"Is that stuff still going on?” the American college professor asked incredulously. He had heard of a Dalit boy whose college acceptance was revoked because he broke a coconut in his temple in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The boy, overjoyed at having graduated with honors and winning a college scholarship—firsts for an Untouchable from his village—had shown his appreciation by making this offering to the village deity. The problem? Dalits, even Hindus, are forbidden in the temples. The professor, an international expert in conflict resolution, had just given a talk to Indians on solving differences between Hindus and Muslims—unaware that in India the fundamental conflicts are not interreligious, but caste-based.
The visiting professor’s ignorance is not atypical. “I’m glad you’re going. I’m so India!” a friend gushed, caught up in New-Age utopianism, when he heard I was leaving to visit India. When Father Yesumarian of the Madurai Jesuit Province in Tamil Nadu meets Americans, they typically ask two questions: “Did you know Gandhi?” (Father Yesumarian was not yet born when Gandhi was killed.) “Are you a vegetarian?” Perhaps 5 percent of Indians are pure vegetarians, while over 80 percent, more people than the entire population of most nations, suffer from casteism. A European woman who spends half her days in the Hindu Raman ashram and half in the Jesuit-sponsored Bodhi Zendo ashram, both in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, when asked how she reconciled caste with Christianity, replied, “Well, I suppose all religions have their inconsistencies and inequalities.” When asked about the horrible atrocities committed in the name of caste, day after day, and the violent anti-Christian, pro-caste campaign waged by Hindu conservatives, she drifted off, seeking solace in her devotion to Jesus and her Hindu practices. Westerners refer lightly to “Hindu holy men” with no idea how self-contradictory that can be. (One of the five holiest of holy men was arrested in mid-November for murder in a multimillion dollar scam.) The common misconception seems to be that caste is no big deal—certainly not for Christians.
Caste Advantage and Discrimination
According to New Delhi’s Indian Social Institute, recent Hindu-Muslim riots and attacks on Christians are instigated by affluent, elite, high-caste Hindus who are trying to expel threats to the brahminic caste system, or Varna—the Hindu ideology of superiority and inferiority based on birth, profession, pollution and purity.
Varna divides society into four castes: Brahmins (priests, intelligentia), Kshatriyas (warriors, leaders), Vaishyas (agriculturists, business people) and Sudras (small farmers, artisans, clerks). There are two groups outside the Varna system. One is called Dalits, outcasts, untouchables or the Scheduled Caste. These are given tasks like cleaning toilets, preparing corpses and scavenging. The other is called Tribals or Scheduled Tribals. These are exploited as indentured laborers. In practice there are thousands of caste groups, and many hundreds of Dalit and Tribal communities. Economically, there is a small percentage of wealthy, powerful Dalits, and a tiny proportion of poor, oppressed Brahmins. But statistics from India’s latest census and Prakash Louis’s Political Sociology of Dalit Assertion show where the power lies (see table).
Power and control are what Varna and caste are all about. Brahmins, at the top of the pyramid, write the script. As long as no one tinkers with the action and dialog, they are unthreatened, protected by hundreds of layers of caste and outcaste communities, each subjugating the layer below. And the power-caste Brahmins are particularly prominent in the media, a critical position for forming India’s beliefs and prejudices.
The Pain of Untouchability
Untouchability was outlawed over 50 years ago, but village Dalits are regularly made to drink human urine and eat human feces for not showing proper respect for caste taboos, and every week Dalit girls are raped by upper-caste men with little fear of the law. Village Dalits are not allowed to sit on bus benches, use public toilets or drink from water fountains and are denied job and school opportunities. Monies from government agencies and foreign charities intended for Dalits are regularly stolen by higher-caste officials. Dalits are often ignorant of their rights, and even if they know the law, they do not know how to seek help.
Flouting the law in the name of caste? Ask Father Yesumarian, who is a lawyer. He has been charged with attempted murder three times, and imprisoned four times, once under India’s Anti-Terrorist Act. Police stripped and beat him, urinated in his mouth and left him to sleep naked on the cold jail floor. One of his clients is coming to court soon, charged with trying to kill a rent collector. His real crime? Reclaiming land illegally taken from Dalits. To make matters worse, he is a Dalit himself. People with caste standing cannot bear having an outcaste force them to do what they do not want to do, right or wrong.
