Caste system among Indian Christians
The caste system among Indian Christians often reflects stratification by sect, location, and the castes of their predecessors. The caste system today is beyond Hinduism (Hindu society) and it exists in all religions in India.
Caste distinctions among Indian Christians are breaking down at about the same rate as those among Indians belonging to other religions. There exists evidence to show that Christian individuals have mobility within their respective castes. But, in some cases, social inertia causes old traditions and biases against other castes to remain, causing caste segregation to persist among Indian Christians.
Syrian Christians in Kerala consist of the members of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, Chaldean Syrian Church, and also Syrian Christians of the Madhya Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India, which is a united autonomous Indian church within the Anglican Communion. They derive status within the caste system from the tradition that they are converted from high castes by Thomas the Apostle in the first century. Modern historians are of the view tht Syrian christians themselves are converts of local Ezhava, Mukkuva communities who were outside caste system. Diwan Reddy Row in his royal proclamation of September 1817 prevented the Christians of Travancore from forced labour or Oozhiyam in Nambudiri and Nair estates. Even today the affinity of Syrian Christians towards liquor brewing akin to their cousins Ezhavas is a remnant of their caste identity. This was further confirmed by genetic studies which shows the closeness of the two communities. Rev Fr J A Abbe Dubios, a French missionary writes in his letters.
″They are all designated under the contemptuous name of Nazarany, and held by the pagans in still greater contempt than the Christians of this part of the country. The Nairs chiefly keep them at a greatest distance, and they form a separate body in society.” (Dubois, Abbe J.A., Letters On The State of Christianity in India, New Delhi:Associated Publishing House, (1977),p.12).″
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church are sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the Holy See that are a part of the St. Thomas Christian tradition.
In the Indian state of Goa, mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese Latin Catholic missionaries from the 16th century onwards. The Hindu converts retained their caste practices due to the involuntary nature of the mass conversions. This led to a lack of conscientious belief in Christian practices which perpetuated the existence of the social stratification. The Portuguese colonists, even during the Goan Inquisition, did not do anything to change the caste system. Thus, the original Hindu Brahmins in Goa, the only caste that could be ordained, now became Christian Bamonns and the Kshatriya and Vaishya Vanis became Christian noblemen called Chardos . Those Vaishya Vanis who could not get admitted into the Chardo caste became Gauddos, and Shudras became Sudirs. Finally, the Dalits or "Untouchables" who converted to Christianity became Maharas and Chamars (an appellation of the anti-Dalit ethnic slur Chamaar). The upper caste Gaonkar Christians have demanded that only their community be given positions on the Pastoral Council of Goa's Catholic Church.
Christians in the state belong to the Adi Dravidar, Paravar, Nadar, Vellalar, Udaiyar and other Castes. Mass conversion of Paravars date back to the Portuguese era and the conflict over the Pearl Fishery Coast between the Paravars and Arabs in the 15th century A.D.Though the Paravars converted 'en masse' to Christianity and became the subjects of the Portuguese King, they strictly maintained the caste hierarchy and had their own king 'Pandiapathy' to govern them. The Nadar conversion to Christianity dates back to the British Colonial era in the 18th-century. The Chanar community (present day Nadar community) was one such untouchable caste. In order to get rid of the custom and to ensure dignified human living, the Chanars embraced Christianity. The first to initiate the conversion was Mylaudy Village by Sir Ringle Taube. Later in the 19th century, the Vellalars, the Udaiyars and Schedule castes embraced Christianity. The cohesion of jatis among caste Christians (e.g. Paravas) and the strength of caste leadership are noted by scholars to be much stronger than comparable predominantly Hindu castes in Tamil Nadu. Although the Paravars accepted Vellalar and Udaiyar converts as equals, they treated the Nadar and other scheduled caste converts as lower standings as compared to themselves. They distinguished themselves as 'Fernando' Christians (this was the surname given to their ancestors by the Portuguese priests). Paravars controlled the Roman Catholic Church of Tamil Nadu for centuries. However, discrimination still persists. Lourdunathan Yesumariyan, Jesuit activist notes that "over 70 per cent of Catholics are Dalit converts. But only four out of 18 bishops are from the Untouchable-Christian community." In Tamil Nadu, Christian dalits also complain of discrimination by the Telugu speaking Reddiar minority.
