Nearly 50 per cent of the nearly 29 million Christians living in India are Scheduled Castes (or Dalits). An additional 15 to 20 per cent are Tribal fifteen to twenty percent are Tribal Christians and around a quarter are Caste Christians (of the former upper castes). This reveals an interesting aspect of Christianity in India. Close to 70 per cent of Christians in India are also considered minorities in another sense in that they are eligible for positive discrimination by the state.
Contrary to census figures, some estimate that the number of Dalit Christians in India is as high as 70 per cent and 80 per cent. Even if we use the conservative estimate of 50 per cent, close to 14 million people may have been able to change their religious identities but their caste identities persist.
Abreu, Kumar and Robinson in their chapter in Mujibur Rehman’s Communalism in Post-Colonial India: Changing Contours, suggest that Dalit Christians face ‘three levels of discrimination’. The first is violence from upper-caste Hindus who still view them as Dalits irrespective of their religion. The second is by the state legislation which denies them access to benefits other Dalits are eligible for. The third level is within the church itself.
With regards to the first level, a detailed account of ill-treatment of Dalits is represented in Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. In addition to physical violence, discrimination in the form of untouchability, and differentiated access to resources like drinking water mar the link between upper-castes and Dalits. These upper-caste Hindus continue to view Dalits as Dalits, irrespective of their religion.
The second level of discrimination by the state apparatus relates primarily to the issues of reservations of educational seats and government jobs for members of these communities, as a means of positive discrimination. According to the Indian Constitution (Schedule Castes) Order, 1950, only Hindus would be considered Scheduled Castes and would be able to avail themselves of the positive discrimination of the state. However, due to political pressure, Sikhs were brought into this scheme in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990.
The egalitarian nature of Sikhism and Buddhism not withstanding; converts to Islam and Christianity still do not get access to this positive discrimination by the government. Strangely, in other places in the constitution (in Articles 330, 332, 334, 335, 338 and 34), Caste is recorded as a social category and has little to do with religion. In summary, Dalit converts to Christianity do not receive benefits from the government.
Hindu Nationalist groups assert that lower castes are lured into converting to Christianity because of the social and economic benefits. However, John Webster’s study of Dalit Christians in Punjab showed that the converts continued to be poor and landless, under the oppressive yolk of landlords and money lenders.
Numerous attempts to pass legislation to counter this were stymied several times. Fr. Prakash Louis in his article, Dalit Christians: Betrayed by State and Church suggests this was due to powerful interests such as Hindu Nationalist groups who feared more Dalits converting to Christianity and Islam, politicians who did not see value in the cause because it wasn’t vote-heavy and Caste Christians who would be irked by the fact that Dalit Christians will be able to access double benefits of being Dalits and Christians. Another significant group are other Dalits who fear that they will have to share a chunk of the reservation pie if Dalit Christians and Muslims are included.
The discrepancy between the number of Dalits recorded in the census and maintained by other groups is because several Christians will not officially declare themselves to census recorders in fear of being denied access to special state resources. Therefore, they remain Christian by faith but not on the records.
The third- level of discrimination brings us to an interesting question – is there a caste system within Christianity? Christianity as an egalitarian religion purports equality among all. However, there is no shortage of anecdotal evidence of discrimination against Dalits within the church. These include being forced to sit on the floor during church services while others use the chairs provided. They are also denied the benefits of admission into church-run schools and other facilities available to most Christians. Often times, they also occupy different areas within the same Christian cemetery.
In 2016, the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), the apex body among Catholics in India, released a 44- page document called the Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India. While serving as a recognition of a problem and a call to arms to improve the position of Dalits in the Catholic church. One of the most revealing findings in the report showed that while the 19 million strong population of Catholics is comprised of 12 million Dalits, there are only 12 out of 5,000 bishops who are Dalits.
Another report titled, “Dalits in the Muslim and Christian Communities: A Status Report on Current Social Scientific Knowledge“, prepared for the National Commission for Minorities, which analyzed data from the National Sample Survey Organization found that Muslim and Christian converts “are invariably regarded as ‘socially inferior’ communities by their co-religionists”.
Dalits are disproportionately among the victims of the rising number of attacks against Christians in India. Abreau, et al. cite Sajan George of the Global Council of Indian Christians who estimates that between early 2006 and the end of 2007, 325 out of the 405 recorded acts of violence against Christians were against Dalits.
What this brief picture reveals is the persistence of Caste in Indian society which continues to lead to excessive discrimination among the largest group of Christians in the country. Therefore, the cause of upliftment of Dalit Christians is a vital topic for the church to rally around.