Elze Sietzema – Riemer (1986), lid van de gereformeerd-vrijgemaakte kerk, uit Amersfoort volgde onder meer een universitaire bachelor ‘religie en cultuur’ aan de Universiteit in Utrecht (2010). Voor de afdeling ‘zending’ van ICCO / KerkinActie deed ze in die periode literatuuronderzoek en nam interviews af voor het thema ‘a research on Christian Dalits in India’. De hoofdvraag luidde: “What can the mission department of ICCO/KiA mean for the Christian Dalits in India?”. Het onderzoek resulteerde in verschillende aanbevelingen.  Hieronder zijn die aanbevelingen overigens niet opgenomen, ook de methode van aanpak en de voetnoten zijn weggelaten. Verder is hoofdstuk 2 weggelaten, over de rol van de diverse kerken. We volstaan hier met het beschrijvende deel van de theologie van de Dalitsgemeenschap, bedoeld als onderbouwing in dit verband bij de week van gebed om eenheid, waarvan het materiaal voor 2013 afkomstig is uit India. Elze Sietzema – Riemer is bereikbaar via ecsietzema@gmail.com.


In the following chapter the focus lies on answering the question: how does the life of a Dalit Christian looks like? In subchapter 1.1 some difficulties, inherent on this issue, are explained. Subchapter 1.2 is about the features of the Dalit Christians and 1.3 focuses on their discrimination. In subchapter 1.4 the Dalit Christians are compared with other Dalits in terms of welfare. Last, in subchapter 1.5, it is explained what being a Christian means for Christian Dalits.

1.1    A Few Comments on the Side

First of all, the Dalit Christian does not exist. Being a Christian may involve very different practices of marriage or worship in different regions. This means that ‘Dalit Christians’ represent a wide, multi-dimensional spectrum which should be held in mind when thinking about Dalit Christians.

The second consideration has to do with the naming of Dalits who are Christian. So far I called them ‘Dalit Christians’. But, as the attentive reader may have noticed, I titled this chapter: ‘Christian Dalits’. This has a reason. The most common phrase to use is Dalit Christian, so that is why I began with using this term. However, along the way I realised that this term is not correct. It is in fact a matter of which word is the noun and which is the adjective modifying it. As will become clear later on, Dalits constitute for almost the entire Christian population in India. Moreover, Christian Dalits are more stipulated by being a Dalit than by being a Christian. The main reason for this is that once converted to another religion, the discrimination continues. Also, as became clear in the various interviews, the identity of Christian Dalits has far more to do with them being a Dalit than by them being a Christian. The third reason, of why it should be ‘Christian Dalits’, is formulated by John Webster, namely, that ‘Christian Dalit’ conveys a greater sense of solidarity with other Dalits, than does ‘Dalit Christian’. All in all, reason enough to choose ‘Dalit’ as the noun and ‘Christian’ as the modifying adjective. 

The first sentence of the introduction states that Christian Dalits are officially non-existent in India, but why this is, is still not answered. It has got to do everything with the third consideration, that is, the difficulty of knowing the number of Christian Dalits in India. Christian Dalits are not recognised by the government. The first phrases about not being a Dalit when you are a Christian, is a logic used by the government to exclude Christian Dalits from the Reservation System. Later on in this rapport, the discriminatory consequences this has for the Dalits will become clear. But this lack of formal recognition as a social category also creates some difficulties for this research. In the first place, there is an almost complete data vacuum when it comes to Christian Dalits, in contrast to the considerable information and statistical data that is available about the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes: the constitutional categories. This is also acknowledged by Satish Deshpande from the University of Delhi, which conducted a study on the current social scientific knowledge about Dalits in Muslim and Christian Communities. The matter is made more complicated by the fact that a lot of Dalits feel embarrassed by their caste and have the tendency to deny it. Deshpande writes the following about that: “The argument is routinely offered that something other than pure caste identity – poverty, illiteracy, backwardness etc. – is responsible for the prejudiced reactions of the so-called ‘upper castes’ against the members of the so-called ‘lower castes’.” Altogether, it becomes clear that conducting a research about the Christian Dalits is a difficult task. On a smaller scale it also means that it seems almost impossible to get a grip on the total number of Christian Dalits.

1.2    Features of the Christian Dalits

In the following subchapter I will shortly examine the features of the Christian Dalits. First, their number is explained and then, a picture is drawn of the daily reality of the Christian Dalits.

1.2.1 Their Number

The difficulty of determining the number of Christian Dalits does not mean that people have not given it a try. The most prevailing view is that Dalits constitute around seventy percent of the Christians, which is, although a minority, a 24-million-strong community in India. The number of Dalits of all religions lies around the 200 million. Most people in India are of the Hindu religion; they seem to cover eighty percent of the population. In a country that has one billion inhabitants, this means there are approximately 800 million Hindus. Overall, these figures should tell us that 200 million people in India are still downtrodden and discriminated against. Furthermore, all religions other than Hinduism are minorities.

