In from the Margins
The Rt. Rev. Probal Kanto Dutta, Bishop of the Diocese of Durgapur in the Church of North India, reflects on the struggle for equal rights for Dalits and Tribals in The Church of North India.
There is a conspiracy of silence against the majority population in India, the Dalits and the Tribals, who in various ways have been left aside. This has resulted in apathy that alienates these groups and virtually eradicates them from the consciousness of the wider society. This paper presents an understanding of Tribals and Dalits and their present status in the Indian context. I sketch how the influx of Christian missionaries brought about transformation in their lives and discuss how the church has solidarity with Dalits and Tribals through faith and theological insight. Particular ways in which the Church of North India has struggled with conflict concerning Dalits and Tribals conclude the study.
Dalits in the Indian Caste System
Although many nations are characterized by social inequality, perhaps nowhere else in the world has inequality been so elaborately constructed as in the Indian institution of caste. Caste has long existed in India, but in the modern period it has been severely criticized by both Indian and foreign observers. Although some educated Indians tell non-Indians that caste has been abolished or that “no one pays attention to caste anymore,” such statements do not reflect reality. Caste has undergone significant change since independence in 1947, but it still involves hundreds of millions of people. In its preamble, India’s Constitution forbids negative public discrimination on the basis of caste.
In the context of traditional Hindu society, Dalit status has often been associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure, such as any involving butchering, removal of rubbish, removal of waste and leatherwork. Dalits work as manual labourers, cleaning latrines and sewers, and clearing away rubbish. Historically, engaging in these activities was considered to be polluting to the individual, and this pollution was considered contagious. As a result, Dalits were commonly segregated and banned from full participation in Hindu social life. For example, they could not enter a temple or a school, and they were required to stay outside villages of other castes. Elaborate precautions were sometimes observed to prevent incidental contact between Dalits and other castes. Discrimination against Dalits still exists in rural areas in the private sphere and in everyday matters such as access to eating places, schools, temples and water sources.
Dalits: Provisions in the Constitution of India
The Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA) is a tacit acknowledgement by the Indian government that caste relations are defined by violence, both incidental and systemic. In 1989, the central government of India passed the Prevention of Atrocities Act (POA), which clarified specific crimes against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (the Dalits) as “atrocities,” and created strategies and punishments to counter these acts. The purpose of the act was to curb and punish violence against Dalits. First, it clarified what the atrocities were, both particular incidents of harm and humiliation, such as the forced consumption of noxious substances, and systemic violence faced by many Dalits, especially in rural areas. Such systemic violence includes forced labor, denial of access to water and other public amenities, and sexual abuse of Dalit women. Second, the act created Special Courts to try cases registered under the POA. Third, the act called on states with high levels of caste violence (said to be “atrocity-prone”) to appoint qualified officers to monitor and maintain law and order.
The POA gave legal redress to Dalits, but only two states have created separate Special Courts in accordance with the law. In practice, the act has suffered from a near complete failure in implementation. Police officers have displayed a consistent unwillingness to register offenses under the act. This reluctance stems from ignorance and from peer protection. A 1999 study showed that nearly a quarter of those government officials charged with enforcing the act were unaware of its existence.
For centuries, Dalit Christians have been carrying the burden of oppression in common with the other Dalits. Now, however, the Indian government has brought in a distinction between one kind of Dalit and another, offering one treatment to Dalits who are Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist and a different treatment to Dalits who are Christian or Muslim. The Indian Constitution grants to the President of India power to designate certain disadvantaged groups as “Scheduled Castes”, who thereby are to receive special rights to compensate for the disadvantages they suffered in the past. The Indian government has refused to include Christian Dalits among the Scheduled Castes, thus denying these Christians the basic rights that are owed them under the Constitution. Thus it is clear that Christian Dalits are being penalized specifically as Christians.
Dalits in the Church: Conflict Remains
The 2006 report of the Sachar Committee, appointed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to review the social, economic and educational status of the Muslim community of India, revealed that scheduled castes and tribes of India are not limited to the religion of Hinduism. The 61st Round Survey of the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) found that almost nine-tenths of the Buddhists, one-third of the Sikhs, and one-third of the Christians in India belonged to the category of Scheduled Castes or tribes as defined by the Constitution.
Conversion to Christianity has not redeemed 19 million Dalit Christians from social discrimination and untouchability. It has only added to their misery. Conversion disqualifies a Dalit Christian from many constitutionally guaranteed protections and privileges. Dalits accepted the new faith in Jesus Christ with some hope that they would regain their lost humanity and be considered as God’s children. In reality, it is only a dream. As Christians, Dalits and Tribals continue to suffer and live in misery both in the society and in the church.
