Caste-based discrimination is crime


‘Casteism is sin and caste based discrimination is crime’, affirmed Church leaders. The proclamation of this Jubilee was announced at a meeting of the Church leaders, theologians and Dalit activists, convened by the National Council of Churches in India in collaboration with the World Council of Churches. Since discrimination is contrary to the spirit of the gospel, Churches will have to be Zero Tolerance Zones with regard to the practice of caste discrimination, said the conference.

It was indeed a historic moment in the life and witness of the Churches India, since it was for the very first time church leaders, theological educators and social activists came together to wrestle with the issues relating to casteism prevalent both in Indian society and thus in the Church. They affirmed mutual partnership, and accompaniment with each other in carrying forward the mandate of Dalit liberation

“We commit to Lent 2011 to be a time of purging caste from our churches and towards developing resources, both theological and liturgical, for use of Sunday Schools, Youth Groups, Women’ s and Men’ s fellowships and church services” said the participants of this National Conference. The participants at the conference unanimously agreed on an affirmation of faith, an affirmation that condemns casteism and caste-based discrimination. This will direct the Churches toward developing a Churches Policy on Social Inclusion.

Bishop Dr. V. Devasahayam, President of Tamil Nadu Christian Council & Bishop of CSI-Madras Diocese in his opening devotion said, “The Indian Church is in a sorry state. Church will fail if it does not weed out caste within and outside. Both cannot go together as Christianity is life giving while casteism is a sin and scandal,” he further said, adding “Christ must save us from the abominable sin of caste. If He cant, then the Gospel is powerless.”

H.G. Geevergheese Mar Coorilos, Moderator of WCC-CWME exhorted the Churches on the need for Dalitisation of Indian Church, where a spirituality of dissent is expressed and experienced in our times today. He further said, “Churches have to be inclusive, and any discrimination in any form will not make it the body of Christ.”

Bishop Dr. Neethinathan, Member Bishop of the CBCI- Commission on SC/BC and Bishop of Chengalpet Catholic Diocese, called on the Churches in India to be sensitive and co-operative in owning up the issues of Dalits and to work relentlessly until we become caste-free.

Mr. Paul Divakar, General Secretary of NCDHR, welcomed the initiative to bring together the movements and Churches and challenged the Churches to translate the Holy Bible in the language of Human Rights, which can be reachable and relevant to the struggles of the Dalits today.

Ms. Rama Devi, from the Catholic Relief Service spoke on the violence against Dalits and Dalit woman, and called on the Churches to recognize the resilience of the victims in the face of suffering, while referring to the courage and witness of the survivors in the recent Kandhamal violence.

Mr. Bezawada Wilson, National Convener, Safai Karamchari Andolan, called on the leaders of the Churches to participate in the campaign to eliminate manual scavenging by 2010. He further urged, when every human being is the temple of God, let the Churches go to the temples of God that are forced into the undignified occupations like manual scavenging and liberate them from that bondage, and make the temples of God, the Churches relevant for our times.

Rev. Dr. James Massey, former Member of the National Minorities Commission, Government of India spoke on the missiological and prophetic challenges of the Churches in addressing the Dalit cause, and have called the churches to be the channels of giving ‘whole salvation’, which can bring in a transformation of the society.

The Conference was inaugurated by Bishop Dr. Taranath S. Sagar, President of NCCI, and in his opening address called on the Churches to act, for this is the moment of truth that has come. He further said, unless the Churches do the mission of God, i.e. Dalit liberation, in all sincerity and faithfulness to each of our calling, the generations next would make us accountable for not being able to live up to the task.

Office bearers of the NCCI, several heads of Churches including Bishops, Presidents, General Secretaries, theological educators, and activists from different Dalit social movements attended the conference. Rev. Dr. Deenabandhu Manchala, Programme Executive, WCC, Rev. Dr. Chandran Paul Martin, Deputy General Secretary of LWF, Ms. Constanze Ennen, Project Officer, EMW, Germany, Mr. Charlie O’ Campo, Executive Secretary, CCA-JID, Rev. Dr. Yim Tesoo, Minjung Theologian, Korea, Rev. David Haslem, Co-ordinator, Churches Support Group for Dalit Solidarity, UK, Dr. Walter Hahn, Co-ordinator, Dalit Solidarity Network, Germany, Dr. Aruna Gnanadasan, renowned lay theologian, Rev. Dr. Sathianathan Clarke, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC, and several other distinguished leaders, theologians and activists participated and accompanied the process. Bishop Dr. B.S. Devamani, Chairperson of NCCI-Commission on Dalits and Rev. Asir Ebenezer, Officiating General Secretary of NCCI, and Rev. Raj Bharath Patta, Executive Secretary, NCCI Commission on Dalits gave leadership to this conference. A concrete plan of action was proposed to accompany the affirmation of faith. It was agreed that NCCI and CBCI would produce different resources for Christian nurture and ministerial formation from Dalit perspectives in order that the Church can be accompanied in this commitment.

