Untouchable: The Human Face of India’s Caste System

It was a scene that could have come straight from the pages of the New Testament—and one almost unimaginable in today’s caste-ridden India. Around long tables under a large marquee in Hyderabad sat hundreds of people cross-legged on the floor. Clustered in groups of five or six, they ate curry and rice from a shared plate. It was what our hosts at the All India Christian Council called a “community meal.”
But what was so significant was not simply that people were eating in community, for that is nothing unusual in India. Rather, the evening brought together people who would never normally sit together, and would certainly never eat from the same plate. In my group, not only were Indians and Westerners seated together on an equal footing, but so too were Hindus and Buddhists, Muslims and Christians—in itself, great progress. Even more remarkable, however, was that at the table were representatives of India’s “Dalit” people, sitting alongside high-caste Hindus.
India’s Dalits are otherwise known as “untouchables,” and they account for 25 percent of India’s population. In the Hindu caste system, they are regarded as subhuman—lower even than animals. Numbering at least 160 million, they are fighting a largely unknown struggle for emancipation. If you add the 70 million–strong tribal population that faces similar bias and social stigma, the number of people facing caste discrimination in India reaches 250 million—and many more beyond India.
Caste discrimination has dominated India—and South Asia—for more than 2,000 years and is manifested in various forms. Dalits are often subjected to violent attacks on a huge scale, and only a tiny percentage is ever reported. The violence includes murder, rape, arson, and bodily mutilation. Thousands of Dalit women and children are sold into prostitution or child-bonded labor. Dalits are given little or no access to education and therefore suffer an extremely low literacy rate. The most menial jobs are reserved for them—sweeping the streets and cleaning public toilets. An estimated 70 percent live below the poverty line. There are still restaurants in India that keep separate drinking vessels and eating utensils for them.
At the forefront of the struggle to liberate the Dalits, and to restore to them some sense of human dignity, is the All India Christian Council (AICC)—and one man in particular. The AICC’s president, Joseph D’Souza, has devoted almost all his time and energy over the past five years to providing an international voice for India’s modern-day slaves, at considerable personal risk. “I have been the target of attacks by the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], a Hindu extremist group, and there have been hate mail and threats made against me,” he says. {mospagebreak}
It was when five Dalits were lynched for skinning a dead cow that Udit Raj, a Dalit leader, turned to the AICC—described by D’Souza as “one of the world’s largest inter-denominational Christian alliances dealing with spiritual, social, and human rights issues.” Changing their schedules, Indian Christian leaders, including D’Souza, traveled to New Delhi within hours of the tragedy. There they joined a protest and met the parents of the victims. They provided the families of the victims with humanitarian assistance and comforted them in their grief. “The statement we were making was that these Dalits were human beings, and that it was the caste system that consigned them to work with animals—a statement in direct contrast to that of a Hindu nationalist leader, who said that a cow is more valuable than a Dalit,” recalls D’Souza.
D’Souza now spends much of his time in the United States and the United Kingdom as International President of the Dalit Freedom Network, trying to mobilize international public, political, and church opinion. He has testified at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva and on Capitol Hill. In India, he has taken on the role of co-convenor of a movement called “FORCE” (Forum Of Religions, Castes and Ethnic groups), which unites oppressed communities and castes such as the Dalits, the backward castes (those above “untouchable” but still economically and socially depressed), the tribals, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims to struggle for their basic human rights, already enshrined in the Indian constitution.
A chemist by training, D’Souza has spent most of his life in evangelical Christian ministry with Operation Mobilization (OM). In addition to leading the AICC and the Dalit Freedom Network, he heads OM India, a national movement of more than 2,000 Indian Christian workers. He also serves as Associate International Director of OM International, overseeing the organization’s work in more than 60 nations.
