Broken India

Broken India

Happy New Year. I’m in India–Hyderabad to be precise–working on a story about Dalit Christians. Dalit, as you may know, is the name currently used for untouchable people. It translates roughly as “broken people.” Dalits comprise perhaps 20% of the Indian population and 70% of the Christian church.

Unquestionably Dalits’ status has improved, especially in urbanizing India. Prejudice against them is illegal, and the government offers a number of special privileges, most notably in admission quotas at public schools. Nevertheless, prejudice remains, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, and so does oppression, especially in rural society.

This caste prejudice is based on nothing. As Father A Maria told me in Chennai last Saturday, most prejudice builds on difference. Race prejudice is based on differences in skin color. Gender discrimination builds on sex differences. Class is based fundamentally on differences in wealth. Human beings instinctively seize on difference, favoring “our” group over theirs. But Dalits are indistinguishable, ethnically, from other Indians. They look the same. Caste is not based on difference at all. It is an indelible label stamped on groups of people at some time in the remote past. Nothing anyone can ever do will thus erase the stigma of caste–no amount of education or success can ever make a Dalit less polluted, from the traditional Hindu way of thinking.

All kinds of prejudice haunt human society, but this utterly arbitrary (and religiously supported) prejudice casts a uniquely dark shadow over India. The society is fast moving, confident and hopeful, for many good reasons. Many people hope that modernization, education, urbanization and globalization will eradicate prejudice. But my Indian informants doubt that caste will ever disappear, if India does not have a change of heart. The theology of caste permeates every institution, every election, every business.

If an Indian should tell you that caste has become meaningless for educated people, my informants say, ask him whether he would allow his sister to marry a Dalit. You will soon see that the fundamental prejudice remains.

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2 Responses to “Broken India”

  1. Jun Gonzaga Says:

    Happy New Year Tim. Thanks for an eye-opening article. Hope I can get hold of the complete article about Dalit Christians. I believe they’ll teach us a lot about “Good News to the Poor.” (Luke 4:18). God bless you my friende.

  2. David Neff Says:

    Robert Frykenberg, who wrote the Cambridge History of Christianity in India, told me that Hindus think of caste the way we think of species–humans are not dogs and dogs are not skunks. For Hindus, the castes are, in the natural order of things, as different from each other as dogs are from cats and thus intermarriage is unthinkable.

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