Caste First, Christ Second, for Some Indian Christians

John Yesunatha Das describes himself as buffalo color. His dark skin makes him recognizable as a Dalit, or untouchable, in India, and it’s caused the Pentecostal pastor trouble over the years.

His seminary, for instance, didn’t consider him for positions upon graduation, even though, as he says, “I was one of the brilliant students” and would be in leadership right now if it weren’t for his caste.

The lights shut off intermittently in Das’ rented home in Fatehpur Beri, a village that has been overtaken by Delhi. Upper-caste pastors in the city could expect a “good church… enough funds, and… their own houses,” he says. His Hindu neighbors, meanwhile, look down upon him and other Christians, 70 percent of whom come from the untouchable caste—a social group traditionally considered so low that its denizens actually fell outside the four central categories of Indian society: priest, warrior, merchant, laborer.

Particularly disconcerting to Das, the people he thought were his friends turned their backs on him when he married a poor girl from the Brahmin caste 25 years ago. He and his wife, Grace, have five children today. The fact that Indian Christians, even those who are sympathetic to the plight of poor Dalits, won’t have an intimate relationship across caste lines is telling, he says. 

Religion-Based Discrimination?

Many Westerners assume that in a modern, economically powerful India, caste is no longer an issue—and the 2.8 million Indians living in the United States often dismiss it as a relic of the past.

And yes, untouchability was outlawed in the Indian constitution in 1950. But the constitution also set up a reservation system that holds spots for “scheduled castes” (the legal term for Dalits) in government posts, schools, and political bodies. It’s like a constitutionalized form of affirmative action, aimed at correcting thousands of years of discrimination. Like affirmative action, it has its critics, but the reservation system has been credited with raising the status of Dalits so that they are now a strong political force.

What Das and other Christian leaders want is for the government of India to admit that caste is an issue in Christian churches. In 1950, a presidential order determined that only Hindus could be members of the scheduled caste and qualify for the reservation system. Buddhist and Sikh Dalits were later added, even though both traditions reject caste. Many Christian and Muslim Indians (2.3 and 13.4 percent of the population respectively) hope the Supreme Court will rule that the presidential order is unconstitutional, thereby giving access to scheduled caste benefits to all Dalits, regardless of religion.

“To my mind [it’s] a very, very clear issue of discrimination on the basis of religion,” says Prashant Bhushan, the high-profile public interest litigation lawyer who took on the Supreme Court case pro bono on behalf of Christian Dalits. He had no idea that caste existed within Christianity before preparing for the case.

“It may affect the way people look at religion,” he says.

“Caste is First, Christ is Second”

Franklin Caesar Thomas of the National Council of Dalit Christians doesn’t need the reservation system. A fourth-generation Catholic and son of a teacher, he was educated as an engineer and lawyer.

But when he was working in recruiting at Indian Railways, he noticed a pattern. “With my own eyes, I saw how Dalit Christian applications were rejected, whereas our Hindu Dalit brothers, their sons and daughters, they came through the reservation,” he says.

Thomas gathered the evidence necessary for the Supreme Court case and convinced Bhushan to argue it. His strategy intentionally skipped over the church. “The church will not … fulfill our needs. They don’t have the mindset,” he says. “We are not in the power structure, so it’s wise to get the privilege from the government.”

But both the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and the National Council of Churches in India, a Protestant organizing body, have backed Thomas. In doing so, church leaders have had to admit that Christianity in India is tainted by caste—a strange argument for American Christians, especially evangelicals, who pour millions of dollars into missionary work in India.

Is religion, and Christianity in particular, as Das and Bhushan view it, linked to social structures? Or is it simply a matter of personal belief. “The operating definition of religion that Americans often have, which is in terms of individual belief, is a pretty inadequate definition,” says Leora Batnitzky, a Princeton University religion professor studying the case. “That’s a largely Protestant view of what religion is.”

“For Indian Christians, caste is first, Christ is second,” says Father G. Cosmon Arokiaraj, a rare Dalit priest and executive secretary for the CBCI Office of Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes. Attitudes in the church won’t change until the government helps raise Dalit Christians’ social standing through reservation, he says. “Mere preaching won’t do.”

But other Dalit Christians disagree with Arokiaraj. “He is the Church,” Ram Bharati says of the priest. “Church has a lot of power, resources. Why is he demanding from the government?”

Bharati, an Anglican Dalit, and R.L. Francis, a Catholic Dalit, lead the Poor Christian Liberation Movement (PCLM), which wants Indian churches to serve Dalits rather than pass the buck to the government.

The PCLM shares with Hindu nationalists concerns about conversion of the poor to Christianity. The message that all are equal as children of God appeals to Dalits who convert, but many doubt the sincerity of upper-caste Christians and their American partners. “It’s a total money-making program of the church from U.S., European countries,” Francis says. The more people they convert, the more money they raise—and little of that reaches those who need it, critics say. Opening scheduled caste benefits to Christian Dalits would further incentivize conversion.

Caste as a Way of Life

But fundamentally, the difference between those supporting the Supreme Court case—which would allow Christian Dalits the same civic benefits as Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist Dalits—and a group like PCLM is in how they see the relationship between religion and caste. Francis, president of PCLM, uses “poor Christian” instead of “Dalit Christian” in his organization’s name because he truly believes caste is not a part of Christianity.

“We converted to Christianity in the hopes that we would get self-respect, dignity, and equality,” Francis says. “Why are they calling us Dalit, Dalit, Dalit? We are Christian only.”

Becoming part of the scheduled caste may earn the community benefits, but it also would codify the communal designation of Christian Dalit. “They want to fix the stigma of Dalit on our forehead,” Francis says.

Like Francis, most Hindus judge Christianity on its ideals, not its practices. “Since there was no socially sanctioned discrimination in Christianity or Islam, therefore, it was felt that there was no need to make this special provision for those who opted out of the system to begin with,” says Chandan Mitra, a minister of parliament for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “I think that remains the case today.”

Arguing in favor of the religious distinction also requires acknowledging that “caste is a reality of Hindu life,” Mitra says, though he adds that reform movements have made efforts to decrease discrimination based on caste. “There’s no way we can run away from it.”

In an effort to appeal to Christian and Muslim voters, the BJP’s minority wing has found a way around the idea that caste is Hindu only. The group passed a resolution in November 2011 supporting the Supreme Court case, giving Thomas and Arokiaraj hope that it will be resolved soon. These Hindus also look at religion as practice, rather than belief, distancing Hinduism from religion in the Western sense of the word. “Hindutva is a way of life, which does not exclude religious minorities like Muslims and Christians,” the resolution reads. Caste is a part of that way of life.

Pastor Das sways between blaming Indian Christianity for carrying “the old baggage of Hindu caste-ism” and lauding the “social liberation” of the Christian message. One of his heroes is Martin Luther King Jr. He would like The King Center to open a Research and Development Center in Delhi to explore the problem of Christian Dalits.

It’s a valid connection, Batnitzky says. King railed not only against discrimination in society but also in the church. “For most of the world’s religious people, religion is…fundamentally social and political in nature,” Batnitzky says. “We tend to separate the belief and the individual from the social structure… Nobody says, at least in public, that racism is part of the c=Church.”

It may seem foreign, but the case of the Christian Dalits challenges Americans to reevaluate the relationship between individual belief and society. As Batnitsky says, it gets to a fundamental question about who we are as Americans: “Are we only individualists?” she asks. “Or are we also part of some kind of larger community?”