Dalit Converts to Christianity Face Persecution and Violence (Unveiling India's Apartheid, Part 3) | Sojourners

Dalit Converts to Christianity Face Persecution and Violence (Unveiling India's Apartheid, Part 3)

As you were singing carols, placing the last presents under the tree, and worshiping at a Christmas Eve service this past year, Indian Christians halfway across the world were being victimized by the largest attack on the Christian community in India's democratic history. The complex and combustible layers of caste-based oppression and religious persecution came to a head on Dec. 24, 2007, through a spate of violence in the Kandhamal District of Orissa state. During the course of a four-day campaign of terror, more than 100 churches were damaged, at least 700 homes were destroyed, and thousands of Dalit and tribal Christians were forced from their homes.

As preparations were being made to celebrate Christmas, Christian leaders approached the police ...

... seeking to delay a strike organized by Hindu radicals designed to disrupt their celebration. In the town of Brahminigaon, Dalit converts to Christianity have enjoyed greater social and economic empowerment, which threatens the social order put in place through the Hindu caste system. These Dalit and tribal Christians were beginning to own shops and repudiate their inferior status. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the violence was rooted "in a long-term campaign to Hinduise a tribal population, which involved the vilification of religious conversions to Christianity." Hindu nationalists and extremists had been fomenting violence in the region, pitting the majority Hindu population, who are from the lower castes but still maintain a higher position in the caste order than Dalits and tribals, against tribal and Dalit Christians. The police, siding with the non-Christian community leaders, decided to allow the strike to proceed. The stage was set as tensions between the Christian and non-Christian communities reached an apex. On the day before Christmas, the rampage began after a dispute in a local market. Churches and homes were targeted with impunity. The people of Kandhamal awoke on Christmas Day gripped by fear as the attacks escalated and spread across the district. Reportedly, no churches held worship services for several weeks.

I prayed with a tribal leader who recently converted from Hinduism to Christianity. Because of his conversion he was given a choice by Hindu extremists to either re-convert to Hinduism and be spared or have his home destroyed and be killed. He courageously chose his Christian faith and fled his village. Five months later, after having rebuilt his home with his own meager resources, his report filed with the police remains unanswered and his community continues to face intimidation and threats.

The state of Orissa is one of seven states in India that have passed anti-conversion laws, which severely curtail conversions. In most of these laws, there are particularly severe penalties if Dalits or Tribals change their religion without prior permission from a district magistrate. Even though these laws arguably violate the Indian Constitution's protections for religious freedom, they remain in place. Under India's constitution, Dalits are entitled to affirmative-action benefits, including 15 percent of all federal government jobs and admissions in government-funded universities. Tribals who convert to another religion maintain their affirmative-action privileges. In contrast, Dalits that convert to a religion other than Sikhism, Buddhism, or Hinduism are stripped of these affirmative-action benefits, called reservations. India's Supreme Court is currently reviewing several challenges filed by Christian and Muslim Dalits that could result in an overturning of the affirmative-action exclusion. A separate bill to remove the restriction is pending in Parliament. Government members, influenced by India's 150 million-strong Muslim community, have indicated their cautious support.

The Dalit struggle and Christian persecution is inextricably tied to a broken and biased justice system that fails time and time again to prosecute perpetrators of crimes. Just as all politics are local, all justice seems locally administered in India. According to local leaders, six months after the attack not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice. While dozens were arrested, most have been released and no leaders were implicated. Meanwhile, many communities live under the constant specter of intimidation and fear. Women in one village described being threatened and chased by Hindus living in adjoining villages anytime they tried to bathe or wash clothes in a nearby lake.

Dalit Christians who assert their rights and claim their equality pose a direct threat to the established caste system. Many Dalits are turning to Christianity, attracted by the message of a God who made everyone equal. A cover story in The Wall Street Journal last year reported that, to the dismay of Hindu nationalist groups, the number of India's secret Christians has climbed in recent years to an estimated 25 million, about the size of the officially registered Christian population. According to Dr. Joseph D'souza, AICC president and DFN international president, "Conversion is the way of revolt taught to the Dalits by their champion and liberator, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a lawyer educated in the U.S. who turned to Buddhism himself. His writings are well-known all over India among the Dalits. Amdedkar clearly called for the Dalits to convert in order to escape caste-based humiliation and discrimination. In response, some Dalits probably convert due to a motivation to simply protest, but the Christian faith demands that the church receive all -- including Dalits -- who want to follow Christ."

While the vast majority of Hindus in India are friendly or ambivalent toward Christians, Hindu fundamentalist groups led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, the World Hindu Council) are instigating violence and exacerbating tensions. Most Rev. Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, offered a critical insight into how the church must respond, saying the "church needs to open itself up to all sectors of society," arguing that the future security of the church rests in its ability to build real relationships throughout the Hindu community.

During our sojourn through Khandhamal, we stayed at a Catholic training center that was spared during the attack, in large part due to Hindus in the area who protected the center. The center had opened its doors to Hindu organizations, allowing Hindus to sponsor trainings, events, and conferences. According to Archbishop Cheenath, "the church must learn to teach the gospel without demeaning Hinduism and serve the community without proselytizing."

Other acts of violence targeting Christians are much more sporadic and smaller in scale, lacking the gravity and scale to grab headlines both in India and across the world. Catholic lay leader and AICC Secretary John Dayal said that, unfortunately, "the conscience of the world is driven by numbers." On the other hand, attacks each year on Dalits are around 25,000. And there are probably thousands that are unreported. Yet Hindu religion casts a protective shadow over the plight of the Dalits. The Western world is reluctant to fully engage in the Dalit struggle due to fears of being accused of religious intolerance, cultural insensitivity, and sheer ignorance. However, a pernicious distortion of the Bible was used to sanction the systems of Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa. However, the world can't escape the harsh reality that oppression against Dalits is inextricably linked to the Hindu-based caste system within India. Indians must ask whether Hinduism can survive without caste? Prayerfully, the answer is yes.

Adam Taylor is the senior political director for Sojourners.

Learn more:

India's Burning Issue, by Joseph D'souza, Christianity Today (online only), Jan. 10, 2008

Briefing India: Religious Discrimination and Violence in 2007 against Christians, March 2008 by Christian Solidarity Worldwide

In India, 'Untouchables' Convert To Christianity -- and Face Extra Bias, by Yaroslav Trofimov, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 19, 2007