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Tsunami relief exemplifies religious inequity, India’s ‘untouchable’ Christians claim

NEW DELHI (BP)–Complaints of social discrimination against lower-caste Dalits, or “untouchables,” who have converted to Christianity have increased all the more as a result of tsunami relief operations since the Dec. 26 tragedy.

A 45-year-old woman, John Mary [sic], is knocking on doors for help. Being an “untouchable” Christian, she and hundreds of other Dalits in southern Indian states say they are being denied government relief assistance which is duly distributed among other communities.

Over the years, several groups of Dalits converted to such non-Hindu religions as Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam or Jainism. In practice, however, the Dalits remained “Dalits” regardless of religion. Even as members of various Christian communities, Dalits suffer the same social, educational and economic disabilities. Conversion into the new faith has not redeemed them from the stigma of “untouchability.” Among the 25 million Christians in India, an estimated 18-20 million are Dalits. Although the Christian community is growing, it remains a small minority —- just 2.4 percent of the national population of 1.05 billion.

India’s constitution describes the nation as a secular state guaranteeing every person a right to practice any religion. For many years, the Christian Dalit communities have been appealing to the government to cease discriminating against them on the basis of their religion and to assure their legitimate rights. But the appeal so far has not evoked a positive response.

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In India, the tsunami left more than 16,000 dead and nearly 5,700 missing. Most who bore the brunt of the disaster in India happened to be the Dalit Christians who live by the coast.

In a public tribunal held by the All-India Catholic Union in mid-July, low-caste Hindu converts to Christianity declared that Dalit Christians are entitled to their full Scheduled Caste rights. As Vishal Manglawadi’s observes in his book, “The Quest for Freedom and Dignity: Caste, Conversion, and Cultural Revolution”: “Caste, karma, and reincarnation have entrenched today’s Hindu hierarchy. Democracy is driving Dalits and other lower caste Hindus to rise up against 3,000 years of Hindu ‘apartheid.’”

John Mary was one of 573 Christian Dalit witnesses from the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka and the Union Territory of Pondicherry who arrived at the tribunal’s public hearing in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, to raise their voice against casteist discrimination.

The tribunal heard 20 persons and took written depositions from others, with hundreds of others witnessing the proceedings. The reports will be submitted to officials in New Delhi. Catholic and charismatic/Protestant church leaders backed the public hearings.

The tribunal declared that Dalit Christians in India should get the full Scheduled Caste rights (called “reservations,” a form of affirmative action in education and job opportunities) enjoyed by their Dalit counterparts in other minority religions.

“It is necessary that the Christian Dalits are given the same benefits, aids and advantages, facilities and opportunities as are given to the Dalits of Hindu, Sikh and neo-Buddhist religions on the basis of the caste to which they belonged before conversion and which they are carrying even today,” the tribunal stated.

The government had in recent years given to Sikhs and Buddhists rights it had retained in 1950 solely for Hindus, denying Muslims and Christians the protection of affirmative action in the Law.

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“The Dalit Christian People’s Tribunal, after recording evidence — both oral and written — has come to the conclusion that it is highly unrealistic socially as well as legally to make distinction between Dalits on the basis of religion,” the tribunal judgment said. “It’s unfortunate the converts have carried on their caste marks with them be it of higher caste or lower caste. As a result, all the religious communities in India today, except the Parsees, have an ingrained caste system prevalent in all spheres of life.”

Prior to the tribunal hearing, churches and Christian institutions across India observed a week of fasting and prayer in support of the Dalit Christian cause.

“Despite being Christians, they are subjected to the same social oppression and discrimination because of their lower caste background,” said local Archbishop Marias Arokiaswamy. “See, we know Christianity does not have casteism. But the society we live in is not Christian. We already had this caste system set in place for thousands of years,” he says.

According to a report by The Indian Express daily newspaper in New Delhi after the Dec. 26 tsunami, Christian Dalits from 63 affected villages were facing the brunt of powerful Hindu fishermen in their localities: being thrown out of relief camps, pushed to the rear of food and water lines, not being allowed to take water from UNICEF facilities and in some cases not even being allowed to use the toilet.

“We are pressing the federal government to introduce a bill in India’s parliament to restore rights to Dalit Christians,” said John Dayal, president of both the interdenominational All India Christian Council and the All India Catholic Union. “Over 18 million Dalit Christians of India were crestfallen by the federal government’s ploy in India’s Supreme Court to delay consideration of their demand for full legal rights. They pushed the matter onto the table of the Ranganath Mishra Commission [a commission studying issues concerning India’s minorities and led by Justice Ranganath Mishra of India’s Supreme Court] which already is grasped of other issues referred to it. The commission has so far not contacted any Dalit Christian organization, nor has it given any public notice inviting comments and information on this issue.”

The Indian Express reported that the federal government, instead of ensuring justice, was reinforcing this divide — both caste and communal. The newspaper reported that a day after the killer tsunami waves struck and thousands began pouring into the relief camps, revenue officials were asked to quietly go about dividing the victims and report to their superiors.

They were asked to see that the numerically powerful and politically significant Meenavars had exclusive relief camps. The equally battered Muslims, Dalits, Nadars, Pillais, Devars and other lower castes — mostly non-fishermen -– also were placed in camps of their own.

“District officials including the [chief administrative official known as the] collector even to receive our petitions about this,” John Mary said. “They even exempted school fees of tsunami-affected Hindu Dalits. But we were denied the same, for being a Christian and a Dalit at once.”

Not just tsunami relief but the sheer acts of injustice against Dalit Christians extends to all walks of life.

“We face a terrible situation in our villages in southern India,” said B.P. John, a Christian activist in Karnataka state. “Rich and upper-[caste] Reddy families confiscate properties of lower-caste converts to Christianity. Not long back, two of our brothers were killed by goons of a local elected representative who sides with them. It’s a war unleashed by the upper caste on us Dalit Christians. If they find out I was here, they’ll murder me,” he said.

This extremely poor Christian community lives in the shadow of fear and total contempt. They hope the tribunal’s findings will evoke a positive response from the federal authorities.
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Joshua Newton is a freelance writer in India.