But in recent years, two realizations—first the persecution of Christians in India, and the fact that the Dalits needed a voice—turned D’Souza into a human-rights activist. Convinced that human rights are a central part of the Christian mission, not simply an optional extra, he believes that “Christians, especially evangelicals, have for too long over-simplified the problems of the world by claiming that if we just deal with personal sin, then the world will be changed automatically as a matter of course. In other words, if we can only get people to accept Jesus Christ, then automatically things will change,” he says.
“I do not deny the truth of this,” he continues. “This aspect of the Gospels’ emphasis is of course true. When people’s hearts change, society changes. But this view is an incomplete understanding of the truth, and is simplistic because it denies the presence and nature of evil. For evil is present in the world not only in our hearts, but in structures and systems designed to oppress, degrade, abuse, and kill others. If we are not intentional about bringing change and transformation in lives and societies it will not happen. To love people is to act on behalf of them.”
Unintended Evangelism
Sometimes, acts of solidarity—where the gospel is not explicitly stated—can lead to extraordinary opportunities to share the Christian Faith with non-believers that aggressive evangelism could never bring about. In 2002, thousands of Muslims in Gujarat, India, were massacred. “There was rioting in the streets, mass rape, devastation, carnage, created by Hindu fundamentalists,” recalls D’Souza. The first organization to step in to help was the AICC. “At considerable risk, our staff set up camps in Gujarat which we ran for six weeks, providing shelter and food for the vulnerable, displaced Muslims. It was a statement of enormous courage, love, and commitment.” The news spread, and the Muslim community throughout India opened its arms to the Christians “as never before.” Across the nation, AICC leaders received invitations to speak to large audiences of Muslims—sometimes 50,000 or 75,000. The topic they were given was always the same: “Why did you help us? What does the Bible have to say about human rights and justice?” As D’Souza remarks, “What better opening for explaining gospel truths?”{mospagebreak}
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Dalit movement—and D’Souza’s support for it—has been a mass movement of conversion of Dalits from Hinduism to other religions, mainly Buddhism or Christianity. The movement has been attacked by Hindu extremists—and by some Christians.
Ram Raj, who became Udit Raj upon his conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism, urged Dalits to “quit Hinduism” and embrace any religion that could draw them out of oppression and give them freedom of choice, conscience, and personal dignity. On November 4, 2001, more than 10,000 Dalits gathered for a mass conversion rally. Leaders of the AICC and other Christian organizations attended, and three were invited to speak. “They gave a very simple message,” said D’Souza. “That they stood in solidarity with the oppressed, that they loved the Dalit people, and that Jesus Christ loved the Dalit people.”
The event infuriated Hindu extremists. Even before it started, tens of thousands of Dalits were stopped by the police and by extremists from reaching the conversion ceremony. Trains were unnecessarily delayed, buses were pulled off roads, and the people aboard were threatened. The two Hindu extremist groups, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the RSS, claimed the whole event was a Christian conspiracy. To make matters worse, some Christians were accused by the Hindu extremists of seeking to make personal financial gain in the name of “Christian conversions.” Despite this bad press, the event sparked a major movement of Dalits across the nation leaving Hinduism.
However, some Christians disagreed with the tactics. They were critical of Christian leaders who endorsed conversions to Buddhism, and they claimed that even those who converted to Christianity were doing so for political reasons rather than because of a genuine spiritual encounter. To some extent, Udit Raj confirmed this when he told the crowds: “The conversion is a rejection of whatever caste stands for. It is a great walkout from Hinduism.”
D’Souza is unrepentant about his support of mass conversion rallies. “It is surely a better witness to stand with them, to let them know that they are loved by Jesus Christ and His followers, and that Christians will support their right to be free even when they choose Buddhism over Christianity, rather than the alternative: to walk away, disassociate from them, and refuse to love them unless they convert to Christianity.”
