, recommended in December 2009, that Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin be immediately given their rights and the Presidential Order of 1950 be scrapped.

The Commission has said that Government finds means of giving reservations in jobs and education to these people, without in any way curtailing the existing privileges of Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu Dalits.

Secular groups such as the Centre for Public Interest Litigation headed by former Federal Law Minister Shanti Bhushan and many Christian groups also moved the Supreme Court of India in writ petitions six years ago to scrap the Presidential Order. Most political parties, except the Congress and the BJP, have also given in writing to the Government that they support the scrapping of the Presidential Order.

Prime Minister Nehru told Christian Dalits in a letter dated November 7, 1950 that he was sympathetic to their cause. In 1953 his Government appointed the “First Backward Classes Commission” under Article 340 of the Indian Constitution to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes within the Indian Territory. The Commission submitted its report on March 3, 1955, stating that even within the Christian society Dalit converts were discriminated against.

In 1979, the Second Backward Commission, known as the “Mandal Commission” investigated the conditions of Dalits within the Indian Territory.

On December 31, 1980, it reported, “Conversion from one faith to another did not change the socio-economic status of a person though caste system is peculiar to Hindu society, in actual practice, it also pervades the non-Hindu communities in India in varying degrees.”

The Minority Commission in its 3rd Annual Report, 1980, said, “The Commission has prima facie felt that since the Christians, Muslims and Buddhists of Scheduled Caste origin continue to suffer from social and economic disabilities even after their conversion, there should be no objection to their availing of the concessions admissible to them before their conversion.”

In 1984, The Supreme Court of India in the case of S. Anbalagan Vs. Devarajan said, “the practice of caste however irrational is so deep-rooted in India that its mark does not seem to disappear on conversion to a different religion.”

As is obvious, Dalit Christians hope to gain much from the Scheduled caste rights if Government or courts reverse the 1950 Presidential Order.

But the prognosis is bleak. It will be a miracle if the Government takes a legislative initiative, even if the Supreme Court is in favour of Dalit Christians. The community lives in hope, praying and occasionally protesting at the gates of the Parliament of India. They cannot do more than this.

The Church can do a lot in this regard. It must shed its current ambivalence. The Christian community with a unity of purpose must come forward to help the Dalit cause with resources and effective leadership. Grassroots support of these communities is a must. The Protestant, Syrian Mar Thoma and Orthodox churches also need to do more.

Reconciliation is a major factor that in the future will assume significant proportions. The upper castes, and the political parties such as the right-wing pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, have been misleading the Hindu Dalits. They are being told that they must aggressively oppose Scheduled Caste rights to Dalit Christians, for two reasons. The first is that the Christian Dalits will eat into the “cake” of Hindu Dalit privileges.

The second is that the Christian Dalits will be in an advantageous situation as they are better educated. In order to diffuse these myths, Christian leadership must constantly keep in touch with the Hindu Dalits across the country. This is not happening at all. Some of us are in the process of conceiving a Reconciliation Centre to work on this issue in a systematic manner.

I participated in the protest of the Dalit Christians which was held near the Indian Parliament House on December 11, 2013. The peaceful rally was stopped by the police who then baton-charged, a ND then used water cannon, to disperse the protestors. Many men and women, including priests and nuns, were injured. They remained in police custody for the duration of the day. The struggle continues.

[Reverend Vijayesh Lal is the secretary for the Religious Liberties Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, New Delhi. He is one of the leading voices in India on Human rights and Christian persecution. vijeashl@gmail.com]

By Vijayesh Lal

India boasts of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world – the Thomas, or Syrian Christians of Kerala in the South.

It also has a large underground church of people who believe in Jesus but cannot witness it in public because of the societal pressure of their Hindu communities, and in some cases, government penalties. But today, India is known worldwide for the brave struggle of its Dalit Christians, converts from Hinduism’s former untouchable castes, who are waging a lonely battle for their human rights, and regaining civil guarantees of affirmative action and opportunity in economic and political empowerment denied them since India became a Republic in 1950.

