15 January 2013
Father John Ariekal leads a congregation of Dalits in Pappala in prayer. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
In the current issue of the magazine, we visit India and meet the Christian Dalits, the “untouchable” caste facing discrimination and fighting for equality:
The highest caste, the Brahmin, traditionally pursued religious vocations and served as priests and spiritual leaders. They also made, upheld and taught the law. Ranked second is the Kshatriya caste, to which warriors and the military elite belonged. Next in rank is the Vaishya caste, which traditionally included cattle herders, merchants, traders and some artisans. Ranked fourth is the Shudra caste, made up of artisans, farmers and laborers.
At the very bottom of the caste system are the Dalits, below more than 3,000 sub-castes. Considered subhuman and “untouchable” until the 19th century, Dalits were treated as slaves to upper castes — denied even the most basic civil, political, economic and social rights.
The Dalits’ untouchable status dictated where they could live, work, worship, eat, collect water and even walk or sit in public places. They could only socialize and marry within their caste. They were prohibited from receiving an education, including learning to read and write. And for centuries, they were required to hide themselves in the event members of Brahmin caste approached, so as not to pollute their purity.
India gained independence from British rule in 1947, and in 1950 the Constitution of India took effect. The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on caste or tribe, specifically enumerating the groups historically oppressed, including Dalits, in the provisions “Scheduled Castes” and “Scheduled Tribes.” About a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion people belongs to one of these scheduled castes and tribes.
The Constitution also stipulates for “Reservation,” a system of affirmative action that sets aside a certain number of positions in government and enrollment slots in public universities for members of the scheduled castes and tribes. Yet despite legal protections and reservation, caste-based discrimination persists throughout the subcontinent.
“It’s very hard to be a Dalit,” says Dr. Simon John, chairman of the Backward People Development Corporation and a Christian who lives in Pathanamthitta, a predominantly non-Dalit area in the central Travancore region of Kerala. “I don’t face the first degree of untouchability as my father faced. They don’t ask me to step aside. Nowadays, they just ignore you. They don’t recognize your presence wherever you are. I face it at the higher levels, because of my family tradition, my education and where I live. But still my problem is the passive attitude, off-hand comments, non-recognition of my existence in my student days, my work days and even at present.
Read more about India’s Christian Untouchables in the November 2012 issue of ONE.
Tags: India Indian Christians Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Indian Catholics