On the 22nd May 1936, eighty representatives of the depressed class also referred as untouchables met in Lucknow. An important decision they arrived at wholeheartedly was that they would sever their connection with Hinduism and join another religion which gave them worth and dignity. Though there was no decision as to which religion they would embrace, among the many choices Christianity was not very much favoured. The reason is reflected in the question raised by Dr B.R. Ambedkar to Dr. Stanley Jones “If you Christians had succeeded in wholly wiping out caste distinction we should turn towards you, but you have not done it particularly in South India”
This episode reveals a lot of issues yet to be answered both by our country India and the Indian Church with regards to Caste and its derogative distinctions. The political acceptance of their equality with the rest of the Indian population by the Indian Constitution has not even to this day removed the stigma inflicted on them by the rituals practices and traditions of Hinduism. So when they seek a way out; sadly the Indian church does not appeal to them though ‘The Bible’ also shares unambiguously that there is “no longer a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a male or a female, because all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
The scope of this paper sums from a premise that in the prevailing social stratification of Indian, where people are divided on caste lines and has its own forms of suppression, the Indian Church which declares itself as ‘One community’ without any distinctions is still caste ridden. Thus we would be looking into the Caste situation in India and its discrimination in the church and some reason why the depressed caste continues to be oppressed and does not get liberated of this evil. Some better ways of response is also reflected.
1. Definition with Implication:
Caste from the Indian traditional context is defined as “stratified systems in which each segment has its identity with a common name, origin and strictly specified inter group relations. Each group is endogamous, traditionally following an occupation and enjoying a particular position in the social hierarchy, built around the opposition of purity and pollution. The groups are usually localised, but keep social distance between them”
This implies that “caste provided each individual from birth with a fixed milieu (setting) from which neither wealth nor poverty, success nor disaster could remove him. It controlled his behaviours and contacts and even his choice of marriage”.
Caste from the Religio-Philosophical principles: Rig Veda says that “God created the four varna’s thus; The Brahmins (teachers/priests) from his head, the Kshatriya (warriors) from his arms, the Vaishya (commoners) from his thighs and the Sudras (servants) from his feet” (Rig Veda X, 90, 11-12). A last group, the out-castes or untouchables were outside this system.
“The first three classes were twice born and are given the sacred thread when initiated into society. Traditionally they were viewed as superior human beings compared to the Sudras”.The legislation therefore prescribed the rulers to establish the four varna’s in newly conquered territories and subdue the conquered to the ranks of chandalas or out-castes (Manu Bhashya II,23).The Bhagavad-Gita also sanctified the caste system by differentiating people according to their guna and karma. So the present life is seen as an accomplishment / punishment of the deeds done in past life-one’s Karma. There is no undoing of the past and little one can do of the present miseries as it reflects the past. Therefore based on a better dharma in the present without revolt, a better deal is promised for the next life! Caste is cemented by the Karma-Dharma theory.
The Church is defined in the Bible metaphorically as the Body of Christ. (Eph 4:12 & Col 1:24). Here Christ is the Head (Mind, Thought, Will) and each members part of that One Body or Church as members of one another (1Cor 1:12-31). A body liberated from the bondages of evil and reconciled as a new community under Christ’s headship. In this context Paul says we are all baptised by one Spirit into one body-whether Jew or Greek, slave or free-we are all given the one Spirit to drink (participate). (vs.13). Paul also states of the Church where “Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ through the Gospel” (Eph 3:6).
This makes the Church an inclusive community based on the Love, Mercy and Grace of God meant not for just the Jews but for all humankind. “The very definition of Church is at stake if it is not a place where expression of reconciliation between man and God, and man and man is not visible”.
2. Caste Discrimination & Agitation (A Historical Perspective)
The Vedas speak about the battles between Aryan and a group of people named das or Dasys and other ethnic groups. Such ethnic groups are described as, “black beings inhabiting in mountains probably representing aboriginal inhabitants of India” . These people were the excluded people from the Vedic religion and its Brahmin led community. They were subdued and they “lost in the struggle for economic and cultural development in the Brahmin led civilization” Since this discrimination was legitimised by religion, those who were taken captive have either succumbed to their fate or revolted for liberation.
