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Caste still haunts Dalit reform efforts

True equality for the marginalized demands legal and social reforms

  • John Dayal, Delhi
  • India
  • August 6, 2012
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Two unrelated but symptomatic incidents marked the rain-soaked protest march and dharna, a sit-in, in New Delhi on August 1 by Dalit Christians who trace their origins to India’s former “untouchable” castes and constitute arguably 60 percent of the Christian community in India, concentrated in its southern and western states.

The first incident was of a Hindu, possibly inebriated and equally possibly a Hindutva extremist, who come to participate in the anti-corruption fast by campaigner Anna Hazare and his team that was underway nearby.

He took the mike, shouted a Hazare slogan before breaking into a chant praising the Hindu god Hanuman. After a few minutes, he nonchalantly walked away, his mostly south Indian audience not able to follow any of his slogans which were in Hindi, a language unfamiliar to many of them.

The second incident was “all Christian.”  As a dozen Catholic and Protestant archbishops, bishops and Church leaders looked on, a little-known group calling itself the “All India Federation of Christians of SC Origin” distributed a handbill charging the same bishops and upper caste Hindus of opposing the struggle of the Dalit Christians.

The Hindu community has always, and fiercely, opposed any sops to the religious minorities who they see as a demographic and political threat. This is not confined to just the right-wing outfits such as the Sangh Parivar, but extends to the membership of even the Indian National Congress, ruling India intermittently since independence. The Dalits among them see Christians as competition, contenders for their share of the economic and political crumbs that the government gives them.

The movement historically has also caused a deep schism in the Christian community. The converts from the upper castes, particularly in states such as Kerala where the Syrian Catholic and Protestant churches wield great political and economic power, do not have an intuitive sympathy for the Dalits.

In Kerala, the Latin Catholic Church represents the Dalits who include fishermen and other communities. The tribal Christians of the Northeast and the Chhotanagpur belt of central and east India, are protected constitutionally and therefore do not feel the economic pinch of the Dalits.

The clergy and particularly the laity along the Konkan Coast encompassing such Christian-dominated areas as Mumbai and Goa not only have nothing in common with the Dalits but also see them as a contradiction to the theological basis of their faith and an affront to their reputation as sophisticated citizens.

Since Christ taught equality, there can be no place for caste in the Church and therefore no raison d’etre for the Dalit movement. Several churches, particularly in places such as Gujarat where the community has assimilated well, live in a sort of denial of their past. Even though almost all of them – barring the migrants from Kerala and Goa – are of dalit origin, they refuse to be so identified.

This lack of popular and mass support, historically, is why the movement has failed since the Dalits first protested in 1950 when President Rajendra Prasad, a votary of upper caste Hinduism, and the upper caste ministers of the Congress passed the infamous Presidential Order that says affirmative action, including a 15 percent reservation in government jobs, can be given to the Dalits as long as they remain in Hinduism.

The issue is now before the Supreme Court in a Public Interest Litigation, with the government deliberately delaying the judicial process by not filing its response. The fear in 1950, as now, was that the entire Dalit community, now comprising more than 200 million, would convert to Christianity if  the “gates” were not closed and some sort of “punishment” not put in for conversions.

The Dalits have struggled almost entirely on their own. The support of the hierarchy is not more than 20 years old, and has become visible only in the last five years. But the movement itself has petered down to nothingness – its last major meeting was almost a quarter of a century ago when 100,000 people marched to parliament.

The National Coordination Committee for Dalit Christians, which saw some of the major churches coming together, now exists only in name. New groups have taken over, but essentially based in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala states, they have not succeeded in mobilizing an all-India campaign – the people now limited to those who can come by train to Delhi, never more than a couple of thousands if that.

Delhi’s own Christians never join, barring a token presence. The pitifully small demonstrations in Delhi give an impression to the government that the movement is losing steam, if not dying out entirely.

If the movement is to survive, it has to reinvent itself at the grassroots. It must learn from political parties – better a thousand visible agitations at every rural and urban government office than one bi-annual invisible one in the national capital.

It also has to reach out to civil society, and particularly to the Hindu Dalits who need to learn that the struggle is not just for government jobs, which anyway remain unfilled to a large extent, but for political rights and economic rights in the villages, where the cake, so to say, is limitless.

They may dilute the apprehensions and the antagonism to a large extent. To be able to do this, it must, patently, once again become a peoples’ movement, not one led by NGOs and by bishops and pastors who go away after the “photo opportunity” for the minimal media presence.

The fissiparous Indian Church establishment – hundreds of fragments based on denominational, regional, ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups – just cannot take care of about 16 to 18 million members from the Dalit community. There are not enough institutional or industrial jobs in a community that is itself either in the service sector or in marginal agriculture, barring a few plantation owners in Kerala and Karnataka.

The Dalits, barring their “creamy layer” of the highly educated, are largely landless labor, a few of them even bonded labor and manual scavengers in areas such as Punjab.

The relief has to come through government legislation. The Presidential Order of 1950, now Article 341 of the Constitution, has to be purged of its bias against Christians and Muslims. The Dalit Christians have no option but to carry on their struggle, for at the end of the day, it remains a matter of equality under the law, human rights and dignity.

John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council
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