Priests and religious, victims of casteism? Ask the five Missionaries of Charity who were hospitalized after being attacked with iron rods and chains in the southern state of Kerala. This happened in the peaceful, caste-free state that has the largest percentage of Christians in India (19 percent, mostly Catholic and Orthodox) and the highest literacy rate (80 percent), a place where village politics never dictated social norms, as in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Socialist egalitarianism has ruled since independence, and the only conflict people talk about is the rivalry between Latin and Malabar Rite Catholics. As for the Missionaries of Charity, they are revered by all religions in India and had never before been attacked on Indian soil. Yet in September 2004, first two sisters and their driver, and then two more sisters and two brothers, were attacked by a gang of Hindu militants shouting hate-filled slogans. Their crime: helping poor Dalit villagers.
Imposing Casteism on Non-Hindus
Militant pro-caste sentiments are fueled by the National Volunteer Force (known by its Hindu acronym, R.S.S., a violent facist group related to Gandhi’s murderers) and the party known as B.J.P., the R.S.S.’s political wing, which was the majority party in India’s parliament from 2001 to 2004. The R.S.S. and B.J.P., according to Father Yesumarian, are more frightened of Christians than of Muslims, because Christian activists work for women and Dalits, raising their conciousness and training them for leadership advancement. This is anathema to casteists. When Hindus attack Christian missionaries, the implicit message is: “The Dalits should be untouchable to you, too. Leave them alone!”
Although India’s Constitution outlaws discrimination and untouchability, the ruling classes have succeeded in dividing the Dalits, distorting their vision, corrupting their leaders and keeping most of them in the same conditions they have endured for two-and-a-half millennia. But subjugation of Dalits is far from the only example of caste discrimination. It happens between all castes, higher and lower. “You cannot understand India without understanding caste,” a scholar at the Jesuit-run Aikiya Alayam Institute for Cultural and Religious Dialog emphasized. “It shapes every aspect of our lives.”
“Caste discriminations,” writes Prakash Louis, “are ingrained in the very foundation of Indian society, Indian culture, Indian political economy, and finally in the very Indian mind-set.” Every Indian carries his or her caste or outcaste as a badge of honor or shame. Every school application, every graduation certificate and many public documents list the person’s caste. Caste controls school acceptances, job appointments, even marriages. “You would never marry someone outside your caste,” remarked an outspoken Catholic feminist on Loyola-Chennai’s faculty. “Even today, it just isn’t done.” This holds true for the wealthy as well as the poor. The person is born into a caste, lives that caste as part of his or her destiny, is married in a caste-specific celebration, and dies a caste death, especially in the villages, where 75 percent of Indians live. How seriously is caste regarded when it comes to marriage in a village? Take the case of the young Dalit man who married a lower-caste woman from a Tami Nadu village last year while both were in the city. When the girl did not return after an overnight trip to her parents, he went looking for her. The villagers told him they had beaten the girl, dragged her through the village behind a bullock cart and buried her alive. Then they beat him to death.
Caste and the Indian Church
But surely, one hopes, the Catholic Church is free of caste consciousness. When India’s founding Constituent Assembly debated making concessions for Outcaste-Christians, Jerome D’Souza, S.J., representing the Christians, rejected them, claiming there is no caste in Christianity. No caste in Christianity? Fifty-five years later Father Yesumarian so infuriated caste Catholics of Tamil Nadu’s Pondicherry Archdiocese that in October 2004, 33 priests signed a letter to the archbishop, with copies to all 16 Tamil Nadu bishops, charging Father Yesumarian with criminal, disruptive and un-Christian behavior. The letter demanded that neither he nor any other Jesuits be allowed in the archdiocese. Why? Father Yesumarian is helping Dalits reclaim land taken illegally by caste-parishioners, and the bishop and priests are all caste men.