The Dalits may constitute as much as 60 per cent of the country’s Christian population. Officially Christians are a small minority in India, their numbers recorded at 2.3 per cent of the national population of 1.21 billion. But the official Census is not the best guide to the number of Christians in India. Anyway, the desegregated Census data on the religion-wise composition of the population is not available after 2001 because the Indian government feels the disclosure of such information will ignite and inflame passions in a society deeply divided in faith and belief identities.

Recent years have seen rising fears amongst a section of the majority Hindus that the religious minorities, and in particular the Muslim population with its relatively higher rate of growth because of large families, will either overtake them or overwhelm them. The decadal growth rate of the Muslims was around 36 per cent, which was up from 30 per cent between 1981 and 1991 respectively.

The Hindu growth rate had fallen to 20 per cent from 23 per cent in the same corresponding period. This paranoia, and the continuing rift between religious communities created by the partition of India in 1947, has led to repeated confrontation and violence. Over 30,000 major incidents of religious violence have been recorded in more than 65 years of independence. [Based on data disclosed in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, and civil society surveys.]

According to the 2001 Census, Hindus constitute 80.5 per cent of the population which was 1.02 billion at that time (Census 2011: 1,21 billion). The Muslims were 11.4 per cent, Christians constituted 2.3 per cent, Sikhs 1.9 per cent, Buddhists 0.8 per cent, Jains 0.4 per cent. India also has Jews, Zoroastrians and Baha’is, while many tribal people profess traditional faiths including ancestor worship.

However, no one believed the official figures that Christians constituted just 2.3 per cent of the population. The Catholic Church, Protestant groups and particularly the Pentecostal churches collectively claim a total figure that may be two or three times the official Census numbers. Social scientists and researchers say there are a number of reasons why this may in fact be true.

The enumerators’ questions in the Census operations discouraged members of the former untouchable castes, who call themselves Dalits and are called Scheduled Castes by the government, from registering themselves as Christians. These are communities, especially in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, who avoid registering officially as such to continue taking advantage of the government’s affirmative action programmes that include reservations in academic institutions, the civil service, and legislatures.

Official conversion to Christianity would make them ineligible under Article 341 (iii) of the Constitution, which holds such affirmative action only for Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. This law has been challenged twice in the Supreme Court, which upheld it the first time, but five years ago reopened hearings on public interest litigation by Dalit Christians.

Other Christians profess their faith only secretly, to avoid the negative ramifications of doing so more openly, especially in their families or villages; others, such as the Kristu Bhaktas of Varanasi, express devotion to Christ, but not exclusively. Their Hindu critics call these “hidden faithful” or “silent believers”, many of whom regularly come to small village churches, “Crypto Christians” and “quasi Christians”.

Statisticians Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross estimate that India’s Christians constitute 4.8 per cent of the population at 58 million, a figure accepted by some academicians such as Chad Bauman, Vice President of the Society for Hindu-Christian Studies in the United States. Jason Mandryk puts the figure even higher, at 71 million, or 5.84 per cent of the population, and reports that others estimate it as high as 9 per cent.

The Indian Christian population is unevenly distributed. In some states and districts, the Christian population is negligible, whereas in other Christians predominate. In the South, Christians constitute 35.5 per cent of the population of Kerala and 19 per cent of the population of Tamil Nadu. But the biggest concentration is in the culturally and ethnically distinct small North-eastern states of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram.

With 17 million members, Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination in India. The Catholic Church has three Rites in India – the universal Latin Rite which dominates with over 10 million, the Syro Malabar Rite with a claimed 6 million, and the Syro Malankara, with a million. With 2 million, the Church of South India is the largest protestant church.

The Seventh-Day Adventists, Oriental Orthodox Churches, United Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Believers Church each claim between 1 and 2. The Church of North India claims 1.5 million. Church scholars suggest as much as half of India’s Christians are now associated with Evangelical, Charismatic, Pentecostal and other independent “Renewalist” churches and denominations.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN INDIA

There is some evidence in India and in the Levant and West Asia that speaks of lively interaction between the peoples long before Jesus Christ. Historians of the microscopic Jewish community in India believe their ancestors came to the western coast between 1,000 BCE (the era before Christ) to about 70 AD. The decrees of Persian emperor Xerxes, called Ahasuerus, speak about Jews dispersed through the length and breadth of his empire which stretched to India. The small Jewish communities lived prospered in several places along the western Malabar Coast. Thomas, the Apostle, would have found himself at home, if indeed he came to India as folklore, if not documented history, would have it.