Larger population in India consist of the Outcastes. The two groups considered as outcasts were traditionally known as untouchables and tribals. Though the Indian constitution abolished untouchability and Ghandiji in order to affirm such people an equal status called them Harijans (children of god) in reality nothing much has changed. “Untouchables objected to this term because it smacked of patronage and condescension (arrogance). They now prefer to call themselves dalit which means broken, trodden down, crushed. This term highlights the fact that they see themselves as subjects of unjust oppressive social system that is in urgent need to reform”
When religion was used to legitimise power in ancient society by means of doctrines and rituals, there was counter religious movements. To refer a few; Sramanas rejected the authority of Brahmins and Vedas. According to these people one could become a Brahmin by virtue and not by heredity. In South India the ascetic group Siddhar’s rejected the Brahmanical scriptures and taught a religion of universal brotherhood. 
Over the past few decades we have seen the consolidation of various Dalit groups and their movements. Both as Social and political movements they are challenging the established socio-political order. This stems from the realisation among the Dalits that “they are members of an ancient primeval society disinherited and uprooted by the alien Brahmanical civilisation from their ancestral place in the society. This consciousness inspires in them resentment against the existing social system which they express through various forms of agitation and struggles and which is bound to acquire the momentum of a national movement in the years to come”.
In spite of B.R. Ambedkar’s observation about Christianity, there has infact been an exodus of ‘dalits’ into the Church. Apart from the opportunity to be educated (and be liberated) under the western missionaries another foremost reason for their coming to the fold of Christianity was that there would be no discrimination and they would be treated as equals. Such mass conversions also need to be seen as signs of revolt against their tormenters. Yet in the post–independent era, “many commissions appointed by the Government of India have studied the actual situation of Dalit Christians in society and have concluded that the Dalit Christians suffer the same economic and social disabilities as the other Dalits. The commissions have highlighted the fact that the Dalit Christians are ‘twice discriminated’, both by the State and by the Church”.
3. Caste in Church:
The Gospel proudly announces that Christ who is our peace has made the two One and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. Thus in His body (the church) Christ has reconciled both of them to God through the cross thus creating a new humanity with Christ himself as the corner stone! (Eph 2:14ff). Yet this good news is yet to see light in the Indian context as our Churches are very much divided along caste/community lines.
3.1 KERALA:It is traditionally believed that the church in Kerala was founded by St.Thomas. Among the first converts were probably a few Brahmins as well. “This was the beginning of a new community which grew up to be the Malabar Church of Syrian Christians also known as Indian orthodox Church…The Christians were on the whole prosperous and well organised, enjoying a number of privileges granted to them by the local rulers, who treated them on the same level as caste Hindus”. It was only with the coming of the CMS Anglican missionaries in the early nineteenth century that the situation of the outcaste was brought to the fore. “The caste system prevailing in Travancore was more rigid than elsewhere in India, as indicated by the fact that other castes considered Pulayas both untouchable and non-approachable. Pulayas had to stand at a distance of ninety feet from Brahmins and sixty-four feet from Nair’s”. This led to “Missionary sympathy towards the plight of the slave castes in Travancore and culminated in the submission of a memorandum by Anglican missionaries dated 20 March 1847”. However, the landlords including the Syrian Christians perceived missionary moves as a potential threat to the Pulayas’ subservient role in the social system and opposed the effort. Following the successful anti-slavery campaign, there was a mass conversion of the Pulayas to the Anglican Church. Even to this day the Syrian Christians voice their resentment as they believe that the hallmark of a good Christian is his inborn heritage which the Pulayas cannot claim. Apart from the Indian Orthodox churches there are issues of Caste discrimination found in Kerala CSI churches (Anglican). This led to a split by those belonging to the backward community in 1966. ‘Reasons cited were that they were not taken seriously but despised and humiliated, they were unrepresented in diocesan councils, poor pastoral care and at a social level nothing was done to them’
