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August - September 2007

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When is a Dalit not a Dalit?

by Anuja Prashar

Christian aid and funding organizations and even UK Members of Parliament, such as Andrew Reed (Conservative) and infamous Ex Secretary of State, Mr. J. Aitken (Conservative), all state that they are committed to upholding religious freedom in India and for ‘Dalits’ in particular. The Christian Far Right orgnaisation with ample support from UK MPs, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), leads the crusade against Hinduism and have suggested that Caste and Slavery are interlinked, during the Bicenntinary celebrations of the Abolish of slavery. CSW’s Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas, says “Perhaps there is more slavery in India than anywhere else in the world today. The victims of these horrific abuses are, overwhelmingly, the outcast Dalits, whose pleas we can ignore no longer.”

The first linking of Dalit poverty to the notion of slavery was put forward in a Book by V. T. Rajshekar; Clarity Press, 1987 “The Black untouchables of India”. Under Rajshekhar’s leadership the Dalit Voice organisation formulated an Indian variant of Afrocentric pseudohistory, similar to that of the Nation of Islam in the USA. In 1986 Rajshekar’s passport was confiscated because of “anti-Hinduism writings outside of India.” The same year, he was arrested in Bangalore under India’s Terrorism and Anti-Disruptive Activities Act.

Recent activities of CSW with its India Branch demonstrate a lack of respect for Indian Law and India’s democratic process. Christian Solidarity Worldwide in April sponsoring a delegation of converted Christians from India to lobby European and UK governments, to coincide with the commemoration of 200 years of the abolition of Slavery. The emotive language used and the linkage of poverty in India with Slavery is an effective strategy for initiating ‘moral panics’ similar to those generated about youth cultures, immigration and wearing of the Hijab.

To suggest that the Schedule Caste of India are slaves in the 21st Century is to completely ignore their status as citizens of India, the provisions made for them within India under the Law in reservations within schools, public institutions of work and all those of Dalit backgrounds who enjoy the increasing opportunity for social mobility that has become visible in India today. The notion that a people who are free to vote and have legal status and protection under the Law are slaves, is inflammatory and divisive. The linking of the family network structures of Jati to the trading of human beings and all the associated ramifications of these implications can only cause chaos and disharmony for future generations of all Indian society.

Amongst intellectuals studying Vedic/Hindu social systems, the term Dalit is pejorative and considered to be a colonial construction and not reflective of the Vedic meaning of ‘Caste’ or Varna as depicted within ancient scriptures. Peter van der Veer of the London School of Economics says, “The idea that caste is the basis of Indian social order and that to be a Hindu is to be a member of a caste became an axiom in the British period. What actually happened during that period was probably a process of caste formation and more rigid systematization due to administrative and ideological pressure from the colonial system, which reminds us of the so-called ‘secondary tribalization’ of Africa.” (Gods on Earth, p.11)

Mahatma Gandhi used the term Harijan for those of disadvantaged social and family networks. Sashi S. Sharma, scholar of History of Religion and Philosophy, asserts that the notion of ‘untouchability’- often associated with the ancient social group of Shudra, who were barred from studying the Vedas due to unhygienic occupations, lifestyles or the practice of eating meat - is also often mentioned within the evangelical or human rights discourse, but cannot be supported by historical accounts by foreign visitors or evidence from the dharmashastras (scriptures) as is often claimed. Gerhard Schweitzer argues, “For lack of historical and scriptural source material, it is completely unknown when this greater category of ‘untouchables’ on the lowest rungs of the social ladder was established. No high-caste author of the past millennium either seems to have found it necessary to discuss the question in any form in his writings. Probably this greater category has only come into being during the 8th or 9th Century, so it is truly a young phenomenon.” (Indien, p. 21) This subject requires a deeper discussion and clarification.

However, the political significance of the terms and associated historical and perceived wisdom surrounding this ‘Dalit’ issue are apparent from the evidence gathered within the report on Conversion in India today.(Full report at The term Dalit or Shudra or Untouchable are terms not used by officials or Indian society in India, who rather use the term Schedule Caste, which is made up of three categories within this grouping, none of which correspond to any Vedic or Hindu systems of social ordering described in any historical accounts or religious scriptures. Therefore, the use of the word ‘Dalit’ or ‘caste’ and its assumed association with Vedic or Hindu religious practices today needs to be re-evaluated to gain the appropriate current operational definition of family networks, in order to retain any hermeneutic validity within the discourse of Human Rights and Religious freedom.

A clear distinction between Varna (occupational status associated with merit or quality – a system of values) and Jati (family network - functional) needs to be made explicit to appreciate the axiomatic use of the term Dalit in Human rights discourse today. The Connecting Hindus report 2006, commissioned by the Hindu Forum of Britain and funded by the Home Office and produced by the Runnymead Trust of the UK suggests, “We have noted above the diversity within Hindu traditions and communities. It has been posed as a challenge to create a unifying voice because of the range of approaches to the faith and certain traditions being closely linked to a geographical location and tradition.”