Franciscan friars were among the first to have had come to India, albeit in rather tentative missions. Franciscan John de Montecorvino came in 1293 AD. In the next 20 years, there were isolated Franciscan missions along the Western Ghats.

Tragedy interrupted the Franciscan mission when four friars were murdered at Thana, near Bombay. Dominican Jordan Catalano of Serverac was appointed the first Latin Bishop of Quilon (today Kollam, Kerala) in 1329 AD, with the Papal envoy, Giovanni de Marignolli coming to Quilon in 1348.

But much of contemporary Christianity in the subcontinent in its modern form owes its expansion to the two swift political and missionary waves. The first flush was of the Portuguese and Spanish, in 1498, the French, and the Dutch. The second was of the British, with the East India Company, the Church of England and the British Missionary Society and the many others who followed in their footsteps. The Portuguese presence is perhaps the well-documented chapter in India’s political and religious history, and it left an indelible mark on the ancient nation. Their missionary activity was carried out under the Padroado system, the patronage of the colonial power.

The London-based East India Company received its charter from Queen Elizabeth on the last day of the year 1600. Its ships sailed to Surat in the state of Gujarat with Anglican chaplains. The local ruler issued a royal fireman giving the East India Company the right to trade.

Surat became the English headquarters, from where pincer movements established bases in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta. The Anglican Church when it came with the British found the foundations to be strong enough to build Christianity in its own image.

Surprisingly, the East India Company did not encourage the early missionaries, forcing many of them to initiate their work in the more hospitable nearby colonies of the Dutch or the French.

The great William Carey, considered one of the fathers of the Indian renaissance, began his missionary work in the Dutch colony of Serampore in 1801, commencing his career as a professor of Bengali which he had by then mastered, and then of Sanskrit, the tongue of the ancient Indian scriptures. Carey has earned his place in the hearts of the Indian Christians for initiating the translation of the Bible into Indian languages.

The consolidation of the Indian States under British hegemony after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 against the regime of the East India Company, or the First War of Independence as we call it in India, opened up new frontiers. It was during this period and extending into the early period of the Twentieth century, that mass conversions took place in the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra, then called the Madras Presidency, in undivided Punjab, the tribal belts of Chhota Nagpur region in central India and the till then almost inaccessible hills of the north-eastern areas bordering Burma and China.

This phase of Christianity, with its close links with the foreign colonial power, was to have long-lasting and deep social and political effects which precipitated a crisis of identity for the Indian Christian of the pre-Independence era, and since Independence have continued to dog their footsteps in their endeavour to find for themselves roots as Indian Christians.

Barring a few from the upper castes, most of the conversions have been from the one-time untouchables. Analysis of church data shows that an overall 60% of all Indian Christians are of Dalit origin, with another 20% from India’s indigenous or tribal people in central and North-East India. The remaining 20% are a mix of converts from other ethnic and caste groups.

The current Indian Christian population is about 25 million, 17 million of Dalit origin. Among them are landless peasants, fisher-folks, boatmen, artisans, farmers, and unfortunately a few scavengers, especially in the Punjab and Gujarat, according to surveys by NGOs.

There are educated Dalits who are now in the bureaucracy and the private sector, in teaching, nursing and in the IT sector. Many Dalit Christians are also becoming priests, more so in the Protestant denominations than among Catholics.

Modern Church historians have mixed feelings about the mass conversions in South India, and the Punjab, which today is partitioned into a Pakistani, or West Punjab, and an Indian Punjab. Many historians and church leaders look at the mass conversions of the Dalits of India as one of the greatest reform movements in the sub-continent’s history.