3.2 GOA: In the South Goan village of Cuncolim it is the high caste, land owning Gaonkars who lead the religious festivals and processions of their Church. While they wear ‘red and white’ capes, the non Gaonkars also members of the same church are distinguished by blue capes denoting their lowers caste status. They have no right to administer feast day celebrations and have to walk behind the high caste. A recent report of this same community appeared in leading national daily. It stated that ‘Upper caste Catholics demand special rights, threaten or to reconvert’ this situation erupted as the Catholic Church came down hard on the caste system among its members and appointed two members from the backward castes into the Pastoral Council. Though they are less than 3,000 in a community of 20,000 Catholics, the Gaonkars comprising twelve clans are opposed to sharing power.” They said “We are under a lot of pressure from the Kshatriya community to maintain the old practices,"
3.3 TAMILNADU: In Tamilnadu the early nineteenth century saw intense disputes between the Vellars and Shanars (Nadars). The Velars wanted a barrier built in church to segregate themselves from Shanars. With similar reasons later Christians have even gone to Madras High Court which “had to adjudicate on the rights of a Christian congregation which sued its priest for breaking down the wall which divided the aisle of the respectable from the aisle on which sat Christians of the untouchable caste”. Such practices do continue even to this day in less explicit ways. A conference of the Christians of Scheduled caste origin in Tamil Nadu discussed the various forms of discrimination they faced. The issues highlighted are: “Subtle forms of untouchability are being practiced in the church, High caste Christians use their power and influence to get elected to various church bodies and use their positions to suppress the Christians of scheduled caste origin, Even those who of their origin get elected are threatened and even mercilessly beaten up by the high caste Christians and the Low caste Presbyters are very few in number and are not accepted or shabbily treated by those of higher caste.”
3.4 ANDHRA PRADESH: Commenting on situations in Andhra Pradesh, Prabhakar says that “in some Church situations the Malas consider themselves superior to Madigas and practice precedence in receiving Holy Communion and in other cases either caste group may refuse the cup from the Pastor of the other caste”. On August 15th 1982 nearly eight hundred Christians of the Scheduled caste origin reconverted to Hinduism. Though some would have done so for economic benefits “most converts with one voice declared that the primary reason for their exit from the churches was continuous oppression suffered by them at the hands of the church leadership and the more well to do Christians”.
3.5 TRIBAL (With Reference; North East): Among the Tribal Christians there is a strong sense of belongingness and caste like distinction is virtually absent. One of the main reasons being they are monoethnic. This sense of community belongingness is strengthened further “if they remain strictly endogamous, use their tribal names, language and maintain their external appearance”. There is a sense of pride in upholding this identity. Also these churches though monoethnic in nature truly represent a cross section of its own community. Also when such monoethnic groups emigrate to other areas they tend to reform their congregation there. The failures of these churches are that they are too closed in reaching out to people of other ethnic community even if they are their neighbour’s. Jeremiah Duomai my friend reflects in his sharing “In Imphal whether it’s the Baptist churches of Poumais or Tangkhul, hardly anyone evangelises the Meeteis. It’s those who belong to Gospel for Asia or Laymen who reach out to the Meeteis. But why should Poumai churches and others withhold the message of the cross from the Meeteis? Can a church that registers membership only to one ethnic group be truly called a church? It’s not sufficient to say the church is open to all; a church must actively work to bring in all, making institutional reformation wherever necessary to bring others in”.
3.6 NORTH WEST INDIA: The above mentioned regions constitute approximately 75% of the India’s Christian population since Christianity had made early significant inroads.. While commenting on the North West region of India, Webster says “Chuhras/Chamars completely dominated to the point that caste rivalries played very minor roles”. And in case there has been a demarcation it was more on the lingual lines rather than the caste divide.
