Dalits in India
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Backward Castes

Dalit Christians In India

As is the case with other religious communities in India, a majority of the Christian community in India consists of Dalit and other low caste converts.

Approximately 75-80% of Indian Christians are Dalit Christian, members of the Dalit or backward classes.

Most of the Dalit Christians are descendants of Dalits who converted to Christianity en masse from around 1750 onwards to escape caste. Their forefathers saw In Christianity the social equality, spiritual equality and human dignity that was historically denied to them under the caste system.

More importantly, they saw these values in practise among Christians during colonial rule as they started getting non-caste employment, education and religious liberty to communicate with the God of the Bible.

At the same time, though, you also had upper castes converts during the period who became Christians purely on the basis of religious convictions.

The conversion of the dalits and other low castes, however, did not put an end to caste discrimination altogether as sections aong them, particularly, the upper caste converts, brouight into their new religious communities the caste practices from their old faith.

This perpetuation of caste took place largely because many of those who converted to Christianity carried into their new faithporactices and social structures from their old one.

Social practices among certain segments of the Christians now are similar to the discrimination faced by Dalits and other low castes in other religious communities, though with lesser intensity.

Yet, you also have dissimilarities. Intra community trends show that Christians have mobility within their respective castes.

Caste discrimination is strongest among Christians in South India and is very rare among urban Protestant congregations in North India.

It is argued that this occurs because in South India, whole castes converted en masse to the faith, leaving members of different castes to compete in ways similar to Hindus of the Indian caste system.

In several Roman Catholic communities in the South, for instance, there are separate seats, communion cups, burial grounds and churches for members of the lower castes.

Also, a majority of those who control the Catholic church in India, including the Bishops and the clergy are upper caste Priests and nuns.

According to estimates, though more than 70% of Catholics are Dalits, the higher caste Catholics control almost 90% of the Catholic churches consequential jobs.

Added to this, of the 156 catholic bishops, only 6 are from lower castes at the time of writing this sumarry.

The context in which caste discrimination is most visible is in marriage alliances. Usually the trend is that the upper castes will not marry the lower ones, with this practice being particularly strong in Kerala and Goa.

Syrian Christians, for example, consider themselves superior because they claim that they are converted Nambudiris (preiestly caste of the caste system), who were evangelized by St. Thomas.

Scholars hold the view that the caste hierarchy among Christians in Kerala is much more polarized than the Hindu practices in the surrounding areas, due to a lack of jatis (sub-castes).

In Goa, mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese missionaries from the 16th century onwards, but the Hindu converts retained their caste practices.

The practice of caste among the Christians in Goa is attributed to the mass conversions of entire villages, due to which the existing social stratification was perpetuated.

As a result, the original Hindu Brahmins in Goa became Christian 'Bamonns' and the Kshatriya converts became royalty known as Chardos

Catholic clergy became almost exclusively Bamonn. Vaishyas who converted to Christianity became Gauddos, and Sudras became Sudirs.

The Dalits who converted to Christianity, on the other hand, became Maharas and Chamars.

As in Kerala and Goa, similar problems, though at a far lower level, occur among Christians in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh as well.

As a result, Dalit Christians all over the country have been agitating for provision of the same benefits as those given to their Hindu brethren in order to improve their socio-economic conditions.

Hyprocitally the government has held to the position that since the Christian faith does not have caste and the Dalits are Christians, they are not eligible for the same affirmative action benfits that is presently accorded to Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist Dalits.

Note: This is just a very scanty outline of caste among Christians. You can get a detailed idea about casteism among the Indian Christians, including extensive accounts of discrimination in the eBook 'Truth About Dalits".

By Kancha Illaiah
By John Dayal
By Udit Raj
By Others


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