Leaving Hinduism
The year 2001 was not, however, the first mass conversion rally. For while it has only been in the past few years that the Dalit cause has gained international attention, the struggle began in the 1920s when the man who drafted India’s post-independence constitution, B. R. Ambedkar—known as “Babasaheb”—mobilized Dalits to stand up for their rights. In 1927, Ambedkar led a march to the Chavdar reservoir, a place prohibited to Dalits. When he reached the reservoir, he bent down, cupped his hands, scooped up some water, and drank—an act completely forbidden by the caste system. Brahmins, or upper castes, responded in fury by pouring into the reservoir 108 pots of curd, milk, cow dung, and cow urine to “purify” the water that had been, in their view, polluted and defiled by untouchables. Ambedkar spent the rest of his life fighting such prejudice, and in the end took on the entire Hindu religion responsible for the caste system. Declaring that he would not “die a Hindu,” Ambedkar sparked numerous mass conversion ceremonies. In 1956, for example, 500,000 “untouchables” left Hinduism and became Buddhists.
D’Souza believes the church must stand in solidarity with the oppressed—but he believes it has been too slow to respond. “The father of the Indian constitution and of the Dalit liberation movement, Dr. Ambedkar, turned to the church for help and found the doors closed to him,” he claims. “The caste system and caste-based discrimination was practiced even within parts of the church, including evangelicals. The church’s leadership feared offending the upper castes and therefore refused to express solidarity with the Dalits at the time.”{mospagebreak}
The church in India has also stayed silent on other issues of injustice, D’Souza argues. “When the Indian crowds massacred Sikhs in Delhi and other places after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the church did not do what it could have done to bring peace to the situation,” he says, although he acknowledges that individual Christians offered their help.
It has become D’Souza’s dual mission to speak out for the oppressed and to wake up the church. The increasing persecution of Christians has perhaps helped him in his cause. In 2004, the AICC hosted a two-day human-rights conference in Hyderabad. The first day was a gathering of 1,000 Indian Christian leaders. It was a call to arms—not militarily, but spiritually and socially—to wake up the church in India to the cause of justice. It was called Standing Together in the Face of Persecution, and it addressed the problems that had dogged India for much of the previous decade: the rise of militant Hinduism and the persecution of Christians. Ever since Bibles were burned in Rajkot by the Bajrang Dal in 1998 and a group of nuns were raped, the situation had deteriorated. Australian Graham Staines and his sons, Timothy and Phillip, were burned alive as they slept in their car in 1999, and the telling response from the then–prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, a Hindu nationalist himself, was to call for a national debate on conversions. Several Indian states then introduced anti-conversion laws, and hate literature was distributed in various communities.
The Growing Christian Influence
Mobilizing the Christian constituency has had some effect. In the general election of 2004, the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had been in government since 1997, was expected to be re-elected. It had presided over India’s economic boom and attracted significant inward investment. But D’Souza and his colleagues had other ideas. They believed that if those groups in Indian society who were suffering as a result of the BJP’s extremist policies united and organized themselves, they could elect the much more moderate, Congress-led United Progress Front (UPF), which was committed to restoring a secular society in which all religious groups were respected. To the world’s surprise, the strategy worked. “Commentators now say that Non-Governmental Organizations, civil rights groups, the village masses, the Dalits, and the Christians played very significant roles in bringing down the BJP-led government,” claims D’Souza.
“The election result sent a stark message to the elite in India that the ordinary people should not be taken for granted. When consciences are awakened, and people act in unity, unexpected change can come. Would this unity and re-awakening have happened if there had been no pro-active human rights advocates and activists among the Christian community who, among other things, mobilized one million people to pray for the elections? Almost certainly not,” D’Souza argues.
“The struggle for justice in India, for Christians under persecution, and for Dalits and other oppressed groups with whom Christians discovered a new solidarity, forced Christians from the fringes of society into the heart of society, fulfilling Christ’s command to be ‘salt and light,’ and to be in the world, while not ‘of’ the world,” he adds. “That in turn caused many Indians who had been taken in by the nationalistic rhetoric of the extremists to realize that Christians were not simply out to convert everyone and add to their numbers in the pews—that Christians genuinely cared about Indian society, and that there was no incompatibility between being a Christian and being an Indian.”
