UCA News

Christian ‘untouchables’ in 21st century India

The Dalit Christian demand for Scheduled Caste status has no place on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘Hindutva’ agenda
Christians protest against increasing attacks on them in India's capital New Delhi on Oct. 30, 2019.

Christians protest against increasing attacks on them in India's capital New Delhi on Oct. 30, 2019. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj)

Published: May 27, 2024 04:19 AM GMT
Updated: May 27, 2024 05:06 AM GMT

Two journeys in Jammu, Punjab, and Rajasthan along the Indian side of the border with Pakistan in the early years of the 21st century brought this columnist face to face with Christians among communities of “outcastes,” or “untouchables,” who manually removed human excreta from lavatories in villages and small towns.

This was a practice thought to have been eradicated in the revolution that Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar triggered in the decades after World War II and India’s freedom from colonial and feudal rule.

Amidst occasional reports of the existence of this practice, the late Swami Agnivesh, a social reformer, had launched a march to regions where manual scavenging was at its worst. This columnist accompanied the Swami as a reporter and participant.

The second journey was looking for Christians among groups of Dalits, bonded laborers, and landless workers in the border districts of Jammu and Punjab.

In the groups of Hindu, Sikh and even Muslim villagers of these castes were also Christians, including Catholics. These were groups engaged not in skinning dead animals or cleaning city streets. Some of them, in those remote villages along the international border, were cleaning dry latrines, and lifting human feces in metal basins which they then carried on their head as they walked to the dump away from the village.

Manual scavenging, to give it the name social activists use, exists even to this day in several parts of India. In big cities, it takes the form of cleaning septic tanks of domestic toilets, and deep sewers of municipal committees. Many die every year, suffocated in the methane gas in those chambers of filth.

"The law does not recognize the community’s existence anywhere in India"

The government has outlawed manual scavenging, as the Constitution of India also outlawed untouchability after independence. But both co-exist with India’s ambitions of soon landing a man on the moon and becoming the third biggest economy after the US and China.

National and international advocacy, and even occasional debates in legislatures and the Indian parliament on this issue, bypass the Christian Dalit.

The law does not recognize the community’s existence anywhere in India. Only Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains can be called Scheduled Caste and deserve government protection and assistance, says Article 341’s critical Part 3.

Muslims and Christians of the community don’t deserve protection as their new religion has no caste, the Indian government has said repeatedly in the Supreme Court where the community is fighting a five-decade-old battle.

A chief justice of India rhetorically once told the Indian Church hierarchy during a hearing that he would give Dalit Christians the rights they wanted if the bishops admitted they were practicing untouchability in the Church. The bishops remained silent.

The popes, however, have spoken. Pope John Paul II was sharp in his criticism of caste as practiced in the Indian Catholic Church implicitly in various states, particularly Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra. Pope Benedict and good Pope Francis have also been sharp on a better deal for Dalits.

Caste runs deeper than just the fact that seminaries, clergy houses, and Cathedrals have perhaps no more than ten percent Dalit members, while perhaps half, if not more, of the people in many dioceses, were from the Dalit groups.

The ground reality changes little. With every announcement of a new bishop, in both south and north India (excluding the central Indian tribal regions), there is a groundswell of demand for more Dalit clergy, more bishops, and more major superiors.

"The vast north of India, which perhaps as a percentage has more Dalits among the church-going people, has gone unseen"

Matrimonial columns in newspapers, and now online portals, specializing in Christian matrimony make it abundantly clear that caste, if not untouchability, is alive and well in Indian Christianity.

For Hindus and Sikhs in Jammu and Punjab, there is only one word for manual scavengers and Christians. It is “Chuda,” an abomination that at once tells the grade of caste, the lowest, and the exact work it is destined to do under the rigid code that claims three millennia of tradition. It carries a biting, whiplash slur that humiliates and degrades.

Very little of this is carried in the public domain, or even in Church discourse. The Christian Dalit movement, under the leadership of pioneering activists such as Jesuit Father Francis Xavier Bosco, a Tamil and former provincial of Andhra province, and the now-retired Professor Mary John of Chennai, has kept the flame alive. There has, however, been no major public protest or agitation this decade.