What does this mean for the Christian Dalit? First of all, this depends on where one lives. In the north of India there are very few caste Christians; roughly seventy percent of the Church members are Dalit. Consequently, the Christian Dalits in this part of India do not suffer as much discrimination as the Christian Dalits in the areas where there are more high castes, like the south, where many of the atrocities against Dalits are committed. Second, this means that a Christian Dalit is not only discriminated against because he is a Dalit, but also because he is a Christian.

1.2.2 The Daily Reality of Being a Christian Dalit

All of the sources studied for this research seem to agree on the point that the Christian Dalits still suffer on a daily basis. In this way they are not any different from other Dalits. John Webster writes in his book ‘Religion and Dalit Liberation’: “Although they form a majority of the Christian Community, they have been an oppressed majority.” Farther onward he adds: “Like other Dalits, Christian Dalits live in a caste-based society and their conversion has not been able to change that fact.” This last thought is shared by the bulk of the authors investigating the lives of the Christian Dalits. The reason that one will not lose his Dalit-status when converting to Christianity, is well formulated by M.R. Arulraja in his book ‘Jesus the Dalit’: “Those who commit atrocities against Dalits do not differentiate between Christian Dalits and non-Christian Dalits. For an Indian, a Dalit is a Dalit, whether Christian or not.” So, being a Christian or becoming a Christian doesn’t change the status of a Dalit, let alone will it change his life in terms of his well-being: for an Indian he is still a Dalit. Earlier on I mentioned that the number of Christian Dalits is an estimated seventy, some would even say eighty or ninety, percent of the total number of Christians. Together with the fact that in India Christianity is seen as an foreign, western religion and converting to it is almost seen as betrayal, this has some serious consequences for the daily life of the Christian Dalits: the suppression intensifies. This is illustrated by the Orissa violence, in December 2008. While these events testify about extreme violence towards Christian Dalits, the suppression also becomes visible in other forms, namely, in the ways they are discriminated against.

1.3    The Discrimination of Christian Dalits

The ways in which the Christian Dalits are discriminated against are very widespread and complex. For now, this means that in order to understand it, we have to categorise the discrimination. I have chosen the following categories, and by this the chapters: 1.3.1 discrimination by fellow Indians, 1.3.2 discrimination by the state, 1.3.3 discrimination in the Church, 1.3.4 discrimination of Christian Dalit women. These subjects are in my opinion the most important to understand the life of a Dalit who is also a Christian. This also follows from the insights of James Massey, himself a Christian Dalit and a prominent in this area of research. He states that the Christian Dalits suffer threefold discrimination: “one at the hands of members of the Indian society in general; two, from the government of India…; and three from Christians of upper caste/class background”.


With this selection I do not cover all forms of discrimination, for the reason that some forms, I would even say most, apply to all Dalits, whether Christian or not. And because in this research the focus lies on the specific features of the Christian Dalits, this kind of discrimination will not be thoroughly discussed, though some of it can be found in chapter 1.3.1. 


1.3.1 Discrimination by Fellow Indians


In this part we take a look at why Christian Dalits are unique in terms of the discrimination they have to face. Are they treated differently from other Dalits?

For a large part they are mistreated the same as other Dalits in the sense that they too are Dalits. And, as was said earlier, for an Indian, a Dalit is a Dalit. But there is more to it than that. It seems that Christian Dalits are treated even worse than Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist Dalits. In the first place, in the eyes of the Indians, Christian Dalits made the ‘mistake’ of embracing the Christian faith, in addition to their ‘crime’ of being born in an untouchable caste. The consequence of this is that Christian Dalits are in fact twice discriminated: as Dalits and as Christians. This becomes clear in the atrocities they have to face as Dalits but also as Christians. For a great part this has to do with the resentment Indians feel for Christianity as a ‘western religion’. Godwin Shiri also noticed this in his case study among the Christian Dalits in the South of India:


“It was reported that some of the most common rebukes which they suffer include: ‘Why do you come here for help? You go to your Padri!’ and ‘You better go to England or America for help!’ Apparently these rebukes/insults make no secret of the non-Dalits’ disapproval of the Madigas’ conversion to Christianity! It was observed that while non-Dalits generally treat all ‘untouchables’ with contempt, they treat converted Dalits with greater contempt.”


In addition to this, Christians have a particular place in the Indian society, in the sense that those who know that you are a Christian, would take it for granted that you are a Dalit and treat you as one. This becomes clear in the following story, told in the photo book ‘Dalit Lives’ of Paul van der Stap and Elisa Veini, about Sudhakar David, NCDHR associate in Hyderabad:

“My wife and I went to see a house. We were driving in the jeep of the organisation, so the house owner thought that we were quite something (grins). When everything was almost settled, he suddenly saw that my wife didn’t have a tilak (a red dot that Hindu women wear on their forehead) and he became suspicious. Were we Hindus? he wanted to know. No, we said, Christians. That was sufficient information, because ninety percent of the Christians are Dalits. We could forget about the house.”


This point is also confirmed by Kasta Dip, when he said in the interview: “We form maybe less than 3 percent of our population, so we are a religious minority and any religious minority is also treated like a Dalit.” In other words, Christian Dalits suffer because they are ‘untouchables’ and because they are part of a minority.


Finally, their Christian identity estranges them from their counterparts belonging to Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist religions. This also intensifies the discrimination.


1.3.2 Discrimination by the State


The National Commission of Scheduled Caste states that untouchability is only prevalent within the Hindu fold, and accordingly there is no untouchability in Christianity. To even state this is discriminatory, knowing what we know now. Moreover, these words have some serious consequences for the daily lives of Christian Dalits and their future perspectives.


The main issue here is that Christian Dalits are excluded from the Reservation System. This system is fixed by Indian law and is a form of affirmative action whereby a percentage of seats in the public sector are reserved for the Scheduled Castes, namely, the Dalits. But, only for the Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist Dalits – Muslims and Christians are denied those benefits, as a result of a presidential order in 1950. They don’t get the Scheduled Caste status, whereas under Article 17 of the Constitution it is clearly stated that no one is allowed to motivate untouchability. The Indian People’s Tribunal on Untouchability writes the following about this in its publication ‘untouchability on trial’: “So in that case, under the SC/ST Act, the hierarchy of the religions should be prosecuted. But the National Commission of Scheduled Castes tells that it is only the Hindu religion that motivates untouchability. Isn’t this a paradox?” By denying the Muslim and Christian Dalits those benefits, the state is violating its own laws that are meant to safeguard the equality of all people, irrespective of caste and creed distinctions. But that’s not all. Shiri Godwin found out that Christian Dalits not only get this treatment when they plead for Scheduled Castes benefits, but also when they make a request for ordinary state benefits, meant for Other Backward Classes and for economic weaker sections. In this way the state does not only discriminate on the basis of religion and thus a denial of religious liberty, but they also punish those Dalits who have had the courage to exercise their religious liberty and convert to Christianity or Islam. Not surprisingly many Christian Dalits conceal and deny that they are Christian, in order to get the benefits of reservation. This was also confirmed by the interview I had with CARDS: “In our education we don’t say that we are Christians, because then you don’t get a scholarship. That’s why in school we say we are from the Scheduled Caste. Like that we are getting a scholarship for our study.”


The implications of the earlier mentioned presidential order reaches farther than the deprivation of Christian Dalits from the reservations. It also negates them the protection to which they are entitled when they would belong to the Scheduled Castes. Hence, they cannot claim protection under the Untouchability Offences Act of 1979 or the Civil Rights Act of 1955 or the Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989. So, if Christian Dalits are assaulted, they cannot call upon any provision of the Constitution or Act.


Finally, there is one other way in which the state discriminates the Christian Dalits, namely, through India’s seven state-level Freedom of Religion Acts, also known as the ‘anti-conversion laws’. According to the CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide) briefing of 2008 on religiously-motivated violence and discrimination against Christians in India, these acts ‘pose a threat to freedom of religion through their restriction of religious conversions and their damaging normative effect on religious minorities.’ In addition, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, states in her 2008 report on her mission to India that these laws raise serious human rights concerns. She is concerned that these laws are being used to belittle Christians and Muslims.


All in all, despite the official abolition of discrimination based on caste and religion through laws, the discrimination still continues and even more so for the Christian Dalits. Instead of trying to end this, the government is making it worse.


1.3.3 Discrimination in the Church in India


Earlier on we established that despite conversion to Christianity, Dalits remain Dalits. Shockingly, this is also the case in the Churches in India. This means that the Dalits who turn to a religion that should give them freedom, don’t get any freedom. This part will discuss how this works and how the caste system still plays an important role in the Churches, even though it has lost its divine sanction.


First, the question has to be answered of how it is even possible that there is discrimination in the Churches. It started with the early missionaries: they were not able to put an end to the caste system in the Churches; instead they maintained the status quo. That is why Ambedkar, undoubtedly the most important person for the Dalits, criticised the Christian missionaries ‘who took so much pain to denounce idol worship’ but did little to unseat the idol of caste. And when time elapses, it gets more and more difficult to do something about it. So today, Churches have a hard time fighting it. Moreover, there are still many people who don’t want to change the situation, mainly because they still believe in their hearts that Dalits should be downtrodden, and they just want to keep the power in their own hands.


But, with what kind of discrimination are we dealing here? A very worrisome place where one can find discrimination is at schools:

“Our children face educational discrimination because we are poor. In Jhansi, there are very good Christian schools. But while children from other castes are able to study there, poor Christian children are thrown out by sixth or seventh grade because we cannot afford the fees.”


These schools are Christian institutions and the Church refuses to take responsibility for this outrageous form of discrimination. James Massey puts it like this in an interview:

“Take the case of elitist Christian schools. How many Dalit children have been admitted to them so far? These schools cater almost entirely to the ‘upper’ caste elites, Hindus and others. So, in this sense the Churches we have are not the Church of Christ. Christ tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Who are the neighbours of the leaders of the Church? Are they the starving Dalits, who may share their Christian faith, or the rich industrialists who are sucking the blood of the poor and who send their children to elitist Christian schools in air- conditioned cars?”


Farther on in the interview he also blames the Church of North India for not doing enough to eradicate this form of discrimination.


Another place where discrimination occurs is in the Church itself. Here we can find several forms of discrimination.


Clergy representation


Most of the literature reports that very little Dalits cover any positions in the Church. It seems like the Church is in the hands of the high castes, which is strange given the fact that the majority of the Christians are Dalits. Elske van Gorkum gave an example of this in the interview I had with her:

“You could see this even at the Global Ecumenical Conference on Justice for Dalits of the World Council of Churches in Bangkok, in March 2009. There was not one Dalit among the delegates of the Church of North India and the Church of South India. And this conference was entirely about Dalits!”




In some places it is still not possible to worship God together with the high castes. For example, Dalits have to sit separate from high castes in the Church, often on the floor. Furthermore, in these Churches, Dalits have absolutely no liturgical participation whatsoever. Another form of discrimination is that Dalits who want to take Holy Communion were not allowed to drink from the cup, before the high castes did. Otherwise the high castes would get polluted by them. For these reasons there are now a lot of Dalit Churches in these, mostly rural, areas, so they don’t have to be afraid of any discrimination when they want to worship God. But, to be fair, there is little known about this subject. The examples of discrimination that are given here are possibly outdated. More research has to be done to find out what kinds of discrimination the Church is facing today. For now it is important to remember that there is still inequity in the Church; despite the fact that the Christian Bible is full of passages where one can read that we should treat each other as equals and with love.


Inter-dining and inter-marriage


It seems like the Christian Dalits suffer also caste discrimination at the hands of their non-Dalit co-religionists. Godwin Shiri’s case study found that: “While the Christian households of non-Dalit origin are found to be maintaining active social relationship with many non-Dalit castes and communities, as far as Christian Dalits are concerned they are found to keep a clear distance.” An example of this is that high castes won’t allow Dalits in their house. Another form of discrimination is that inter-dining and inter-marriage, between Dalits and higher castes, is still a big taboo. Christians from a non-Dalit background are more likely to marry someone from the same caste than from the same religion. So, marriages between Dalits and non-Dalits are very uncommon, also within the Christian community.


1.3.4 Discrimination of Christian Dalit Women


Sadly, Christian Dalit Women are the worst victims in this all. It is well known, at least I hope so, that the Dalit women in India are one of the most oppressed groups. Often they are referred to as ‘double Dalits’. Their position is horrifying: they are treated as less than animals because they are Dalits and on top of that, women. Being raped is not that uncommon for a woman in India. But, the question here is: does this also counts for the Christian Dalit women? Although this question deserves its own research, for now I can only present what came along about Christian Dalit women in the literature and the interviews.

The most significant piece of information on this came from the CARDS women. In the interview with them it became very clear that Christian Dalit women are still subjugated. They suffer more because they are women. Also, they are expected to be a housewife, or, as Manoj Manjari Kumar put it: “The role of women is limited to child bearing and rearing and not to ask many questions”. The idea I got from the CARDS women is that women are constantly busy with working, and get no respect let alone appreciation. In addition to this, all the respondents of the interviews confirmed that the treatment of women is still a very big issue in the Christian community. Some of them were more optimistic than others. The CARDS men for example acknowledged that there is problem, but they gave the impression that they were fighting it – by treating their own wife with respect and love or by speaking up when they see other men treating their wives badly. It also seems that in rural areas the treatment of women is worse than in the urban areas. According to Kasta Dip this can be explained by the fact that in rural areas the men are less educated. He is thus convinced that education could help tremendously in fighting the discrimination of women. 


Moving on to the literature, the picture gets even grimier. In ‘Caste Out!’ David Haslam writes the following about the essay ‘Fontiers’ of Kamal Raja Selvi:

“She describes Dalit women as ‘fourth class citizens’. She tells how in some Christian communities the women have stepped forward to fill gaps in leadership. A woman may have a white-collar job. But at home she has still all the dirty jobs to do. Being educated or employed does not offer freedom, it can even make life worse. Of course, ‘Christian men know and accept that all are equal and that all are made in the image of God’, but if they put that into practice they undermine their easy life. Men pay all kinds of compliments to women and proclaim their freedom but at home the woman is an ‘unpaid servant, a child-baring machine’.”


Godwin Shiri saw during his case study a ‘deep-rooted male-domination ideology’, which was, according to him, less admitted and practiced more. He also draws the conclusion that the lives of Christian Dalit women are more miserable that that of the men. Finally, going to the police when something bad happens to you as a woman is not a good idea – they seem just as prone to abuse Dalit women as anyone else. 


1.3.5 Reflection


And yet, people all over the world still believe that the world’s largest ‘democracy’ (India), is doing well – very well. They figure: caste discrimination is by law illegal, so the problem must be solved. The opposite seems true now. The discrimination that this research covers is just the tip of the iceberg. Day in day out people are struggling to stay alive, physically and emotionally. And the worst thing is that the government of India is hugely in denial. This denial runs so deep that even the Indian people themselves will say that the caste system is history. And then, if there are any problems at all, India itself should solve them – the rest of the world should mind its own business. But history shows that India is not resolving its problems and international attention is necessary. That’s why the Indians I spoke are more or less saying: the people all over the world should know of the problems the Dalits are facing. Awareness is the key, at least, to start with.


1.4    Christian Dalits’ Welfare in Comparison


Based on the Status Report by the Department of Sociology of the University of Delhi, on the Current Social Scientific Knowledge on Dalits in Muslim and Christian communities.


With the previous chapters we have established that the Christian Dalits suffer discrimination, despite their faith. But how is this in comparison with Dalits from other faith groups? And what does this discrimination say about their overall welfare? In the following chapter this will be discussed by means of the status report of the University of Delhi; in my view a very important piece of information for this research.


According to the report Christian Dalits suffer the most caste inequality of all Dalits, this applies to both rural and urban India. This is due to the fact that among Christians there are more castes represented than in any other communities. Moreover, the non-Dalit Christians, and especially the upper caste Christians, tend to be much better off. Hence, there is more inequality and thus discrimination. The least caste inequality is found with the Muslim Dalits. This does not mean, however, that their standard of living is any better. Surprisingly, in terms of proportions of population in poverty or affluence, the Christian Dalits are relatively better off than most of the other Dalit communities, except for Sikh Dalits, who are even better off. This means that Christian Dalits are generally more successful than other groups. More specifically, Christians from all castes score as one of the best in terms of the amount of graduates, in comparison to other faith groups. Also striking is the finding that Muslim Dalits, in almost all categories, are worse off than Christian Dalits. With respect to proportions of population in poverty or affluence, Muslim Dalits are ‘unquestionably the worst off among all Dalits, in both the rural and specially the urban sector, being completely absent in the affluent group’. This is probably due to the given that there is not much caste differences in the Muslim group: they all seem to be poor. Also among the urban Muslims there seems to be a serious poverty.


In economic terms, all Dalits are basically the same. When looked at the average levels of consumptions there is not much difference. Only in the top 25% there is seen difference, but overall: 75% are economically indistinguishable from each other.


In terms of occupational structure, Christian Dalits in urban India have the highest ‘regular wage’ proportion. Again, here the Muslims are at the bottom slot. In rural India however, in this category, they are not the group that is worst off. This is because they seem to be somewhat better represented among the ‘self-employed in agriculture’.


Finally, with respect to educational levels, the Muslim Dalits are still the worst off. Again, the Christian Dalits are at the top: they are a little better off in rural areas, whereas in urban India they are significantly better off. Buddhist score the highest here, because the high proportions of graduates and or higher degrees. Of course, education is still very much a problem for all Dalits, since the non-Dalits are doing much better in this respect, specially the upper castes.

All in all, the insights that this report has given are very interesting. It seems that the plight of the Muslim Dalits needs more attention than it gets now. The writers of the report were very clear about the Muslims: they are the worst off. The Christian Dalits at the other hand are doing relatively well. Of course, they are still Dalits and by that still subjugated, this also becomes clear in the finding of the report that there is still a lot of discrimination among Christians. This is very worrisome and of great importance for this research. But next to this  is the message that in comparison with other Dalits, they are quite capable of moving away from their dominated status. This is not to say that this group doesn’t need any attention. It is to say that together with the Christian Dalits, attention should be given to the other Dalits as well. They are also suffering.


1.5    Christian Dalits’ Comprehension of Christian Faith


To complete the picture of the lives of Christian Dalits, one task remains: understanding the ‘Christian’ in ‘Christian Dalit’. How do Christian Dalits perceive the Christian faith, what does it mean to them?