Until the 1960’s, Dalits were generally not admitted to seminaries or religious life. Even today, according to Father Antoniraj, the Jesuit founder and director of the Doctor Ambedkar Cultural Academy, 70 percent of Dalits are turned away. Many do not enter seminaries or religious life because they fear caste treatment. In 1990, only 2 percent to 4 percent of Tami Nadu priests were Dalits, and there were no Dalit bishops. By 2004 only three out of 16 dioceses had Dalit bishops—this in a state where 70 percent of the Catholics are Dalits.
“Not only has the church failed to eradicate caste; it has accommodated itself to caste,” charges Father Antoniraj. Caste-consciousness has been part of Catholicism as long as the church has been in India. The 17th-century missionary Roberto de Nobili, S.J., believed that if he converted Brahmins, lower castes would follow. He dressed like a Brahmin, tried to become a Brahmin and worked to convert Brahmins. For the most part, he failed.
A century later Constanzo Beschi, S.J., worked with outcastes, had success with his conversions—and was martyred. According to Manuel Alphonse, S.J., director of the Tamil Nadu Social Development Monitor: “Hinduism reacts in two ways to external intrusions. First it tries to absorb the new system into the casteism. Failing that, it violently eradicates the threat. Both Islam and Catholicism caved in to these pressures. The only force that would not compromise was Buddhism. The Hindus tolerated them for two centuries, but when casteism was threatened, they crushed the Buddhists, murdering tens of thousands and driving the rest out.”
“It’s hard being a Dalit Catholic,” an old activist layman said. “Dalit means ‘broken.’ We are the broken people.” Termed ‘twice-discriminated’ because they are both social outcastes and ineligible for government aid, Catholic Dalits are in fact triply discriminated against. Denied government help, Dalits turned to their churches. But the caste-parishioners and caste-clergy treated them as outcastes. When priest-sympathisers tried to help, they were disciplined. Fear dominated. Priests were afraid of caste-parishioners and bishops; bishops were afraid of caste reprisals. Even in the church, Dalits had nowhere to turn.
A Challenge for the World Church
Why should American Catholics care? “We can’t solve it by ourselves,” Father Antoniraj pleaded. “Casteism must be internationalized. For too long Indians have been hiding it. In a typical case, an American priest asks a group of Indian priests, ‘What about caste?’ Indians downplay the issue, say it’s not a problem. When an Indian speaks up and says it is a problem, the others take him aside: ‘Why are you hanging out our dirty laundry? You shouldn’t say these things.’” X. J. Bosco, S.J., the first Dalit Jesuit provincial of Andhra Pradesh, recalled a meeting of Jesuit provincials in Spain at which a document was being drafted. He wanted it to include a mention of caste. “But the other Indians said, ‘No! No!’ They took it out.” “We need your help to publicize this problem,” Father Bosco said. “We need the American church to know about it.”
“It affects the church in America too,” said Father Antoniraj. “Father General told our provincial, if the Society of Jesus in the United States has been losing the blacks, the same should not happen to the Dalits. But we may lose the Dalits. The Pentecostals may scoop them up. They provide the Dalits with something the church doesn’t: fellowship. That affects everybody.”
“We’re all members of the mystical body,” Father Antoniraj added. “Most of us owe our faith to Western missionaries. They’re partly responsible for our problem. This is a justice issue for the whole church. The Holy Father told the Tamil Nadu bishops to take the Dalit problem seriously and take steps to correct it. So far they haven’t done much. American bishops can influence the Vatican to put more pressure on our bishops. When we hurt, Americans should help us heal.”
During the 1970’s and 80’s the American church helped force South Africa to end apartheid. “Dalits in India,” wrote Prakash Louis, “have been subjected to a more severe and sinister apartheid...but they have to bear all, blaming only themselves and their fate. In today’s context, caste discrimination is more horrendous than racial discrimination.”
Where is the church? The pope has spoken, but his voice is lost in the overwhelming silence: “Who will look after the Christian Dalits?” Dr. B. R. Ambedkar asked Father D’Souza. “The Christian churches will,” Father D’Souza replied. But to date, the Catholic Church has failed to do so.