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. 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" while the Islamic Dalits are categorised as "Muhajir" or "Arzal". 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.
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.”
Patil R. R. and James, Dabhi (Eds.). 2010, Dalit Christians in India, New Delhi: Manak Publication.
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