During the conference a booklet titled “Recipes in Resilience” containing 50 recipes of beef delicacies was released by the President of NCCI to register protest against the anti-cow slaughter movement in Karnataka, and to affirm the solidarity of the Churches to the Dalit and Muslim communities who will be affected. The Chairperson of the NCCI Commission on Dalits released the posters and liturgical resources for Dalit Liberation Sunday, a joint observance of NCCI and CBCI, to be observed on 5th December 2010.

Rev. Raj Bharath Patta,

Executive Secretary,

NCCI-Commission on Dalits



Untouchability in Chennai? Yes, shows survey


CHENNAI: If you ever thought that untouchability is a rural phenomenon, please wait. Caste definitely has its shadow over metropolitan Chennai, where discrimination is prevalent in different forms – both subtle and otherwise, if one were to go by an ongoing survey.

Though many members of the Schedule Castes have migrated to the state capital and some of them have even progressed economically, Dalits still face unique forms of discrimination and atrocities at various levels, according to the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradi cation Front, which is conducting the first of its kind survey to map ‘urban untouchability’.

For instance, a senior government officer was asked to vacate a flat in upscale Anna Nagar after his landlord came to know that the tenant was a Dalit. And that ended their cordiality.

In many uppercaste households, Dalit housemaids are bar red from entering certain parts of the house like kitchen or prayerroom. “Dalits are made to just do the dishes, wash clothes and clean bathrooms,” points out P Sampath, president of the Front.

He says the survey initially carried 36 queries, most of them referring to specific forms of discrimination. But now the questions have gone up to 50, as newer forms of discrimination are repo rted by the people surveyed.

The need for the survey, conducted in 30 specific pockets with dense Dalit population, was felt when the members of the Front visited a few slums to mobilise support for agitations. Basic amenities elude slums because they are mos tly populated by SC members, he adds.

The Front will release the final results with figures and a list of forms of discrimination in a few days. It had earlier done a similar survey in rural Tamil Nadu and identified 85 forms of discrimination and 23 forms of atrocities practised against Dalits.

India’s “Untouchables” Face Violence, Discrimination

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 2, 2003

More than 160 million people in India are considered “Untouchable”—people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure, less than human.

Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: “Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers”; “Dalit tortured by cops for three days”; “Dalit ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar”; “Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool”; “7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash”; “5 Dalits lynched in Haryana”; “Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked”; “Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits”.

“Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same wells, attend the same temples, wear shoes in the presence of an upper caste, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls,” said Smita Narula, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, and author of Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables.” Human Rights Watch is a worldwide activist organization based in New York.

India’s Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense.

Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the illiterate Indians are Dalits, according to figures presented at the International Dalit Conference that took place May 16 to 18 in Vancouver, Canada.

Crime Against Dalits

Statistics compiled by India’s National Crime Records Bureau indicate that in the year 2000, the last year for which figures are available, 25,455 crimes were committed against Dalits. Every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched.

No one believes these numbers are anywhere close to the reality of crimes committed against Dalits. Because the police, village councils, and government officials often support the caste system, which is based on the religious teachings of Hinduism, many crimes go unreported due to fear of reprisal, intimidation by police, inability to pay bribes demanded by police, or simply the knowledge that the police will do nothing.

“There have been large-scale abuses by the police, acting in collusion with upper castes, including raids, beatings in custody, failure to charge offenders or investigate reported crimes,” said Narula.

That same year, 68,160 complaints were filed against the police for activities ranging from murder, torture, and collusion in acts of atrocity, to refusal to file a complaint. Sixty two percent of the cases were dismissed as unsubstantiated; 26 police officers were convicted in court.