3.7 MAHRASHTRA: In Mahrashtra, untouchability and Casteism are not found in a large scale in the church. Though there are people of higher caste origin, Parkhe states that as “majority of the Marathi Christians were converted from untouchable castes, there was no question of excommunicating them further” This Land of Ambedkar has given the term Dalit “a symbol of assertive pride and resistance to rejection of the linked oppression” Parkhe states in a lighter yet thoughtful note that “had there been missionary work across the caste spectrum from upper caste to intermediate castes like Brahmins, Marathas, Malis etc. then there would have been problems of casteism…as observed in Southern India”
Though the above study ahs not been very extensive, an effort has been made here to drive home the uncomfortable truth that Caste/ Community distinction exists strongly among Indian Christians and it is a matter of disgrace. This leads us to introspect, find better illumination and negate this malignancy.
4. Reasons for this discrimination:
4.1 The study on Castes in the Kerala churches by Ninan Koshy observed that “the main reason for inter-caste tension in Kerala churches is the exclusiveness of the dominant section of the Christian community as a distinct caste. This exclusiveness is based on both socio-cultural and economic factors.” So though Church is defined as an inclusive community the innate barriers cease to exit. And those who courageously take some radical steps are socially alienated!
4.2 As Christians M.M.Thomas says “we are concerned with the total liberation of the people in this country by participation with the struggles of the people at the lower level. This participation is also the context of our theological reflection-not merely for a theology of individualistic piety….” But many of our theologies have been moulded for our selfish living. Neither have we understood our wider calling to transform a needy society both inside and outside the fold.
4.3 Another reason, to put it straight is that there was nothing much ‘christian’ of those ‘churches’ which are involved in discriminations. The motive has been to maintain it upper caste status at all cost and gain higher standing in the society. There has also been the need to keep people at the lower levels for subservient roles with connotations of purity and pollution. Not having to suffer social stigma nor economic hardship how would they empathise with or realise the struggles of the depressed caste?
4.4 Ayrookuzhiel states that the “Caste Christian leaders along with Ghandiji criticised the conversion of the depressed class to Christianity…One can understand that they were incapable of understanding the nature of Indian Brahmanical Hinduism and culture in relation to the depressed class”. Such ignorance of the Brahmanical religion is also reflected when Indian Church is in the effort to indigenisation of Church liturgies and worship practices.
4.5 Right from the beginning both missionaries and the Pastors/Priests were quiet hesitant on the stand to be taken on this issue. Duncan Β Forrester states that “the caste system from 1600 was not always opposed by the missionaries. Conversion to Christianity did not represent a change in social status to Roman Catholic missionaries, and Robert de Nobili in Madurai (1606) kept himself from contact with low-caste Christians. Lutherans, with their theory of two kingdoms, thought of caste as a civil institution irrelevant to Christian faith. Anglicans, with their background of a class system, looked with affection on the rigid structure of caste; the British East India Company blocked the missionary movement, thinking that missionary radical thought would destroy the equilibrium of Hindu society and end company rule” The consequence of these thoughts are not far from absent even to the present day. Many see the caste issue from a political and sociological perspective. We need to realise that this “system of caste involves the worst of all wrongs to humanity-that of allowing evil by the authority and sanction of religion”.
4.6 Poor representation of the Dalit Christians in Church Leadership/ Council has not only usurped them of any powers but has also silenced their voices. This is in spite of those churches having a vast majority of Christians as Dalits. The reason is also accounted for the “caste prejudice and lack of literacy whereby they are kept at the periphery and excluded from power structures of the church”. Ironically these are the very churches that patronise the simple fisherman ‘Simon Peter’ as the rock on which they are being built.
Reasons abound for such indiscriminate actions but it is high time that as the Indian Church we reform ourselves. May be a Dalit reformation is around the corner.
5. Church Response
5.1 The Indian church needs to acknowledge and confess the sin of harbouring the caste system within its ranks and programmes. In addition she has to engage in prophetic witness of denouncing all injustice and oppression.
5.2 The Indian Church needs to restore the ‘broken’ esteem of this discriminated people. Thus there is the need to emphasise ‘both the aspects of personhood and people hood and enable them to become dynamic people’s movement for changing the stratified and hierarchical society into a truly equal, just and humane community”. Even to this day the low caste Christians have not succeeded in building a Christian identity over their caste identity.
