[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] Churches in India held a “black day” of protest last week against the continuing discrimination faced by Christians and Muslims in the country’s caste system. Indian society has, for centuries, operated the caste system of social stratification; with the population assigned to four specific groups. At the top are the Brahmins, or poet-priests; these are followed by the Kshatriya, or warrior-chiefs; the Vaishya, or traders; and then the Shudras, or servants. The Dalits, or untouchables, are seen to be below the Shudras and are often excluded from education and employment.
In an effort to end caste discrimination, the Indian government introduced a raft of measures to protect Dalits. These included an obligation on educational facilities and certain employers to appoint a specified percentage of Dalits in the number of students or employees. But in the 1950s, the government introduced a controversial Scheduled Caste Order, under which the term Dalits was defined as excluding everybody except Hindus.
This was extended to include Sikhs in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990; but Christians and Muslims continue to be excluded. The government says that as the Caste system is based on Hindu beliefs, Christian and Muslims, by definition, can’t be Dalits. And yet they are still ostracised and excluded from society because they are seen as such.
The Indian government did not respond to a request for comment by ACNS. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore, George Anthony Swamy, told journalists last week that the Indian authorities think that the Dalit Christians “do not have the political power to make this demand materialised”; but he warned that “they should understand that they cannot go on trying the patience of the Dalit Christians.”
The Archbishop was speaking at the San Thome Basilica – the Roman Catholic cathedral built above the tomb of the Apostle Thomas – in Chennai where a large crowd had gathered as part of the “Black Day” of protest that was observed across the country on Wednesday (10 August). The protest had been organised by the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) – which includes both the Church of South India (CSI) and the Church of North India (CNI) – in partnership with the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Dalit Christians.
Alongside the Archbishop was the CSI Bishop of Madras, J George Stephen, and the provincial treasurer, Robert Bruce. They demanded the inclusion of Dalit Christians and Muslims in the Scheduled Caste list to “give justice to these people who have been denied the equal rights for almost seven decades.”
The director of the CSI’s Dalit & Adivasi Concerns Department, the Revd Sunil Raj Philip, said that the exclusion of Christians and Muslims from the Scheduled Caste Order meant that those communities could not benefit from the government’s “affirmative action programmes” or the “important provisions the Constitution provides for the underprivileged communities” in India.
“Because of this discrimination, the Government indirectly forces marginalised people to be in Hindu religion,” he said. “They hesitate to choose any other religion which they may want to follow. It is in violation of freedom of religion which is guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.
“This protest and struggle are the longest in India and the Dalit Christians and those who are in solidarity with them are really optimistic that the day of justice for them is not far and till that day they are committed to continue the struggle.”