Despite the fact that untouchability was officially banned when India adopted its constitution in 1950, discrimination against Dalits remained so pervasive that in 1989 the government passed legislation known as The Prevention of Atrocities Act. The act specifically made it illegal to parade people naked through the streets, force them to eat feces, take away their land, foul their water, interfere with their right to vote, and burn down their homes.

Since then, the violence has escalated, largely as a result of the emergence of a grassroots human rights movement among Dalits to demand their rights and resist the dictates of untouchability, said Narula.

Lack of Enforcement, Not Laws

Enforcement of laws designed to protect Dalits is lax if not non-existent in many regions of India. The practice of untouchability is strongest in rural areas, where 80 percent of the country’s population resides. There, the underlying religious principles of Hinduism dominate.

Hindus believe a person is born into one of four castes based on karma and “purity”—how he or she lived their past lives. Those born as Brahmans are priests and teachers; Kshatriyas are rulers and soldiers; Vaisyas are merchants and traders; and Sudras are laborers. Within the four castes, there are thousands of sub-castes, defined by profession, region, dialect, and other factors.

Untouchables are literally outcastes; a fifth group that is so unworthy it doesn’t fall within the caste system.

Although based on religious principles practiced for some 1,500 years, the system persists today for economic as much as religious reasons.

Because they are considered impure from birth, Untouchables perform jobs that are traditionally considered “unclean” or exceedingly menial, and for very little pay. One million Dalits work as manual scavengers, cleaning latrines and sewers by hand and clearing away dead animals. Millions more are agricultural workers trapped in an inescapable cycle of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.

Although illegal, 40 million people in India, most of them Dalits, are bonded workers, many working to pay off debts that were incurred generations ago, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published in 1999. These people, 15 million of whom are children, work under slave-like conditions hauling rocks, or working in fields or factories for less than U.S. $1 day.

Crimes Against Women

Dalit women are particularly hard hit. They are frequently raped or beaten as a means of reprisal against male relatives who are thought to have committed some act worthy of upper-caste vengeance. They are also subject to arrest if they have male relatives hiding from the authorities.

A case reported in 1999 illustrates the toxic mix of gender and caste.

A 42-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped and then burnt alive after she, her husband, and two sons had been held in captivity and tortured for eight days. Her crime? Another son had eloped with the daughter of the higher-caste family doing the torturing. The local police knew the Dalit family was being held, but did nothing because of the higher-caste family’s local influence.

There is very little recourse available to victims.

A report released by Amnesty International in 2001 found an “extremely high” number of sexual assaults on Dalit women, frequently perpetrated by landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study estimates that only about 5 percent of attacks are registered, and that police officers dismissed at least 30 percent of rape complaints as false.

The study also found that the police routinely demand bribes, intimidate witnesses, cover up evidence, and beat up the women’s husbands. Little or nothing is done to prevent attacks on rape victims by gangs of upper-caste villagers seeking to prevent a case from being pursued. Sometimes the policemen even join in, the study suggests. Rape victims have also been murdered. Such crimes often go unpunished.

Thousands of pre-teen Dalit girls are forced into prostitution under cover of a religious practice known as devadasis, which means “female servant of god.” The girls are dedicated or “married” to a deity or a temple. Once dedicated, they are unable to marry, forced to have sex with upper-caste community members, and eventually sold to an urban brothel.

Resistance and Progress

Within India, grassroots efforts to change are emerging, despite retaliation and intimidation by local officials and upper-caste villagers. In some states, caste conflict has escalated to caste warfare, and militia-like vigilante groups have conducted raids on villages, burning homes, raping, and massacring the people. These raids are sometimes conducted with the tacit approval of the police.

In the province Bihar, local Dalits are retaliating, committing atrocities also. Non-aligned Dalits are frequently caught in the middle, victims of both groups.

“There is a growing grassroots movement of activists, trade unions, and other NGOs that are organizing to democratically and peacefully demand their rights, higher wages, and more equitable land distribution,” said Narula. “There has been progress in terms of building a human rights movement within India, and in drawing international attention to the issue.”

In August 2002, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) approved a resolution condemning caste or descent-based discrimination.

“But at the national level, very little is being done to implement or enforce the laws,” said Narula.