One thing is clear: it is very different from what we, westerners, are used to. The main reason for this is that Christianity has a whole different meaning for Dalits. Ultimately, Dalits look for dignity and justice and it is in the Christian faith that they can find this. In this way, being a Christian means to oppose Hinduism and its caste system. This is also the reason that Ambedkar converted to Buddhism:

“Because we have the misfortune of calling ourselves Hindus we are treated thus. If we were members of another faith none would dare treat us so. Choose any religion which gives you equality of states and treatment. We shall repair our mistakes now. I had the misfortune of being born with the stigma of an Untouchable. However, it is not my fault; but I will not die a Hindu, for this is in my power.”


This quote from Ambedkar is very important in this regard, for, according to the literature and various interviews, it is the main reason for Dalits to convert to any religion, including Christianity. After Ambedkar’s conversion, many Dalits followed for they understood that it was indeed one of the things they could do to resist the caste system. Unfortunately, as we have seen, even converted they can’t escape it.


This reason to convert also shapes the Christian Dalits’ comprehensions of Christianity. What matters for Christian Dalits is ethics – a way of life that leads to transformation, and not so much meta-physical explanations. Godwin Shiri’s findings on this are very interesting. Through his case study he found that Dalits’ faith perceptions ‘do not appear to be overly other-worldly or innerly spiritual but rather well bases on existential premises.’ An example of this is Christian Dalits’ perception of sin, which are mostly socio-ethical in nature. So, sin means things like stealing, causing physical violence, being irresponsible and so on. In this sense, sin is not so much perceived in a spiritual sense and thus, ‘original sin’ and ‘bondage of sin’ are of no great concern to them. Instead, it carries a strong social or corporate and justice dimension to it. This is also true for the concept of salvation. Shiri puts it like this: “For most Christian Dalits if doing bad things is ‘sin’, doing good things is ‘salvation’.” What strikes me the most in Shiri’s description of what salvation means for Christian Dalits, is that Jesus as saviour is not mentioned once. Being saved by Jesus doesn’t seem to be an important concept for Christian Dalits. This becomes very clear in the interview with Monodeep Daniel when he said:

“We see the experience of rejection in Christ. So, the Dalit experience of alienation, of rejection, we see in Christ. For instance, for us, to see the death of Christ and relate it to us as an idea of substitution is very difficult for us. I mean we don’t need anybody to die for us. We all die every day. How does the death of Christ substitute our killings every day? It doesn’t. It does not relate to us. But solidarity does. Solidarity is salvation for us.”

Hence, Jesus suffers alongside the Dalits and not specifically for them. This is further explained by James Massey:

“Now, Jesus, who was born in a desperately poor family, spent the whole of his life working for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. That is why for me, as a Christian, it is a natural expression of my faith commitment to be involved in the movement for Dalit liberation, because Jesus, the person in whom I have put my faith, became for me what I am today—Dalit, oppressed and despised, in order that I and millions of others like me could be liberated. But if Jesus is my source of inspiration, people from other faiths may have their own sources from which they draw their strength, and that is fine by me.”

In this way, Jesus is an example to follow, just as Ambedkar was. Another important characteristic of Dalit theology is interesting here, also formulated by James Massey:

“Western Christian theology is based on the classical Greek dualism between the this-world and the other-world, between matter and spirit. In contrast, Dalit theology is deeply rooted in this world, in the this-worldly experiences and sufferings of the Dalits, and, rather than promising the Dalits a place in heaven, it inspires them to struggle for transforming this world to bring justice for the Dalits. “

He then continues:

“If at all dialogue has any meaning for us Dalits, you have to tell us how much your faith can contribute in improving the lives of the millions of our people who are living in conditions worse than slavery. If religion cannot do so, then of what use is it? So, for us religion has worth only if it helps us in our struggle for liberation.”

In this all it becomes clear that Christian Dalits’ existential status deeply affects their faith perceptions and that they have adopted a quite remarkable holistic perception of Christianity. According to Shiri, this is due to ‘the indescribably difficult living conditions they live in’ and the ‘consequent struggle for survival’.

So, despite all the odds against it, many Christian Dalits chose to remain Christian. It is the promise and the hope Christianity offers them that make them to stay. It gives them tools to fight the inequality and inspiration in the person of Jesus. But it seems that their experience of the Christian faith is totally different from the other Christians in India: the high castes. And because the high castes control the entire Indian Christian Church, this is a big problem. The discrimination of the Christian Dalits run so deep that their existence seem to be neglected in the Indian Church, for they continue with the traditional theology without any openness to the experiences of the Dalits.



Over the years, the way we do mission has changed. For example, it has become much more holistic and its character open-minded. This doesn’t make life easier for people involved in mission, on the contrary. Every situation calls for another approach, another focus. Because programme officers move around on a playground which is getting bigger every day, the meaning of mission becomes quite vague. What to do is not that obvious anymore. And when in India, it becomes even more difficult. That is why it is important to answer the question: what should be the role of an organisation involved in mission in India? This last chapter aims to do this, by looking at what different authors have to say about this subject.