A further contributing factor to the diversity of traditions is varna (caste). The ancient Hindu system of Varna is based on division of labour to accommodate work done by priests and teachers (brahmanas), soldiers and administrators (kshatriyas), businessmen and farmers (vaishyas), and artisans and workers (shudras). This system, which was migratory and based on work and occupation later, gave rise to a parallel hereditary system called Jati (family networks).

There is an urgent need for further discussion and unpacking of this complex historically biased and epistemological ambiguity and use of the terms Caste and Dalit. The resulting contradictions become apparent with the following example of the use of the term ‘Dalit’ in western political discourse of Human Rights and the grassroots empirical reality of social groupings of the urban and rural populations of India.

MP Andrew Selous (Conservative) stated in a recent speech:

“The caste system means that 90 per cent of those living below the official poverty line in India are the Dalits or, as we know them, the untouchables. There are some 260 million Dalits in South Asia, and I pay tribute to the Dalit Solidarity Network for its work in keeping this issue in the public eye. Caste discrimination is a gross human rights violation.”

It is not clear who are the “Dalits” that Mr. Selos is referring to. He is perhaps referring to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes together. According to the Indian Census 2001, The Scheduled Castes constitute about 16% of Indian population and Scheduled Tribes about 8%. They together constitute about 24% of the Indian population which tallies with the figure of 260 million population that he is citing. However, the 90% figure is a grave error and doesn’t even take into account other social groupings within the population which also exist below the poverty line.

Mr. Selos, on behalf of his party also advocates that “We should encourage the work of Plan International , “a Christian organization” and similar organizations. My party believes that more aid should be directed through NGOs, charities and the private sector, as such organizations are often more efficient, effective and, sometimes, accountable than the Governments to whom aid is given.” This evidence of transcending the authority of National Governments is in keeping with Lesley Skliar’s suggestion that the transnational globalizing organizations have bureaucrats who promote their global agendas and therefore are shaping the processes and outcomes of globalization. In this particular case, it would appear that the process is being driven by erroneous information which supports the false and ambiguous notion of humanitarian aid linked to the practice of Christianity conflated with religious freedom, as opposed to the practice of a Hindu caste practice.

Is lower income for minority groups a unique experience to India? The Table from the Census data 2001 UK suggests that economic development of minorities is not an issue related exclusively to religious practices. Further research would unpack this issue.

(Source :

“People from minority ethnic groups were more likely than White people to live in low-income households in 2000/01. There was considerable variation among the different minority ethnic groups.

Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were much more likely than other groups to be living on low incomes. Almost 60 per cent of the 1 million people in this group were living in low-income households before housing costs were deducted. This increased to 68 per cent after housing costs.

A substantial proportion (49 per cent) of Black Non-Caribbean households also lived on low incomes after housing costs had been deducted. However, the risk of low-income for this group was much less pronounced in comparison with other ethnic groups if income before housing costs is used. The White population were least likely to be living in low-income households, 16 per cent did so before housing costs were deducted and 21 per cent after housing costs.”

Social development of disadvantaged social groups is not the same purpose stated by the Evangelical church, whose mission is to “Bring Christ’s word to those who have not heard it before.” Or “Claim Nations for Christ”. In this manner, the two issues of human rights to religious freedom and social development of disadvantaged social categories and the conversion of Dalits appear to be two separate issues. However, when the intention of so called ‘Dalit’ development is linked and indeed conflated with conversion to Christianity in practice within the villages, as illustrated by the Seventh Day Adventist’s case study, the issue becomes one. Within the evangelical movement of India this is apparently the case and the understanding of this situation is most often also described in terms that make the two issues one.

The term ‘untouchable’ caste, the word ‘caste’ itself of Latin origin, has been used to describe within the Hindu society, those that historically in ancient times held positions of occupation that warranted their segregation from larger society for hygienic and social health reasons. This is no longer the case for this ‘caste’ of people in India who have jobs in all areas of the labor force toady. ‘Dalits’ in villages of India however do still on the whole occupy positions of menial labor and are usually farm workers.

The construction of the concept of Dalits in Western political and social discourse is also evidence of a tendency of those who use this term to exoticise and objectify their subjects. Even when the Church is raising funds for its own work, the ideology of orientalism and denigrated positioning of the Indian people is often validated within the discourse of sharing the gospel message. “Your help can enable the Church to survive and grow in the most difficult circumstances.” The Barnabas Fund website tells us “There are Churches in hostile environments that are being built up through the training and support of pastors and evangelists, and the provision of resources such as Bibles and Sunday School materials. £1,500 (sterling) will allow a small congregation to rent a room for worship services for one year.

The ‘hostile environments’ described in this manner, may actually have been created through the practice of conversion and not because they are essentially hostile environments. The tribal group, known as Sarna in Ranchi, Jharkhand, have demanded that the reservation facilities provided to tribal Christians be stopped immediately. The Kendriya Sarna Samiti (KSS), one of the prominent organizations, has taken the lead in making the demand. Supporting the view, Arjun Oraon, another tribal leader, said “The Christian missionaries convert our people with allurement and then force them to follow their culture, tradition, mode of prayer and other things.” Arjun added, “The tribal Christians should not be clubbed with us as it will pose danger to our existence. They are provided all facilities by the missionaries and we cannot compete with them. If this continues then the spirit of reservation will not work in our favour.”

