As our motorcade approached the Dalit village of Nayagarh, we could see the bright and brilliant image of 500 Dalit women gathered to welcome us, their saris forming a kaleidoscope of color. Cheers and whistles erupted from the crowd of women as we approached. I felt like a presidential candidate as I passed through the crowd, shaking as many hands as I could reach, wanting to make human contact with women whose dignity is so often demeaned and whose worth too often dismissed. These women had formed 130 self-help groups composed of 10 other women in villages across the region to invest in entrepreneurial projects that generate income and create a better life for their families and villages. They had come to show off their products and seek additional assistance from Operation Mercy Charitable Company (OMCC), an initiative supported by Operation Mobilization India (OM) and the All India Christian Council (AICC) that provides training and micro-loans. The women proudly showed off their products, ranging from beautiful saris to rice and roti. Access to loans are providing the keys to emancipation from bonded labor and careers of doing the most degrading work, such as cleaning latrines.
Many of these women also send their children to an English instruction school that has been set up by OMCC, funded in part through the Dalit Freedom Network. The majority of Dalit children are either denied access to primary education or only receive instruction in Hindi or other native languages. The public school system has become a dismal refuge for the children of the lower and middle castes, where Dalit students face daily abuse by teachers and students. According to a government report, 73 percent of Dalit students drop out in secondary school. Instruction in English represents a passport to higher education and India's service- and high-tech economy. Already OMCC has set up 81 schools in rural villages across the country. The combination of educational opportunity and asset creation are planting seeds of social and economic empowerment.
Educational opportunities provided by the missions and churches have built a new generation of Dalit Christian leaders ...
... including Rev. Sam Paul, AICC national secretary of public affairs, and Albert Lael, OMCC national director. While the Brahmin caste still dominates church leadership, caste is slowly dying within the church and is all but dead in the more recent wave of churches. During a meeting in Bhubaneswar, I had the privilege of meeting more than 30 pastors active in the All India Christian Council from across the region, including a Catholic archbishop who is leading the fight for their freedom, the most Rev. Raphael Cheenath. These leaders on the front lines of the Dalit freedom movement shared their stories of struggle, and I shared information about the American civil rights movement. According to these leaders, while the church has played an instrumental role in economic and social empowerment, the reticence of many churches to confront systemic injustice still poses a major obstacle. Many churches, particularly evangelical ones, have preferred to remain apolitical, focusing almost exclusively on saving souls. This trend started to shift in the late 1990s with the creation of the All India Christian Council, which built on earlier work by other denominationally-based organizations. The Council was created in the aftermath of a brutal killing in Orissa in which an Australian missionary and his two young sons were burned alive by Hindu radicals. With its back against the wall, church leaders united to protest persecution and advance religious freedom within India. The Council formed strong interfaith relationships. And, in the process, the Council became more engaged in politics and came face to face with the oppression suffered by Dalits. As the AICC shifts its focus to include the Dalit cause, it risks losing support from within and outside of India. Religious persecution seems to galvanize attention and incite moral indignation much more than fighting a hidden and entrenched system of caste oppression.
The struggle for Dalit freedom appears to be on the tipping point of bursting forth into a social movement. India's free press, strong civil society, and good laws provide key ingredients for such a movement. With greater political empowerment and cohesion, the Dalits, scheduled tribes, and lower-caste Indians could form a formidable swing constituency in Indian politics. However, according to political science professor Dr. Kancha Ilaiah, of Osmania University in Hyderabad, "in the context of elections many Dalits remain disenfranchised and are bribed through money or alcohol." Language barriers, factions in leadership, and religious differences have also stifled national unity. Despite these barriers, Dalits have made a number of historic political gains. In 1997, a Dalit woman, Mayawati Kumari, was elected to the top post in the state of Uttar Pradesh in a landslide victory in which she was able to garner support across castes, including from high-caste Brahmins. While Uttar Pradesh benefits from the largest concentration of Dalits, elements of this success story can be replicated in other parts of India. The Dalit vote was also pivotal in bringing the more nonsectarian Congress Party back to national power in 2004. In 2006 Manmohan Singh became the first sitting prime minister to publicly acknowledge the parallel between the practice of "untouchability" and the crime of "apartheid."
Despite the encouraging rhetoric of the Congress Party, a chasm still exists between words and action to redress the Dalit plight. The weight of 3,000 years of caste precedent and tradition can feel overwhelming and intractable. However, seeds of empowerment have already been planted and are bearing fruit in the fertile soil for Dalit liberation. The upcoming national elections will provide another test and opportunity.
Adam Taylor is the senior political director for Sojourners.
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