The movement’s focus is essentially on south India. The Latin Christians’ continuing resentment of casteism at the hands of the Oriental congregations and clergy, and the demand for adequate representation in promotions, have kept them rooted in their home states.

The vast north of India, which perhaps as a percentage has more Dalits among the church-going people, has gone unseen. The late Professor Saral Chatterjee, Dr. James Massey, a former member of the National Minorities Commission, and retired Bishop Karam Masih of the Church of North India were active in raising the profile of the struggle substantially at the turn of the century.

Its showpiece was the historic march in the national capital in the 1990s, inaugurated by Mother Teresa, no less, under the benign eye of the late Archbishop Alan de Lastic of Delhi.

Not much has been researched on the community’s current status. The cases in the Supreme Court are essentially backed by the southern groups, and only notionally, by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.

Academic Dr. Emanual Nahar, chairman of the Punjab Minorities Commission, and himself a Dalit Christian, is scathing in his several books on the neglect the community has faced at the hands of the “upper castes,” the government, and the leadership of the Church.

"The condition of Dalit Christians has deteriorated over the last decade"

“Dalit Christians in the Punjab are marginalized, microscopic, socially depressed, economically backward and politically powerless,” he says. At present, they stand in the lowest wing of society among the Dalit classes in the Punjab. They are always in debt. They live in deplorable conditions.

Dr. Nahar confirms that many families of Punjab Christians work as “bonded labor” in fields and brick kilns. Bonded laborers are landless peasants who have taken a loan for an illness or a marriage, and cannot repay the interest, much less the principal. They then give themselves, their wives and grown children, in bondage to work in the field or the kiln at just a subsistence wage. Their children will remain bonded after them.

Needless to say, this is a practice banned by the government decades ago. But like caste and untouchability, it continues in India under the noses of the prime minister and the police commissioner.

“They had joined the churches seeking liberation and solace in the new community but found their expectations unfulfilled,” Dr. Nahar says poignantly.

In Punjab, and Jammu. “Christian Dalits live in the same kind of villages, are dependent on the same type of landowners, suffer the same sort of disparities and atrocities, and are subject to the same social and economic pressure.”

“The condition of Dalit Christians has deteriorated over the last decade, Dr. Nahar says. Most remain socially separated and forced to live in separate localities, he notes in “Problems of Agriculture Labour.” There is no gazetted civil or police officer from the community.

Punjab is seeing a resurgence of evangelical churches. Dr. Nahar says many churches have been opened by non-Christians. They control most of the leading two dozen or so “Dera churches,” each with Sunday congregations of tens of thousands. These pose a challenge both to the Catholic Church and the Methodist and Church of North India establishments.

The national movement of the Dalit Christians has been quiescent in the decade of rule by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Modi has been quite categorical in rejecting the Church's demand for official Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Christians so they can get legal protection, as well as the scholarships and jobs the community needs.

The Dalit Christian demand has no place in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s “Hindutva” agenda. Modi’s government, in fact, has already begun targeting Christian tribals who do get constitutional protection and reservations in education and government employment.

Dalit Christians see very little hope from the government or the courts in the near future, unless the general election, now in its last phase, changes the political landscape.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Help UCA News to be independent
Dear reader,
Trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, only outdone by drugs and arms trafficking, and is the fastest-growing crime today.
Victims come from every continent and are trafficked within and to every continent. Asia is notorious as a hotbed of trafficking.
In this series, UCA News introduces our readers to this problem, its victims, and the efforts of those who shine the light of the Gospel on what the Vatican calls “these varied and brutal denials of human dignity.”
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
UCA News

Share your comments

1 Comments on this Story
How can they remain 'untouchable and dalits' after converting to Christianity? Didn't you people lure them out of these misunderstood dogmas yourselves? Eat the cake and keep it too? Even after converting to Christianity, they still remain 'untouchables'? Didn't you cheat them as you do with everyone else?
Asian Bishops
Latest News
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia