The church and caste-based discrimination in India

Recounting stories such as the alleged forced poisoning of a young couple, speakers at the Global Ecumenical Conference on Justice for Dalits gave a face to the 3,500-year-old system of caste-based discrimination, detailing practices many would consider unthinkable in the 21st century.

Shortly after their wedding on 5 May 2003, S Murugesan (25), and D Kannagi (22), both college graduates from Puthukkooraippetti village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, were allegedly forced to drink poisonous liquid in the presence of scores of people, who witnessed the couple's agony. The bodies were burnt, leaving no evidence of the gruesome incident.

This real-life Romeo and Juliet story happened because Murugesan was a Dalit while Kannagi was a Vanniyar with low caste status.

Under Hindu doctrine, Dalits are considered "polluted" and "polluting" and hence, "untouchable." Not even included in the bottom tier of the caste system, they cannot intermarry, even with those from the lowest caste.

In another case, the five-year-old girl D. Dhanam lost her vision in one eye after being beaten by a school teacher in Kattinaicken village in Tamil Nadu's Salem district. Her mistake: she had taken water from a tumbler kept exclusively for upper-caste children.

These were two of many examples Bishop Dr Vedanayagam Devasahayam of the Church of South India, Madras Diocese, cited from detailed accounts of "systemic violence" against Dalits compiled by Indian journalist Soumya Viswanathan.

The stories helped to give "theological and missiological bases" upon which 95 representatives and leaders of various churches and organisations worldwide could affirm their solidarity with the Dalits during the 21-24 March conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

Organised by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in partnership with the Christian Conference of Asia, the conference aimed to reiterate the solidarity of the global ecumenical movement with the national and international movements and initiatives for the Dalits' cause.

International solidarity

Rev Dr Ishmael Noko, LWF general secretary, expressed his empathy with the long suffering of the Dalits, recalling how the majority of people in his own region of southern Africa had suffered institutionalised discrimination.

"I can imagine a little of how it is to be born a Dalit and to be the subject of entrenched discrimination based on descent and traditional occupation," Noko wrote in a statement read out on his behalf at the conference. "As a Zimbabwean, I also know what it is like for promises and hopes of justice and a better life to be unfulfilled or betrayed."

Noting how Dalit communities continue to suffer "despite many noble words in constitutional guarantees and legislative provisions", Noko strongly criticised perpetrators and accomplices of discrimination.

"Governments that exclude a whole section of [their] own citizens – or allow them to be so treated – are incompetent to govern," he said. "And members of the international community that know but ignore the issue are accomplices to the systemic violations of human rights resulting from this unjust system."

The Indian Constitution bans "discrimination by caste" and the practice of "untouchability". Two special laws seek to punish perpetrators of caste discrimination, while others prohibit forced labour, manual scavenging and Jogni (ritual prostitution). More than 22 national development schemes seek to improve the economic lot of Dalits.

Much remains to be desired, however, from these constitutional guarantees and legislations, said Rev Vincent Manoharan of the National Campaign for Dalit Rights, an independent human rights watchdog.

Noting how the international community abandoned the plea of the Dalits for recognition of their human rights during the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, Noko stressed that the churches of the world must not turn a blind eye to the Dalits' suffering.

"As churches, we confess that we are all members of the one body of Christ, the whole body sharing in the pain of just one of its members," he added. "Can any part of the body of Christ be considered 'untouchable'? Everyone is 'touchable' by God. No one can be excluded from the means of grace."

The church in India, Noko said, has "a Dalit face". He explained that members of Lutheran churches in India are predominantly from Dalit and tribal communities. Of the 25 million Christians in India, approximately 20 million are Dalits.

"As long as Dalits are not treated with dignity and justice, then all human dignity is at risk," Noko stressed.

Tasks ahead for the church and the state

Responding to the question of the Dalits' hopes, Bishop Devasahayam, a Dalit himself, said: "We want the Indian government to acknowledge the existence of caste-based discrimination and the practice of untouchability."

He also urged the Indian government to study how state machinery functions, particularly its "failure to render justice for the Dalits through the police, the executive and the judiciary".

Devasahayam also took the Indian church to task. "We want the Indian church to acknowledge and confess the sin of harbouring the caste system within its ranks and programmes."

At the Bangkok conference, non-Indian participants learned that some Indian churches also practice exclusion, with some even having separate entrances for Dalits. Leadership positions in the church, they heard, were dominated by non-Dalit men.

"We want the Indian church to declare its identity as the church of and for the Dalits, in order to work towards their liberation," said Devasahayam. "We also want the Indian church to encourage the expression of the Dalits' culture in church life, worship and theology."

Rev Dr Park Seong-Won, of Youngnam Theological University and Seminary in South Korea, spoke for many church leaders around the world, embracing the Dalits' cause during the first morning worship service: "The Dalit issue is also our issue. Until the Dalits are totally liberated, are we ready to say: 'I am Dalit, too'?"

Maurice Malanes is a freelance journalist from the Philippines. Currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI), he also writes for the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN).