Dalit Christians

Dalit Christians In India

As is the case with other religious communities in India, a majority of the Christian community in India consists of Dalit and other low caste converts.

Approximately 75-80% of Indian Christians are Dalit Christian, members of the Dalit or backward classes.

Most of the Dalit Christians are descendants of Dalits who converted to Christianity en masse from around 1750 onwards to escape caste. Their forefathers saw In Christianity the social equality, spiritual equality and human dignity that was historically denied to them under the caste system.

More importantly, they saw these values in practise among Christians during colonial rule as they started getting non-caste employment, education and religious liberty to communicate with the God of the Bible.

At the same time, though, you also had upper castes converts during the period who became Christians purely on the basis of religious convictions.

The conversion of the dalits and other low castes, however, did not put an end to caste discrimination altogether as sections aong them, particularly, the upper caste converts, brouight into their new religious communities the caste practices from their old faith.

This perpetuation of caste took place largely because many of those who converted to Christianity carried into their new faithporactices and social structures from their old one.

Social practices among certain segments of the Christians now are similar to the discrimination faced by Dalits and other low castes in other religious communities, though with lesser intensity.

Yet, you also have dissimilarities. Intra community trends show that Christians have mobility within their respective castes.

Caste discrimination is strongest among Christians in South India and is very rare among urban Protestant congregations in North India.

It is argued that this occurs because in South India, whole castes converted en masse to the faith, leaving members of different castes to compete in ways similar to Hindus of the Indian caste system.

In several Roman Catholic communities in the South, for instance, there are separate seats, communion cups, burial grounds and churches for members of the lower castes.

Also, a majority of those who control the Catholic church in India, including the Bishops and the clergy are upper caste Priests and nuns.

According to estimates, though more than 70% of Catholics are Dalits, the higher caste Catholics control almost 90% of the Catholic churches consequential jobs.

Added to this, of the 156 catholic bishops, only 6 are from lower castes at the time of writing this sumarry.

The context in which caste discrimination is most visible is in marriage alliances. Usually the trend is that the upper castes will not marry the lower ones, with this practice being particularly strong in Kerala and Goa.

Syrian Christians, for example, consider themselves superior because they claim that they are converted Nambudiris (preiestly caste of the caste system), who were evangelized by St. Thomas.

Scholars hold the view that the caste hierarchy among Christians in Kerala is much more polarized than the Hindu practices in the surrounding areas, due to a lack of jatis (sub-castes).
In Goa, mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese missionaries from the 16th century onwards, but the Hindu converts retained their caste practices.

The practice of caste among the Christians in Goa is attributed to the mass conversions of entire villages, due to which the existing social stratification was perpetuated.

As a result, the original Hindu Brahmins in Goa became Christian 'Bamonns' and the Kshatriya converts became royalty known as Chardos

Catholic clergy became almost exclusively Bamonn. Vaishyas who converted to Christianity became Gauddos, and Sudras became Sudirs.

The Dalits who converted to Christianity, on the other hand, became Maharas and Chamars.

As in Kerala and Goa, similar problems, though at a far lower level, occur among Christians in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh as well.

As a result, Dalit Christians all over the country have been agitating for provision of the same benefits as those given to their Hindu brethren in order to improve their socio-economic conditions.

Hyprocitally the government has held to the position that since the Christian faith does not have caste and the Dalits are Christians, they are not eligible for the same affirmative action benfits that is presently accorded to Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist Dalits.

Note: This is just a very scanty outline of caste among Christians. You can get a detailed idea about casteism among the Indian Christians, including extensive accounts of discrimination in the eBook 'Truth About Dalits".

Dalit Christian
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the late 1880s, the Marathi word 'Dalit' was used by Mahatma Jotiba Phule for the outcasts and Untouchables who were oppressed and broken by Hindu society.[1] The term Dalit Christian (sometimes Christian Dalit) is used to describe those low-caste who have converted to Christianity from Hinduism or Islam and are still categorized as Dalits in Hindu, Christian and Islamic societies in India, Pakistan and other countries. Hindu Dalits are referred to as "Harijans". Over 70% of Indian Christians are Dalits, categorized thus by the greater societal practices of regions they live in.

The Caste System
Dalits who converted to Christianity did not escape the caste system which has a strongly ingrained presence in Indian society that is not limited to Hindu religious ideals. The different branches of Christianity in India still engage in these societal practices with regards to the caste system, along with all its customs and norms, to varying degrees depending on the particular sect. Within the three major Christian branches in India, there were historically and are currently different levels of caste acceptance. The Protestant churches have most consistently repudiated the caste system, rejecting it as a Hindu construct, and have made the greatest attempt to establish a casteless community. The Roman Catholic Church developed a more culturally tolerant view, treating the caste system as part of the Indian social structure and, for much of its history in India, it has chosen to work within the established social system; similarly the Syrian Orthodox Churches have responded in like fashion, except it has tended to collectively act as one caste within the caste system instead of maintaining different castes within their churches.

Other major factors affecting Dalit Christians and other Christians within India in regard to caste statutes are the regional variances in maintaining the caste system. The southern part of the country has traditionally more rigidly maintained the caste system than the northern regions. Rural communities also hold more strongly to the caste system and Roman Catholics are the majority of Christians in these communities. The urban areas tend to have the least pressure to maintain caste classes and Protestant churches are best represented in this background.

There have been regular complaints by Hindus and some Christians that Dalit Christians are denied admission and appointments in Church-run educational institutions.

After conversion, people in India lose any privileges they had in their former caste, while those in lower castes often gain more opportunities. Although about 70% of Indian Christians are widely reported to be Dalit Christians, the Sachar Committee on Muslim Affairs reported that only 9% of Indian Christians have Scheduled Caste status, with a further 32.8% having Scheduled Tribe status, and 24.8% belonging to other disadvantaged groups.


Reservation is available to Dalits who follow Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, but Dalit Christians and Muslims are not protected as castes under Indian Reservation policy. The Indian constitution in 1950 abolished untouchability, converting those castes to scheduled castes and tribes: in doing so it also provided a system of affirmative action (called the Reservation Policy) whereby 22.5 percent of all government and semi government jobs including seats in Parliament and state legislatures were reserved for those in those castes; the law also set aside space for admission to schools and colleges. In 1980 the constitutional policy was extended to cover the rest of the 3,743 backward castes in the country. But Christians who claim to belong to no caste are not included in the quotas, meaning those Dalits who convert to Christianity are no longer part of the affirmative action program run by the government. Dalit Christians have now appealed to the government to extend the benefits of reservation policy to Dalit Christians in order to improve their employment opportunities.In 2008, a study commissioned by the National Commission for Minorities suggested extension of reservation to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians. According to the study, Indian Muslims and Christians should be brought under the ambit of the constitutional safeguards.”

The Punjabi Dalit Christians of Pakistan

Adapted from the powerful and inspiring research and work of Asif Aqeel: Caste Away: The Ongoing Struggle of Punjabi Christians
Most stories of partition leave out the story of Dalits and Adivasis communities.But as Bahujans they were vulnerable to betrayals, violence, and continued on both sides of the border. This was no truer than in the story of the Punjabi Christians of Pakistan.

Punjabi Christians have their origins in Presbyterian missionary drives that began in the 19th century. The United Presbyterian Church took the initiative to bring the most marginalised and oppressed caste of scavengers, described in missionary reports and British census documents as chuhras, into the fold of Christianity. The people belonging to this community were socially excluded, living outside villages and facing serious discrimination in their everyday lives.

Denzil Ibbetson, Punjab’s deputy superintendent in the 1881 census, who later also worked as the province’s Lieutenant-Governor, has written in detail about these converts. “They prefer to call themselves Chuhra,” he wrote. He also noted their occupations. “In the east of the Province he sweeps the houses and villages, collects the cow dung, pats it into cakes and stacks it, works up the manure, helps with the cattle, and takes them from village to village”. In other areas, they worked as “agricultural labourer” and “receive a customary share of the produce”.

As the Christians continued in their lives many realized the violence of being associated with the word chuhra. And so by the 1930’s they were called Isai — after Isa, the Arabic translation of Jesus. In the 1961 census in Lahore, all those who had been categorised as belonging to chuhra caste in previous censuses were now classified as Isai. Others changed their last name to Masih after Messiah, and this last name continues with many Punjabi Christians.

At Partition, S P Singha was the most prominent leader of Punjabi Christians. Before joining politics, he worked as a registrar at the Punjab University during the 1930s. In 1947, he was Punjab Assembly speaker and one of the three Christian members of the assembly who voted in favour of Punjab becoming a part of Pakistan.

His decision was based on pragmatic considerations. He thought Hindus discriminated against Punjabi Christians more than Muslims did. “In non-Muslim villages, we have no graveyards and are not allowed to draw water from the wells,” he told Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s boundary commission.

Additionally, the partition of Punjab being proposed along religious lines meant that there would be more Punjabi Christians living in Muslim-dominated western regions of the province than in the eastern parts dominated by Hindus and Sikhs. When the boundary commission announced its scheme for partitioning Punjab in June 1947, eastern (Indian) Punjab had only 60,955 out of 511,299 Punjabi Christians at the time.

“S P Singha, whom we called Purke Maamoon, one day called my father and told him that he had met with Mr Jinnah and told him that Christians were very poor and could not travel to India and that they wanted to live in Pakistan,” says Indu Mitha. “Jinnah assured Singh of full protection for the Christians.”

As a result, many Punjabi Christians moved to Pakistan. The promise of equality was betrayed right from the beginning For immediately after 1947, Singha was removed as the speaker of the assembly through a no-confidence motion. The reason: He was not a Muslim. This was a chilling harbinger of how life was to change for Punjabi Christians in Pakistan.

Singha addressed the assembly on January 20, 1948, to highlight that change. “Kindly pay attention to the mess created by the Sikhs who, after living for centuries in this province, have at once left and have created a huge problem for [Christians]. The government may have better information but our estimates show that about 60,000 families or 200,000 people of our community, who worked as saipis (landless service providers) or atharis (farmhands), have become homeless after the commotion of Partition,” he said.

The lands vacated by the Sikhs were being allotted to Muslim refugees coming from eastern Punjab and these new owners of land either did not want Christian saipis and atharis due to religious reasons or they did not know them well enough to trust them with such jobs. “They hired us for a while but then they engaged their coreligionists,” says Nazir Masih who was about 13 years old at the time of Partition and was living in Harichand village in Sheikhupura district.

In some cases, Christians were forcefully evicted even from places where they were tilling lands for the state institutions — such as in a few villages set up on the military farms. “Christians are being evicted from some of the villages reserved for them,” Singh said. “They are being replaced with [Muslim] refugees.”

Singha argued that Christians in Pakistan deserved protection from the government because they “have taken refuge in this House of Islam”. When no one listened to him, he suggested to the government to either place the homeless Christians in refugee camps or “bury them alive”.

The number of homeless Christians kept on increasing in the meanwhile. C E Gibbon, another Christian member of the Punjab Assembly, noted in his statement on the floor of the house in April 1952: “I beg to ask for leave to make a motion … to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the grave situation arising out of the policy of the government in respect of the wholesale eviction of Christians … from their home holdings, thus rendering nearly 300,000 Christians homeless and on the verge of starvation, the consequences of which are too horrible to imagine.”

Singha argued that Christians in Pakistan deserved protection from the government because they “have taken refuge in this House of Islam”. When no one listened to him, he suggested to the government to either place the homeless Christians in refugee camps or “bury them alive”.

The number of homeless Christians kept on increasing in the meanwhile. C E Gibbon, another Christian member of the Punjab Assembly, noted in his statement on the floor of the house in April 1952: “I beg to ask for leave to make a motion … to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the grave situation arising out of the policy of the government in respect of the wholesale eviction of Christians … from their home holdings, thus rendering nearly 300,000 Christians homeless and on the verge of starvation, the consequences of which are too horrible to imagine.”

Earlier, in 1948, Singha had highlighted another problem. He described how young Muslim students were harassing Christian nurses, insisting that Christian women in Pakistan were like war booty and the Muslims possessed the right to use them whichever way they liked. “If this mindset continues, then I fear there will be no Christian nurses left in Pakistan,” he warned.

Singha also talked about how Christians in Pakistan were viewed with suspicion. “… [the Christians] are ready to assure the government of Pakistan of our loyalty but sadly we are being accused of committing strange things. One group of people says we are spies and another says we are agents of Hindus.” He went on “to humbly state” that the government should “stop demanding” that Christians prove their loyalty to the state every day as “Muslims are required to do in India”.

In early 1971, all this culminated in what is perhaps the first mob attack against Christians in Pakistan. A Pakistani living in Manchester wrote to Lahore-based English daily Pakistan Times, “complaining about a book called The Turkish Art of Love in Pictures (first published in 1933), which he said … contained insulting assertions about the Holy Prophet.”

The publication of the letter led to large-scale attacks on Christians in Lahore. Churches were ransacked and liquor shops (which were legal at the time) were looted. Jeffery quoted one Christian woman as imploring during the violence that “Christians in Pakistan should be seen as ‘true Pakistanis’ and that there should be no stigma attached to being Christians.” This cry to be seen as Pakistani was unheeded as many Christians were continually seen as agents of foreign governments. As a result, hundreds of Christians were arrested in 1965 and 1971 wars over the charges of espionage, though none was proved true.
The few Christian elites who could leave began migrating in droves outside of the country. Philadelphia has the largest Pakistani Christian concentration in North America after Toronto. The choice of the destination has its roots in Presbyterian missions’ activities in Punjab dating back a century. With its headquarters in Philadelphia, the Presbyterian Church had sent such prominent missionaries as Dr Samuel Martin (who founded a Christian-only village in Punjab), Andrew Gordon (after whom the Gordon College Rawalpindi is named) and Dr Charles William Forman (the founder of the Forman Christian College Lahore).There was also a sizeable Pakistani Christian community living in the English city of Bristol.

Meanwhile, the majority of Punjabi Christians who could not leave because of caste and class had limited economic opportunities. They could work at brick kilns — that were springing up next to big cities to cater to the booming housing and construction sectors. Those who took up that option set themselves up for bonded labour for life. And as a result, Christians make up a large amount of the bonded labor sector in Pakistan.

The other option for Christians was to take up menial government jobs as sanitary workers. Traditionally, low-caste Hindus worked as sanitary workers in the cities that became part of Pakistan but, in 1947, most of them went to India. For in 1948 in Karachi, then the capital of Pakistan, underscored the problems created by these departing Hindus. “Within a month of the riots, the government realised, to its alarm, that something entirely unexpected was happening: among the fleeing Hindus were the city’s sweepers and sewer cleaners.” She wrote that the “outraged residents of Karachi … regretted, cajoled and complained” in letters they wrote to daily Dawn.The city “had become an unhygienic disgrace” where “streets were littered with stinking rubbish.”

In a cynical and casteist move, the Pakistani government thought Punjabi Christians would be happy to do that kind of work. When offered those jobs, however, they were anything but happy. “I have heard that Christians are refusing to work as sweepers,” S P Singha said in his 1948 speech. “One deputy commissioner complained to me that Christians do not want to do menial tasks and refuse to pick up cow dung and dead animals,” he added.

The violent origins of Pakistan’s Punjabi Christians continue into very real discrimination today. Many Punjabi Christians faced systemic discrimination and accusations that they are spies in their own country. Punjabi Christians can be found in all of the slums in Pakistan and are relegated to the worse jobs. While Thousands of Pakistani Christians are stranded in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Malaysia currently awaiting their applications for refugee status with the UNHCR there is a new generation of Punjabi Christians who are determined to succeed that are are coming up through education and speaking about their experiences. Further in cities like Quetta Punjabi Christians inherited all the schools built by the colonists an, as a result, there is a thriving community that grows despite the violence.

We salute the struggles and resilience of the Punjabi Christians of Pakistan!

#Jaibhim and #Godbless