Because most of the authors do not give a clear-cut answer to this question, I divided the chapter is two themes that were frequently found in the literature. The first is ‘Dalit theology’. In this section attention is given to what this means and why it is needed. The second topic is ‘liberation’. The idea behind this is that people who are involved in mission in India, should know about the ways of Dalit liberation.

3.1    Dalit Theology

When doing research on Christian Dalits, it is impossible to escape the phenomenon of ‘Dalit theology’. This form of theology is up and rising in India, because it serves the Christian Dalits with an alternative for the traditional theology. Moreover, it is a key to their liberation.


1.3.1 Why is it Needed?

The main reason for why Dalit theology is needed, is because the current theology originated from the experiences and background of upper caste Christians. This is a problem because, as a result, it is not relevant to the majority of the Christians: the Dalits. While the high castes are busy with searching for ways to give their faith an Indian and even Hindu impression, the Dalits are trying to survive. And so, the traditional theology has failed them and continuously does so. That is why there is a need for another expression of Indian Christian Theology.

When looked at more closely, there are several elements of this traditional theology that are particularly inapplicable for the Dalits. Examples are individual salvation, personal holiness and the emphasis on other-worldliness. According to James Massey this only provides a ‘half salvation’ to the Dalits: in it ‘no effort was made to relate the teachings of the Christian faith to the life of the people’. Moreover, these concepts do not stimulate Dalits to face and fight the oppression, on the contrary, it becomes a means of escapism from the reality of their suffering.

Dalit theologians seem to agree on this: the time of being powerless victims is over. Every single Dalit has to stand up and face his oppressor. Freedom is the ultimate goal and everything should be in line with this. So too religion. If it does not contribute to the improvement of the lives of the Dalits, it is of no use at all. And because traditional Indian theology does not, there is a need for a theology that does: Dalit theology.


1.3.2 What is Dalit Theology?



Dalit theology is a new kind of liberation theology. It began in the 1980s, when some Christian Dalit thinkers started to express themselves theologically, based on their experiences as Dalits. Among the early writers on Dalit theology were M.E. Prabhakar, K. Wilson, V. Devasahayam, Arvind P. Nirmal, Bishop M. Azariah and James Massey. Reason for this was a movement, begun in the mid-1970s, of Christian Dalits’ effort to ‘educate, agitate and organize’. Out of this, Dalit theology has emerged.


A great source of inspiration, in the 1980s till today, is the person of Ambedkar. His ideas about the liberation of Dalits are for a great deal incorporated in Dalit Theology. An example of this is what Monodeep Daniel said in the interview, when asked about what mission should involve in India: “It should follow the line of Ambedkar with his organisation, education and resist principle, but then in its widest sense.”


Maybe one of its most important features is that it is a theology by Dalits. It sounds obvious, but it shapes the entire theology. It announces a break with the traditional Indian theology, for reasons mentioned in subchapter 1.3.1. What follows is a kind of methodological exclusion, in which Felix Wilfred sees a tension: “…it has to keep both the methodological exclusion and theological inclusion of all others without which it may not qualify itself as a Christian theology.” With being a theology by and for Dalits, it also concentrates on the lives of Dalits. This means that its most important aim is to liberate the Dalits. Without this, Dalit theology would make no sense at all. In his book ‘Dalit Christians of Andhra’, Rajpramukh formulates it like this: “Its concern is not mainly what would happen to the soul after the death, but what happens to the human beings to have their human dignity and honour as anybody else.” Likewise, Dalit theology is a movement ‘from below’: it is ‘interested in the horizontal relations rather than vertical revelation’, which is eminent in the traditional ‘from above’ theology. In this way it is also a social movement.

According to James Massey three elements play an important role in Dalit theology: ‘the aspiration of Dalits for fuller liberation, the recognition that God is on the side of the Dalits and the conviction that Christ is the model for the struggle, a struggle which continues today through the Holy Spirit.’ Solidarity is also a very important feature of Dalit theology. James Massey recognises a two-sided solidarity: first, in history God has shown his own solidarity with human beings, second, being in solidarity with Dalits of other faiths and ideologies. But this solidarity can also be seen in another role of Dalit theology, namely, creating awareness among non-Dalits of Dalit suffering and pain. Furthermore, solidarity plays a role in the person of Jesus. His life and suffering was not on behalf of the victims, but in solidarity with the victims.

Last, in his book ‘Downtrodden’ James Massey distinguishes five elements of the role of Dalit theology:

•        It must address the Dalits themselves about their state and their dawning consciousness of themselves: heighten understanding and raising awareness;
•        It must also address non-Dalits: make others aware;
•        Raising the consciousness of the Christian community as a whole: Dalit theology must challenge the Church to change;
•        It must enable ordinary Christians to take an active role in the struggle of the Dalits;
•        It must create the possibility of fuller liberation or salvation, based on the Christ-event of redemption.