But the struggle is far from over. After the elections two years ago, D’Souza says, “the darkness in India lifted a little.” In Tamil Nadu, for example, the new state government scrapped its anti-conversion law. But anti-conversion legislation in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat has been made more stringent, and a new law in Rajasthan has been introduced. These laws are particularly targeted at Dalits who convert—an attempt by Hindu extremists to put a stop to the “Quit Hinduism” movement. They criminalize conversion and impose severe punishments for breaking the law: imprisonment for up to three years and fines of up to $1,000.{mospagebreak}
Old Ways Die Hard
Violence against Christians—and particularly Dalit Christians—has increased in recent years. Last year, two women—one of whom was seven months’ pregnant—were gang-raped in Nadia village, Madhya Pradesh. The village leader ordered the act after the women’s husbands refused to renounce their Christian faith. On January 16, 2006, Christian homes were set on fire in Matiapada village, Orissa. Instead of the arsonists being brought to justice, the Christians were imprisoned for nine days under the state’s anti-conversion law.
The extremists receive significant funding from Indians overseas, including some in the United States, according to D’Souza. A recent investigation found evidence of the RSS raising funds through “socio-cultural programs” in the United States. “They then use these funds to carry out their extremist agenda in India,” he says.
But D’Souza is determined to continue the fight. In October 2006, the AICC led 10,000 Dalits in a rally in Nagpur calling for religious freedom in India to mark the 50th anniversary of Ambedkar’s conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism. D’Souza predicted that this event would be “the start of a nationwide movement promoting the most basic human right—the freedom of conscience and the ability to choose one’s religion.” The people of India, he added, “will overturn these anti-conversion laws through an unrelenting campaign in the media, in the courts, and in civic life.” Two months later, he led a protest of about 800 Dalits of Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu background in front of the Indian Parliament, calling for equal rights for Dalit Christians. He also sent a “Memorandum to the Prime Minister of India,” with copies to the president and to Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, saying: “There is something un-Indian, unconstitutional and inhuman in a policy which discriminates against a large proportion of the population.”
The Dalit Freedom Network now has offices in Denver, Washington, D.C., and London, and D’Souza has been visiting Hollywood to try to involve stars in the same way that Tibet and Darfur have attracted the attention of Richard Gere and George Clooney. He continues to lobby in political circles, appears regularly on CNN and the BBC, and has written a book, Dalit Freedom Now and Forever. “We are asking people to participate in a global campaign to raise a voice against this modern slavery, to actively participate in freeing Dalit children from bonded labor and the sex trade by giving them a decent education,” he says. “People in the U.S. and the U.K. need to see that the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, and their open hatred of Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and other groups, is a threat to the democratic institutions built in India during the past 50 years. Extremist Hindu groups are a real threat to the security of India.”
But it is the church that is his primary target. The defeat of the BJP in 2004 should motivate Christians to do more. “A significant victory has been won—an example of what can be achieved through prayer and concerted action by Christians committed to justice,” he says. But there is more to do. The militant Hindu group, the Bajrang Dal and its Raksha Sena (Defense Army), has established armed militias specifically to prevent conversions to Christianity and also to target Muslims. “The battle for Dalit rights, religious freedom, and women’s rights goes on. The battle against human trafficking, the sex trade, and bonded child labor goes on. The battle against unjust laws and structures goes on,” says D’Souza. And this year, as the world celebrates the bicentenary of William Wilberforce’s victory over the slave trade in England, the struggle against modern-day slavery—in India and elsewhere—goes on.

Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human-rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (www.csw.org.uk). He has co-authored a book with Joseph D’Souza on justice and mission On the Side of Angels: Without Justice, There Can Be No Mission, to be published by Authentic Media this year. For more information about the Dalits, visit www.dalitnetwork.org.


  • Benedict Rogers

    Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human-rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (www.csw.org.uk). He has co-authored a book with Joseph D’Souza: “On the Side of Angels: Without Justice, There Can Be No Mission.”

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