Caste Aspersions

Is prejudice in India about religion or social standing?

I was in South India with delegates from churches around New York last February when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom added India to its list of “Countries of Particular Concern.” An article in The Hindu reported that, for the first time, India would be included on the list of countries whose governments have tolerated “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” Reading this news with my fellow travelers inspired reflection: Was the discrimination we had encountered against Indian Christians just one more example of the growing global phenomenon of religiously motivated hatred, or were other social forces at work? More specifically, were the commission’s noted Indian violations—at least in the area of Hindu-Christian relations—examples of religious hatred or of caste prejudice?

We were not human rights experts. Our delegation was mostly veteran church volunteers, mostly female, representing Episcopal parishes from the New York area. With us were a Sunday school superintendent, the grand-daughter of British missionaries, and an Indian priest currently serving in New York, Father Gideon Jebamani. Father Gideon, a delegation leader, was instrumental in the larger mission to develop the ecclesiastic equivalent of a “sister cities” program between the Dioceses of New York and Madras. He also opened our eyes to a part of Indian society few foreign visitors see.

Like more than 60 percent of India’s Christians, Father Gideon was born into one of the many “untouchable” classes—India’s 160 million Dalits or “broken people.” The caste system, described by Human Rights Watch as “India’s hidden apartheid,” found divine sanction in ancient Sanskrit literature. The four major castes are said to have emerged from the body of Pususha, the Self-Existent One: Brahmins (priests) from his head, Ksyatriyas (warriors) from his arms; Vaisayas (merchants and traders) from his thighs; and Shudras (craftsmen and artisans) from his feet.

Beyond these four major castes, the scriptures described a group of polluting or impure peoples who were to be excluded from the teachings of the dharma. These were the ancestors of the present-day Dalits. Historically, Dalits lived on the outskirts of villages, performing unclean jobs such as the removal of dead animals, leather-tanning, and the disposal of human waste. Their touch, shadow, and even the sound of their voices were thought to be polluting to caste Hindus. Despite the 1950 ban on untouchability in the Indian Constitution and additional 1989 reservation requirements, Dalits still experience segregation, job discrimination, and government complicity in violence organized by caste militias. Today, Dalits, who comprise more than one-sixth of the Indian population, still live on the margins of society.

When Father Gideon drove members of our group to the place of his birth, a few hours west of Madras, we discovered that caste divisions and not religious ones were still indelibly carved into India’s village geography.

Our tour began as we turned down the main village road, which divided Dalit thatched huts on one side from two-story concrete homes of the caste Indians on the other. Father Gideon pointed out the village grocery store on the caste side of the street where, as a child running family errands, he had been made to place his money down on the counter so the shopkeeper would never have to touch his hand. He showed us the village well, once off-limits to his family. And finally, he brought our attention to the Temple, located at the very end of a street lined by upper-caste homes and historically inaccessible to Dalits. One sign of positive change was the school, which had expanded to fill the local church sanctuary and included children from both sides of the main road.

During lunch at Father Gideon’s family home, we met his stooped, fragile 90-year-old father who appeared wearing sandals and a simple loin cloth. Father Gideon explained that his father and other Dalits of the older generation could not have worn even these simple shoes 40 years ago. Tradition mandated that when a Dalit encountered a person of higher caste, he remove his shoes and lower his eyes. For Dalit women of the Father Gideon’s grandmother’s generation, custom forbade them from wearing any clothing on their upper bodies.

As we rode away past open fields and rice paddies, further conversation revealed that the village was still a place of deep anxiety for Father Gideon. Later in the trip, the Rev. Isaac Kadirvlu, director of the Dalit Studies Department at Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary, would articulate the common experience of educated Dalits returning to their home villages. “Whenever I return to my village there is always a feeling of shame or fear. I must ask myself the question, do I go all the way around the village, so as to avoid the main road or do I walk straight down it, risking that if there is a rain storm, there will be nowhere I can go for shelter, if I get thirsty there will be nowhere that I can stop and get water.”

The village was not the only place where caste prejudice appeared to take precedence over other forms of discrimination, including religious bigotry. In New Delhi, we visited the Gandhi Smriti—the place of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and a museum of the leader’s life and work. While pictures of Gandhi, Nehru, and other great figures of India’s founding Congress Party decorated the hallways, Dr. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution and a Dalit hero, was nowhere to be found.

Another member of the delegation and I took it upon ourselves to bring this omission to the attention of management. We asked the only museum representative we could find on hand, a middle-aged woman taking tickets behind the admissions desk, about it.

“This is the Gandhi Museum,” she replied, less irritably, perhaps, than a U.S. Park Service ranger might correct a tourist seeking carved inscriptions of John Brown’s speeches in the Lincoln Memorial.

“But didn’t Dr. Ambedkar write India’s constitution?” we persisted.

“Many people worked on the constitution,” the woman said and then added with a pointed glare, “It is a lawyer’s paradise made from foreign countries.”

Sensing that it was the Dalit issue we were after, the woman announced that Gandhi had “freed the Harijans.” She used a Gandhian term disliked by the Dalits for its implicit condescension and similarity to the word for children of temple prostitutes. Gathering steam, the woman then asked us what we were doing in India. Why had we come? What did we do?

I explained that I served in a church in New York and was part of a delegation that had been invited to Madras by the Church of South India.

“Ah, you are a priest,” she said, viewing my disclosure as reducing my credibility as an advocate for the plight of Dalits. “See, you have education. You are high in your religion. You would not have untouchables who are priests.”

We summoned Father Gideon at this moment to present himself as living evidence to the contrary. When the woman protested, saying that he had education, Father Gideon interjected, “In spite of my education, still I am treated as untouchable. I was born untouchable, and I will die untouchable. You say that there is no more untouchability in India, but would you marry into my family?”

The woman considered a moment, and then replied that she or her family might “go with Sudras” (the lowest caste), perhaps, but no, she would not marry outside caste. And though she conceded that caste divisions might exist in the villages, she was adamant that they were a thing of the past in cities like Delhi.

I stayed in India a few days after the rest of the group returned to New York and during that time had the opportunity to tour the Delhi Gymnkhana, an exclusive social club and holdover from the colonial era. When I asked my tour-guide why there were signs on both the club lawn and at the swimming pool that said in English, “No Ayahs (nannies) or servants allowed,” he was unhesitating in his reply. “Because those people come from a different class and some of our guests complain. Also,” he added with a knowing look, “between the officer and the peon there must be some distance.”

Will putting India on this U.S. commission’s religious-persecution list be the best way to ensure a more respectful and tolerant society? Perhaps. Will this diplomatic tool help in ending the caste system, which has religious overtones but runs deeper than almost any other division in Indian society? That has yet to be seen.