5.3 Centuries of deprivation cannot be easily written off in terms of economic benefits. The poor need to be uplifted socially as well as educationally. A re-look at the Christian Education and other Job institutions discriminatory attitude has to brought to book.
5.4 The Indian Theology has been highly influenced by the west. And even when there were efforts to develop an Indian Christian Theology it has been saturated with classical Indian philosophy where as the cries of the oppressed within those very thoughts were never realised. “Indian christian Theology has the task of relating theological thinking to the socio-political economic and cultural situation”
5.5 The fact that we are all one in Christ does not take away the room for diversity. McGavaran says that just as “Jewish Christians continued thoroughly Jewish and Gentile Christians thoroughly gentile” the room for ones distinctiveness must be respected though should never undermine the unity.
5.6 There is an urgent need to involve the ‘discriminated against’ in the decision making process which has been denied to them all along though they are the majority in the Indian Church. As an Indian Church we need to identify with them in their struggle for the true equality our constitution upholds. ,
Indian Church Identity has been both appreciated as well doubted on different grounds. Though she has tided over many and lived up to the other expectations, the caste discrimination within her fold has always been a challenge and a source of inner tension.Though it may take time for her to resolve this blemish, she cannot remain passive about it. The church needs to assert to herself the calling to be One body where the pain of one member affects every other. There is no disjointed role here rather each one is closely supported by the other. Such a sense of belongingness gives worth to one another and a sense of security to play ones part with assurance.
· Ayrookuzhiel, Abraham A.M. Essays on Dalits, Religion and Liberation. Banglore:Asian Trading Corporation, 2006.
· Huges, Dewi Arwel and Matthew Bennett, God of the Poor. UK: OM Publishing, 1998.
· Koilparampil, George. Caste in the catholic community in Kerala. Cochin: St.Francis De Sales Press, 1982.
· Koshy, Ninan. Caste in The Kerala Churches. Madras: The Diocesan Press, 1968.
· Maliekal, John. Caste in India Today. Bangalore: St. Paul’s Press, 1991.
· Manoharan, Moses P. Church. New Delhi: ISPCK, 2002.
· McGavran,Donald A. Understanding the Indian Church In India. Bombay: GLS Press,1979.
· Parkhe, Camil. Dalit Christians: Right to Reservation. New Delhi: ISPCK,2007.
· Pathil, Kuncheria. Indian churches at Cross Roads. Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 1994.
· Philips, Godfrey. The Untouchables’ Quest. New York: Friendship Press, 1936.
· Robinson, Rowena Christians of India. New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt.Ltd, 2003.
· Thomas, Cherian. Should I Care: Contemporary concern for Indian Christians. New Delhi: ISPCK, 2007.
· Thomas M.M. The Church’s Mission and Post Modern Humanism:Collected of Essays & Talks 1992-1996.
New Delhi:ISPCK, 1996.
· Webster, John C.B. A social History of Christianity: North West India since 1800. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.
· Moses, Brindavan C. “Study and Action;Caste Classs Issue & CISRS’ perspecptive,” Religion and Society 30/3&4 (1983) 34. Prabhakar M.E . “Indian Christian Theology, the church and the People,” Religion and Society 30/3&4 (1983): 94.
· Thomas, M.M. “Indian Christian Theology, The Church and the people,” Religion and Society 30/3&4(1983): 74.
ONLINE JOURNALS AND ARTICLES & E-Mail
· ______________. Caste Identity within the church Twice Alienated , http://www.dalitchristians.com/Html/CasteChurch.htm (6 July 2009).
· ______________. ‘Upper caste Catholics demand special rights, threaten or to reconvert’ http://www.indianexpress.com/i.e/daily/19991124/ige24029.html (6july2009).
· Duomai , Jeremiah. “Gospel praxis for PNBA’s town churches” (30 June 2009).Personal letter to author (6 July 2009).