In the Presidential address, on occasion of NATIONAL ASSEMBLY OF DALIT CHRISTIANS. VITTHALBHAIPATEL HOUSE, RAFI MARG, NEW DELHI 2003, MR. R.L. Francis said, “Church leadership has been running more than 40,000 health, educational and other social organizations in the country. After Government of India, Church has the largest proportion of land in the country. The Church has some of the best educational institutions in its control, which cater to the needs of affluent and elite sections at the cost of Dalit Christians and poorer sections. Even in Delhi the Capital of India, the number of Dalit Christian children in Church-run schools is negligible. In other words, the entire wealth of the Church is being controlled only by high class Christians. Christian money, their real estate and all other means are being utilized for the benefit of others by neglecting Dalit Christians or poorer sections.

“Church leadership opposes the policy of reservations for Dalit Christians in missionary schools and organizations while they have been demanding the same from the Government at the Centre. Church leadership does not give Dalit Christians equal treatment. The amount of funds received by the Church for the development of Dalit Christians is never disclosed to the community nor do they give any indication as to how this amount has been utilized..”



I Resolution: Demands of Dalit Christians as contained in the New Delhi Declaration released by the Movement on 19 June 2002 should be adopted and conceded by the Catholic

Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), the National Council for Churches in India (NCCI) and other Church bodies immediately.

II Resolution: This Assembly unanimously believes that Evangelism cannot be a measurement of a society’s socio-economic development. Therefore, Evangelism programme should be suspended for 100 years and funds thus saved be utilized for development and welfare of Dalits and deprived sections and creating awareness amongst them.

III Resolution: In Church-run schools, colleges, technical institutions and other vocational organizations, Reservation of seats for Dalit Christians as well as other Dalits should be provided immediately. A time-bound programme of action should be chalked out to implement a meaningful education plan.

IV Resolution: Both Protestant and Catholic Church leadership should issue a White Paper on Participation of Dalit Christians in the present Church structure; and Socio-economic condition of Dalit Christians in respective Dioceses of the country.

By their own admission, Christian Solidarity Worldwide also acknowledge a dichotomous situation emerging within the Christian Churches attitude towards Dalits: “It is deeply unfortunate that some churches operate separate congregations for the upper and lower castes, but the Christian community is becoming inceasingly aware of the need to support Dalits in their struggle for justice and the need to fully integrate those adhering to Christianity.”

A report published in 2006 called, ‘No Escape - Caste Discrimination in the UK’, erroneously suggests that many Indian communities in Britain are blighted by caste discrimination. The report findings contradict those of the Connecting Hindus Report 2006, produced by the Runnymead Trust, that was commissioned by the Home office. The report, No escape, said many of the 50,000 Dalits in the UK suffer discrimination from other castes in terms of jobs, healthcare, politics, education and schools. Researchers were told how couples who marry outside their own caste face “violence, intimidation and exclusion”. According to a report in the ‘Guardian’, David Haslam of the Dalit Solidarity Network, who organized the research, says, “Dalits across the UK felt that within the Indian community, their identity was based on caste and that the caste system was very much in operation.”

The report ‘No Escape’ was sponsored by Barrows Corporation, made up of a survey of closed leading questions, responded to by 130 people. Barrows is owned by the Cadbury’s group who’s Board of Directors all belong to the family, which are all Quakers. Quakers are a Christian Evangelical group founded in UK, with currently approx 43% of their membership from Africa

The combined efforts of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, UK Christian MPs and Converted Christians from Dalit Solidarity Network present the case for religious freedom when all the time poor people are actually being targeted for conversion to Christianity by far right Christian organizations. There is ample evidence in the Report, Conversion and Anti-Conversion in India today (Full report at, for a highly organised and powerful global Christian Evangelical multi-national networked organization (Joshua Project), which has become embedded within the political apparatus of the UK.

Under the guise of Religious Freedom and Human Rights this movement is quickly becoming a driver for social unrest and social instability in India. The recent development of reports and interventions by British MPs and Christian Far Right organisations within the UK, also have the potential for disrupting the social harmony and productive integrated Indian society, residing within the UK today.

I strongly suggest that a Dalit is not a Dalit , when they are portrayed for political effect as slaves, as religious victims or as Christian victims. If the term Dalit means ‘broken or not whole’ in keeping with anti social occupational status as defined thousands of years ago, then the Dalit Solidarity Network, UK MPs and Christian Far Right organizations methods for defining the schedule castes and citizens of India is misleading language that disguises a purpose other than Dalit empowerment. The recent election results in Uttar Pradesh, in India, with the success of BSP leader Mayawati, suggests that Dalits or schedule castes are very much part of Indian society and fast becoming part of the political reality of India – and as such cannot be considered to be ‘broken and not whole’.

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