Project India: Hands of Hope

Caste system brings Dalits to Christianity

By Brooke Hines
Chart Reporter

A.J. Prabhakav
A.J. Prabhakav

She swings higher as she throws her head back in laughter. The ribbons in her hair loosen in the wind and up she goes again — but only so far. Her beauty stands vibrant against the depravity below. The ground is covered in garbage — dirt only seen through wrappers.

One ponders the lack of cleanliness of this neighborhood until realizing an ugly truth — this is not a dumpy neighborhood — this is the neighborhood dump. And these are the Dalits, the lowest caste meant for the lowest tasks of society.

The Indian caste system, a social hierarchy stemming from the basic principles of the Hindu belief system, is based upon four castes: the highest is Brahman, Ksatriya, Vaisya, and the lowest is Sudras. Below the lowest caste are the Dalits or the “Untouchables,” known for their untouchable status in society.

Reverend A. J. Prabhakav, a professor at Andhra Christian Theological College in Hyderabad, has been writing his doctoral thesis regarding preaching techniques used to reach Dalit people. When asked where his interest in the Dalits stemmed, he let out a chuckle.

“That’s a very good question,” he said. “You see, I am a Dalit.”

As a small boy, Prabhakay experienced the pains his caste had stamped on him. He used to walk to school with a few upper-caste children and was treated as his name proclaimed — as “untouchable.”

If he dipped his hands in the brook to drink before the others, he was kicked and scolded. He was kicked out of a post office and even forced to not ride his bike on main roads so as not to taint these areas. The persecution became even harsher for the adults. As most Dalits were laborers, some land owners would wait until harvest to pay the employees, creating hard times in Dalit communities.

Some merchants set up shop in the medians of  Varanasi streets.
Some merchants set up shop in the medians of
Varanasi streets.

The oppression has roots in thousands of years of rigid exclusion. In rural areas, Dalits are known to live outside the village in separate communities. At the beginning of caste system, rigid rules were established that one could not marry outside their set caste. Therefore, caste became hereditary.

Because this lowest caste was seen as too “unclean” to enter temples, many responded positively to missionaries who offered the contrasting ideology to Hinduism: Christianity. Many Dalit communities declared Christianity in mass movements because of its offer of human dignity to those who felt it had been stolen by the caste system. Even then, the communities remained divided.

“Though the caste system has been abolished, Dalits can still be found outside the villages in rural areas,” Prabakhav said.

As the Dalits began to rise with this dignity, fear-fueled actions swelled in opposition.

“Dalits are trying to come up and it’s becoming intimidating to the other side, so they try to oppress and suppress the Dalits,” Prabakhav said.

Because the caste system has been so rigid in the past, the disintegration of the structure could require a reorganization of social hierarchy. This could be compared to the American civil rights movement when social changes were greatly feared. Like America saw in the 1950s and 1960s, this fear can fuel violence.

This was the case of Karamchedu in 1985.

“When Dalit agricultural laborers were found to be supporting a political party of their own, they were chased for almost 7 km and brutally killed,” Prabhakav explained. Countless other incidents have taken place and resulted in a further separation of caste.

Because Prabhakav has had a personal link to his research, it has resulted in positive actions in his home community.

“The caste system is a rigid structure and more victims are rural Dalits” he said. “They need empowerment through education, economic advantages, and political opportunity.”