Oommen, George. Dalit Conversion and Social Protest in Travancore, 1854-1890 Bangalore Theological Forum, Vol. XXVII, Nos. 3 & 4, Sept –
 Godfrey Philips, The Untouchables’ Quest (New York: Friendship Press, 1936), 85-89.
 George Koilparampil, Caste in the catholic community in Kerala (Cochin: St.Francis De Sales Press, 1982), 1.
 J.H.Hutton, Caste in India (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 111.
 Dewi Arwel Huges and Matthew Bennett, God of the Poor (UK: OM Publishing, 1998), 149.
 Moses P.Manoharan, Church ( New Delhi: ISPCK, 2002), 9.
 Jeremiah Duomai, “Gospel praxis for PNBA’s town churches” (30 June 2009).Personal letter to author (6 July 2009).
 J.H.Hutton, Caste in India…,280.
 Abraham Ayrookuzhiel A.M, Essays on Dalits, Religion and Liberation (Banglore:Asian Trading Corporation, 2006), 44.
 Prabhakar,M.E, “Mission and Dalit Issue” in Dewi Arwel Huges and Matthew Bennett,. God of the …, 150.
 Abraham Ayrookuzhiel A.M, Essays on Dalits …, 133.
 Caste Identity within the church Twice Alienated , http://www.dalitchristians.com/Html/CasteChurch.htm (6 July 2009).
 Ninan Koshy, Caste in The Kerala Churches (Madras: The Diocesan Press, 1968), 12.
 George Oommen, Dalit Conversion and Social Protest in Travancore, 1854-1890 (Bangalore Theological Forum, Vol. XXVII, Nos. 3 & 4, Sept – Dec. 1996), pp. 69-84. http://www. religion online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1119.
 George Oommen, Dalit Conversion …,
 Donald A.McGavran, Understanding the Indian Church In India (Bombay: GLS Press,1979), 252.
 Rowena Robinson, Christians of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications India Pvt.Ltd, 2003),73.
 ‘Upper caste Catholics demand special rights, threaten or to reconvert’ http://www.indianexpress.com/i.e/daily/19991124/ige24029.html (6july2009)..
 Rowena Robinson, Christians of …, 76-77.
 J.H.Hutton, Caste in India…, 121.
 Brindavan C.Moses, “Study and Action;Caste Classs Issue & CISRS’ perspecptive,” Religion and Society 30/3&4 (1983) 35-36.
 Prabhakar M.E,. “Indian Christian Theology, the church and the People,” Religion and Society 30/3&4 (1983): 94.
 Ibid., 92-93
 Donald A.McGavran….,120ff.
 Jeremiah Duomai, “Gospel praxis for PNBA’s town churches” (30 June 2009).Personal letter to author (6 July 2009).
 John C.B.Webster, A social History of Christianity: North West India since 1800 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007), 361.
 Ibid., 362.
 Camil Parkhe, Dalit Christians: Right to Reservation (New Delhi: ISPCK,2007),14.
 Prabhakar M.E,“Mission and the Dalit Issue” in Sunand Sumitra and F.Hranghkuma, eds., Doing Mission in context (Bangalore:Theological Book Trust, 1995), 93.
 Brindavan C.Moses, “Study and Action;Caste Classs Issue & CISRS’ perspecptive,” Religion and Society 30/3&4 (1983) 34.
 M.M.Thomas, “Indian Christian Theology, The Church and the people,” Religion and Society 30/3&4(1983): 74.
 Michael P. Samartha, Review of Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India, by Duncan B. Forrester, American Theological Library Association Serial Project, http://web.ebscohost.com/login.aspx=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000502031&site=ehost-live.pdf.
 John Maliekal, Caste in India Today (Bangalore: St. Paul’s Press, 1991), 16. Citing Caird.
 Kuncheria Pathil, Indian churches at Cross Roads (Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 1994), 119.
 Prabhakar M.E . “Indian Christian Theology…, 101.
 Prabhakar M.E . “Indian Christian Theology…, 98.
 Donald A.McGavran. Understanding the Indian Church In India…257.