Under the law
Indian law does not provide benefits for "Untouchable Christians", however Christians have been agitating for the same rights given to Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh Scheduled castes. Despite the activists point of discrimination due to social tag or status, which doesn't go away, K. G. Balakrishnan asked: "Could the Christians admit that they practise caste system and that Dalits (among them) face social discrimination requiring reservation to uplift their cause? This is not all that easy."
Some Christians also oppose the proposed labeling of "Christian Scheduled castes" because they feel their identity may be assimilated. Pastor Salim Sharif of the Church of North India notes "We are becoming another class and caste."
Caste discrimination among Christians
There are separate seats, separate communion cups, burial grounds, and churches for members of the lower castes, especially in the Latin Catholic Church. Catholic churches in India are largely controlled by upper caste priests and nuns. Furthermore, Christian dalits have faced incidents such as harassment, murder, and police framing. Presently in India, more than 70 per cent of Latin Catholics are Dalits, but the higher caste Catholics (30% by estimates) control 90 per cent of the Catholic churches administrative jobs. Out of the 156 catholic bishops, only six are from lower castes.
Untouchable Catholics have spoken out against discrimination against them by members of the Catholic Church. A Dalit activist with a nom-de-plume of Bama Faustina has written books that are critical of the discrimination by the nuns and priests in Churches in South India (CSI). During 2003 ad limina visits of the bishops of India, Pope John Paul II criticized the caste discrimination in the Catholic Church in India when addressing bishops of the ecclesiastical provinces of Madras-Mylapore, Madurai and Pondicherry-Cuddalore, the three archbishops of Tamil Nadu. He went on to say: "It is the Church's obligation to work unceasingly to change hearts, helping all people to see every human being as a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ, and therefore a member of our own family".
Mass conversions of lower caste Hindus took place in order to escape the discrimination and unfair treatment faced by them. The main Dalit groups that participated in these conversions were Chuhras of Punjab, Chamars of North India (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh), Vankars of Gujarat and Pulayas of Kerala. They believed that “Christianity is a true religion; a desire for protection from oppressors and, if possible, material aid; the desire for education for their children; and the knowledge that those who have become Christians had improved”. Christianity was thought to be egalitarian and could provide mobility away from the caste. Even after conversion, Dalits were discriminated against due to the “residual leftover” practice of caste discrimination. This is attributed to the predominant Hindu society they lived in.The environment and power structures of the society they engaged in was the same. Sometimes the only change seen was their personal religious identity. In many cases they were still referred to by their Hindu caste names. Example Pulayans in Kerala, Pariah in Tamil Nadu and Madigas in Andra Pradesh.
The first people converted by Jesuits of the Madura Mission to Christianity were members of the ruling Maravar caste and their dependant groups - Pallars (untouchables) and Natars (toddy tappers). Caste based occupations held by Dalits also show a clear segregation which perpetuated even after becoming Christian. Occupational patterns (including manual scavenging) are prevalent among Dalit Christians in north-west India are quite similar to that of Dalit Hindus. Occupational discrimination for Dalit Christians goes so far as to restrict not only employment but also clean sanitation and water. Inter caste marriage among Christians is also not commonly practiced. For example, Syrian Christians in Kerala do not marry Dalit Christians. Even intermarriage between Bamons and Sudras in Goa is quite uncommon. Sometimes marriage to a higher class Hindu is preferred to marriage to a Dalit Christian. Discrimination against Dalit Christians also remained in interactions and mannerisms between castes for example ‘lower caste christians’ had to close their mouth when talking to a Syrian Christian. Even after conversion segregation, restriction, hierarchy and graded ritual purity remained. Data shows that there is more discrimination and less class mobility in rural areas.
In many cases, the churches themselves perpetuated the caste system. Some churches referred to the Dalits as ‘New Christians'. It is a derogatory term that classifies the Dalit Christians in order to allow other Christians to look down upon them. In many churches in south India Dalits had either separate seating or had to attend the mass from outside. Dalit Christians are also grossly underrepresented amongst the clergy. There are a few churches that accept the reality of castes in Christianity and discrimination towards dalits. Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and the National Council of Churches in India have backed changes in the church and law to benefit Dalit Christians.
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