It is important to understand the cultural history of the Dalits in the context of Hindu theological beliefs and social practices endorsed by religious law. The Hindu faith is structured on a complex caste structure, believed to be divinely ordained, in which situation and social status are derived by birth, as are occupations.

The Brahmins said to be born of the head of the Creator God, is the vessel of all wisdom and learning, given the task of worshipping of the deity, custodian of the Holy books and scholar of the divine language Sanskrit. From the chest and arms are born the Kshatriyas, or the warrior clans, who are born to rule, and to defend the Brahmin and the Sacred cow as their sworn duty.

The Vaisyas or the trading and business castes emerge from the belly of the god, and from his feet come the Sudras, who are farmers and do other menial jobs.

The Untouchables, or Dalits as they call themselves, are said not to be born from god, and therefore are outside the caste system. In fact, they were called outcastes, till Mahatma Gandhi first called them ‘Harijan’ or the children of God.

The touch of the Dalits said to pollute the upper castes, even their shadow being so contaminated. The Lord Manu, who gave the law in his Manu Smriti, dictated very harsh penalties for the outcastes if they deliberately or even by accident polluted the upper caste. Death penalty was to be given to any outcaste if he molested a Brahmin woman, but a Brahmin molesting an outcaste woman committed no crime, in this law. Equally harsh penalties were prescribed for outcasts learning, writing, or speaking Sanskrit verses in praise of the gods.

Till very recently, it many Indian provinces Dalits and loudly announce their coming so that a Brahmin did not even accidentally come under their shadow. In Kerala, till the early 20th Century, outcaste women had to go bare-breasted as a mark of respect to the upper castes. Christian women were exempted.

No wonder there was the enthusiastic acceptance of mass conversions which gave the outcastes a sense of dignity for the first time in 3,000 years. The process continues, though not in such large numbers and not openly.

Some latter-day historians have, however, found fault with the zealous speed of the mass conversions and the antipathy of some missionaries to the traditions of indigenous religions and customs. Mahatma Gandhi had no patience with the impoverishment of culture which he felt had resulted from the work of the missionaries.

The debate continues, now as much within the Church as outside. Eminent diplomat and Congress parliamentarian Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote in defense of the missionaries: “Christian missionary activity in almost all of mainstream India was confined to good works. We need to go no further than Mother Teresa to ask ourselves what these good works were. Their major religious successes were in those remote, far-flung areas where 5,000 years of Hinduism had failed to penetrate.”

But caste prejudices have accompanied many of the Dalits even after conversion. The Church, especially in south India, has been accused to have continued the practices against Dalits. Justice Rangnath Misra, a former Chief Justice of India would note ten years later, in India caste transcends religion.

Compared to the other religious minorities, Christians have been on the margins of the political consciousness of the Governments in power over the decades. The vast majority of Christian Dalits in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Maharashtra and Punjab, and the tribals in central and North-East India are amongst the most economically deprived.

After a relative peace between 1947 and 1997, hate crimes against the Church and the Christian community have been increasing alarmingly, mostly against Dalits and Tribals, or indigenous converts.

The violence peaked in 2007 and 2008. Orissa and 14 other states have been affected, seven seriously. Between 24 August and October 2008, Hindutva mobs burned down 5,600 houses in 300 villages, destroyed over 250 churches, killed about 100 people, and forced over 54,000 Christians to flee their homes. Many have been told they have to become Hindus if they want to return.

THE STRUGGLE OF THE DALITS

The Dalit issue impacts two-thirds of the Indian Christians. Yet, the weakness of the Indian Church is conspicuous with regard to this issue. The Indian State and its institutions display duplicity in this regard. At the root, it is the fear that concessions shown to Christian Dalits will lead to the mass conversion of Hindu Dalits to Catholic and Protestant Christianity.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar were the main authors of Indian Constitution. Whatever laws they wrote were without reference to religion. One such law was to give political, administrative, employment and educational preferential treatment, including pro rata reservations, to people of the former untouchable castes—irrespective of the religion they professed.