3.2    Liberation Strategies

Because mission departments and organisations in the West are often very much involved in justice issues, it is important for them to know what justice means in a particular area and for a specific group of people. For Dalits justice means liberation – that is the goal of their struggle. But to know this, is not enough. The issue is so complex that finding liberation seems almost impossible. But in the literature several strategies are given. For organisations involved in mission from the West into India, and also Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, this is very useful information, since they can incorporate this in their programmes. Furthermore, it is an important subject for Dalit theologians, since freedom is what they are after.

According to James Massey, Dalits need to pass four stages before they can achieve full liberation:

1. Establish a common identity;
2. Become conscious of their state;
3. Be in solidarity;
4. Enter into the process of liberation.

But since this is a little vague, let us look at more concrete suggestions of how to attain liberation. The first person to look at then, is Ambedkar. In almost all the interviews I had with people from India, elements of Ambedkar’s thought were present. Through this report several elements of Ambedkar’s thought on the liberation of the Dalits have been mentioned. First, there was the idea of converting to another religion as a means of fighting the caste system. Second, one of the most important lessons of Ambedkar passed by: ‘educate, agitate and organise’. The first one, educate, was mentioned as a liberation strategy by almost all the Indian participants of the interviews. It seems to be that education is really one of the most important themes in the struggle against the caste system. The reason for this is quite simple, as I mentioned before in chapter one: the caste system is in the minds of the people. So, perhaps one of the most important areas to address is the Dalit psyche. A third important strategy of Ambedkar, not mentioned before, is promoting inter-marriage. Together with inter-dining, it is still a big taboo in India (see also page 9), even to such an extent that horrible revenge practices can be the result. It was only recently that eight family members were brutally murdered because their 21-year old relative secretly married a girl from a higher caste. Even among Christians it is very uncommon to socialise or even marry someone from a different caste. Many Dalit leaders believe that braking down the barriers of ‘eating and mating’ would destroy the dynamic of purity and pollution and consequently the very basis of caste.

In his book ‘Religion and Dalit Liberation’, John Webster describes four strategies for freedom:

1. Acquisition of political power;

2. Economic independence;

3. Internal social reform;

4. Religious change.

These strategies are based on what the modern Dalit movement did, and still does, to fight the caste discrimination.

In addition to the strategies for liberation, there is another thing mission organisations and departments both from the West, and from within India itself, can do to participate in the struggle of the Dalits: it is important that any organisation supporting development in India, asks itself how its programmes are challenging casteism. Maybe the discrimination is not that visible for an outsider, but that does not mean that it isn’t there and that it isn’t a big problem. In this regard, the Indian government should also be challenged, for the fact that they deny the problem. Pressure from outside can do a lot, so organisations should also focus on persuading and even shaming the government.


This report has shown that Christian Dalits have to face more discrimination than other Dalits, for the reason that Christianity is a despised religion in India. The discrimination is worse for them for several reasons:

1. In the eyes of their fellow countrymen, Christian Dalits betray them by converting to a western religion;

2. Christian Dalits are part of a religious minority, which, in terms of discrimination, is the same as being a Dalit;

3. The state doesn’t recognise Christian Dalits, for they claim that caste is not part of the Christian religion. Result is various forms of discrimination on the side of the state, including the denying of the Reservation Rights;

4, Because relatively much different castes are represented in the Christian community, there is more discrimination among Christians as in other religions.

Despite these difficulties, it seems that Christian Dalits are not the worst off in terms of welfare. More than other Dalits, they are capable of fighting this discrimination and their oppressors. A reason for this can be that they use Christianity as a way of liberation. This becomes specifically clear in the liberation theology that they have created: Dalit theology. By this theology Christian Dalits are stimulated to fight their current status and clime the economic ladder. However, they seem to stand alone in this fight, since they don’t get any help from the Indian Church. Instead, they face more discrimination.

In this all, Christian Dalit women are the worst victims. Although some would say their treatment is a little better in comparison to other Dalit women, they still are treated backwards.


Further, it was noted that the plight of Muslim Dalits need more attention than it gets now. According to the research by the department of sociology of the university of Delhi on the current social scientific knowledge on Dalits in Muslim and Christian communities, the Muslim Dalits are the worst off in almost every respect. The report also stated that the Christian Dalits are doing relatively well. So, the lesson learned here is that all Dalits, and specially the Muslim Dalits, need attention – not just the Christian Dalits.


When comparing the interviews with each other, some interesting things become clear:

1. When talking about discrimination in the Churches, there were a lot of contradictory messages. That there is discrimination in the Churches is clear, but to what extent is not;

2. All the interviewed people had trouble with understanding the meaning of Christian-mission. All seemed to have a different picture in mind;

3. Everyone was aware of the bad treatment of women, also in the Christian community;

4. Almost everyone saw education as one of the most important things in the struggle of the Dalits against the caste system.