By ICC’s India Correspondent
3/11/2016 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – For the past 66 years, India’s government has openly discriminated against Christians and Muslims from low caste backgrounds, more commonly known as untouchables. Unfortunately, this discrimination continues today because of the government’s refusal to recognize that low caste individuals from all religious communities, whether they be Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Sikh, are treated the same.
On February 16, India’s Federal Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Thawar Chand Gehlot, reportedly declared that the Indian government would not extend scheduled caste benefits to low caste individuals from Christian or Muslim communities because it would “encourage conversions” to those two religions and would “weaken the Hindu religion.” Gehlot went on to explain that scheduled caste benefits were meant to provide low caste individuals in India with government benefits that would help them escape the practice of untouchability associated with the caste system. Since Christianity and Islam do not believe in a caste system, the practice of untouchability did not exist for Christians or Muslims formally from low castes. Thus, they should not receive scheduled caste benefits.
While this reasoning would seem to make some sense, it fails to recognize the reality faced by millions of low caste individuals from India’s Christian and Muslim communities. Regardless of religious identity, low caste individuals are treated as low caste individuals in India. By failing to recognize this reality, India’s government has created a discriminatory system where low caste individuals from only specific religious communities are able to receive the help needed to break free from caste oppression.
“This is an absolute injustice by the government,” Pastor Solomon, leader of a church in Todibiloli, told International Christian Concern (ICC). “We go through [the] humiliation [of] the Hindu caste system as former untouchables as we [are] part of a Hindu dominant society. Caste oppression [exists], despite our religious affiliation.”
Todibiloli, a small village in the Nizamabad District of Telangana State, has a sizable population of third generation Christians from a low caste, locally called “Mala.” According to the testimonies collected by ICC, those whose forefathers converted to Christianity generations ago continue to suffer discrimination under the caste system despite their religious status as Christians.
In a series of interviews with ICC, the Mala Christians of Todibiloli reported that they could only collect water from the village well at a designated time so that local high caste individuals would avoid being “polluted” by the Mala Christians. Samuel, an elder at the local Church of South India, said, “The upper caste people clean the tap and surrounding area after we fetch the water to avoid being polluted. This is so de-humanizing.”
Pastor Nitin Kumar, pastor of a local church, told ICC, “I am well known in the area as [a] pastor, so people know I am a Christian. One day, I was traveling on public transportation. When I arrived at my destination, there was another lady who also had to get down from the bus. Since the driver did not have the exact change to give it to us, he asked if we could share the change. I had enough coins to give her change, but to my utter shock, the lady went and washed the coins at the nearby bore well, knowing that I was an untouchable. This is despite the fact that she clearly knew that I am Christian.”
“We don’t dare to attend any social events or functions in my village,” Anand Rao, a Dalit Christian, told ICC. “It is better to stay at home than to be treated lower than the rest and be humiliated.”
“Once, I attended an upper caste wedding,” Rao continued. “When the time came for the feast, I was asked to sit outside because I was unclean. Since then, I have decided not to attend any functions of upper caste families.”
Vinod Kumar, a 25-year-old Mala Christian, was similarly humiliated by an upper caste family in Todibiloli village. When he went to an upper caste house to extend a wedding invitation, the woman at the house first inquired about his caste status. When he said that he was from the Mala Christian caste, she told him to place the invitation on the door step, not wanting to pollute herself by touching the invitation Kumar was trying to give to her.
“It was so disgraceful,” Kumar said. “Suddenly, I felt that I was subhuman by the treatment from this upper caste woman.”
Gaddapati Vijaya Raju, President of the All India Christian Federation, told ICC, “It is disheartening to see 66 years of [calls] for rights [by] Dalit Christians go unheard. This is in spite of recommendations by various commissions and political parties. We are simply asking the government to be fair and that the government delink religion from the scheduled caste benefits.”
Of the 24 million Christians in India, over 80% come from low caste communities and would be able to receive scheduled caste benefits if religion was unlinked from this process. Regardless, the reality faced by the vast majority of India’s Christian community is not being taken into account by India’s government who, if Minister Gehlot’s statements are to be believed, seems more interested in keeping Hinduism as the country’s dominant religion than providing equal rights to all its citizens.