However, within months of the signing of the Constitution, and the Statute becoming law, the Hindu leadership forced Nehru to accept a Constitutional amendment. Thus the 1950 Presidential Order said that all affirmative action for the Dalits, or Scheduled Castes, could be enjoyed by them so long as they professed the Hindu faith. The implication was that it would not be available to Dalits of Christian faith, and certainly would be taken away from those Hindu Dalits who chose to change their religion to Islam, Christianity, even to Sikhism and Buddhism. The Sikhs and Buddhists protested, and after a 25-year struggle managed to regain the benefits.

Christians and Muslims have not been so lucky, and their struggle continues despite many agencies of the Government, including the National Commission for Minorities, and the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, popularly called the Justice Rangnath Misra Commission, recommended in December 2009, that Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin be immediately given their rights and the Presidential Order of 1950 be scrapped.

The Commission has said that Government finds means of giving reservations in jobs and education to these people, without in any way curtailing the existing privileges of Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu Dalits.

Secular groups such as the Centre for Public Interest Litigation headed by former Federal Law Minister Shanti Bhushan and many Christian groups also moved the Supreme Court of India in writ petitions six years ago to scrap the Presidential Order. Most political parties, except the Congress and the BJP, have also given in writing to the Government that they support the scrapping of the Presidential Order.

Prime Minister Nehru told Christian Dalits in a letter dated November 7, 1950 that he was sympathetic to their cause. In 1953 his Government appointed the “First Backward Classes Commission” under Article 340 of the Indian Constitution to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes within the Indian Territory. The Commission submitted its report on March 3, 1955, stating that even within the Christian society Dalit converts were discriminated against.

In 1979, the Second Backward Commission, known as the “Mandal Commission” investigated the conditions of Dalits within the Indian Territory.

On December 31, 1980, it reported, “Conversion from one faith to another did not change the socio-economic status of a person though caste system is peculiar to Hindu society, in actual practice, it also pervades the non-Hindu communities in India in varying degrees.”

The Minority Commission in its 3rd Annual Report, 1980, said, “The Commission has prima facie felt that since the Christians, Muslims and Buddhists of Scheduled Caste origin continue to suffer from social and economic disabilities even after their conversion, there should be no objection to their availing of the concessions admissible to them before their conversion.”

In 1984, The Supreme Court of India in the case of S. Anbalagan Vs. Devarajan said, “the practice of caste however irrational is so deep-rooted in India that its mark does not seem to disappear on conversion to a different religion.”

As is obvious, Dalit Christians hope to gain much from the Scheduled caste rights if Government or courts reverse the 1950 Presidential Order.

But the prognosis is bleak. It will be a miracle if the Government takes a legislative initiative, even if the Supreme Court is in favour of Dalit Christians. The community lives in hope, praying and occasionally protesting at the gates of the Parliament of India. They cannot do more than this.

The Church can do a lot in this regard. It must shed its current ambivalence. The Christian community with a unity of purpose must come forward to help the Dalit cause with resources and effective leadership. Grassroots support of these communities is a must. The Protestant, Syrian Mar Thoma and Orthodox churches also need to do more.

Reconciliation is a major factor that in the future will assume significant proportions. The upper castes, and the political parties such as the right-wing pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, have been misleading the Hindu Dalits. They are being told that they must aggressively oppose Scheduled Caste rights to Dalit Christians, for two reasons. The first is that the Christian Dalits will eat into the “cake” of Hindu Dalit privileges.

The second is that the Christian Dalits will be in an advantageous situation as they are better educated. In order to diffuse these myths, Christian leadership must constantly keep in touch with the Hindu Dalits across the country. This is not happening at all. Some of us are in the process of conceiving a Reconciliation Centre to work on this issue in a systematic manner.

I participated in the protest of the Dalit Christians which was held near the Indian Parliament House on December 11, 2013. The peaceful rally was stopped by the police who then baton-charged, a ND then used water cannon, to disperse the protestors. Many men and women, including priests and nuns, were injured. They remained in police custody for the duration of the day. The struggle continues.

[Reverend Vijayesh Lal is the secretary for the Religious Liberties Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, New Delhi. He is one of the leading voices in India on Human rights and Christian persecution. vijeashl@gmail.com]

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