The Church in India is a Dalit church, for 70 percent of India’s 25 million Christians are Dalits. Although Dalits form the majority in churches, their influence in the churches is minimal because their presence is eclipsed by the power of the upper-caste Christians, who constitute only 30 percent of the Christian population. While this is especially true of the Roman Catholic Church, discrimination exists in the Protestant churches of India as well.
As the Body of Christ, the church is one, and there should be no discrimination within a congregation, but what Dalits experience in the churches of South India and Punjab tell a different story altogether. The Dalits in these parts of India experience bias and ignominy to such an extent that they are not allowed to take Holy Communion with the higher-caste Christians in the same row, and they are not even allowed to lay to rest their loved ones in the same cemetery, but have to bury them in separate burial grounds.
Dalit Christians in all the churches in India suffer the same social, educational and economic disabilities that Dalits of other religions experience. The change of religion does not change their status. Dalit Christians are subject to disabilities, violence and atrocities solely because they suffer the sigma of the untouchability. Most Dalits, whether they are Hindus or Christians, live together side by side, while Caste people, whether Hindus or Christians, live geographically separated from Dalits. Whenever there is killing or violence against Dalits, the Caste people do not discriminate between Hindus and Christians. Even Caste Christians do not treat Dalit Christians as equals. Though the Dalit Christians undergo the same unjust caste discrimination as do Dalits of other religions, Christian Dalits are deprived of the privileges of protection offered by the Civil Rights Act and the Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989.
Adivasis of India and their Position in Society
The Adivasis (original inhabitants) is the combined name used for the many tribal peoples of India. Adivasis are not a homogeneous group, for there are over 200 tribes speaking over 100 languages, and they vary greatly in ethnicity. However, there are similarities in their ways of life, and generally they are perceived as inferior within Indian society. Constituting 7.5 percent of the Indian population, the over 50 million Adivasis are the largest tribal population in the world.
Today’s Adivasis are descended from the earliest inhabitants of the sub-continent and they once inhabited much greater areas than they do at present. Although little is known of their history, it appears that many were pushed into the hill and forest areas after the invasions of the Indo-Aryan tribes over 3,000 years ago.
Tribals were not incorporated into Hindu caste society. They stood outside it, but there were many points of contact. Tribal religious beliefs contain many aspects of Hinduism, and vice versa. Tribals traded with the settled villages on the plains and sometimes paid tribute to Hindu rulers. Conversely, some Tribal rulers conquered and ruled over non-Tribals and some Tribals permanently settled and entered caste society.
It was not until the unifying political rule of the British from the late eighteenth century on that the government made extensive inroads into Adivasi societies. British rule brought money, government officials and moneylenders into the tribal areas, beginning the process of infringement on Adivasi land by outsiders. As a result, there were tribal revolts in the mid-nineteenth century in several parts of eastern India, and this forced the government to recognize the vulnerable position of Tribals and pass laws to protect their lands from outsiders. These laws, some of which are still on the statute book, completely barred the sale of Tribal lands to non-Tribals and made provisions to restore alienated land. In practice, however, most of these laws were widely disregarded, and unscrupulous merchants and moneylenders found ways to dodge them. Adivasis still face these problems today, although now their opponents are likely to be large companies and state corporations rather than the small traders and moneylenders.
Christian missions began to evangelize in some Tribal areas, and, in contrast to Hindu and Muslim areas, they achieved a degree of success as measured by conversions. They also began a process of education and raising political awareness. Tribal peoples played little role in the run-up to independence, and it was only in the northeast that they had enough political consciousness to make demands for separation or autonomy.
Although Adivasis are not, as a general rule, regarded as “unclean” by Caste Hindus in the same way as Untouchables are, they continue to face prejudice and often violence from society. They are at the lowest point of almost every socio-economic indicator. The majority of the population regards them as primitive, and government programmes aim to “integrate” them with the majority society rather than recognize their distinctiveness. While the larger Tribal groups and languages will survive as a result of numbers, the destruction of their economic base and environment poses grave threats to those who are still able to follow a traditional way of life, and this may result in the cultural extinction of smaller Adivasi peoples.
Missionary Work among the Santhals in Bengal
By the year 1880 there were men in the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in Bengal who were able to preach in the local language. They were joined for different periods of time by the Rev. W. M. Spencer (1880), Rev. T. H. Whitamore (1881), Rev. W. H. Hart (1886), Rev. W. Spink and in 1887 by the Rev. G. W. Olver and the Rev. F. W. Ambery Smith. What brought strength and extension in the work was the appointment of the Rev. J. M. Brown as the chairman of the district in 1883. He had a group of able and devoted men who would support him until his retirement in Calcutta in 1900, when there was a strong mission where he had found a weak one. Brown had served in the field of educational work in Ceylon and brought that experience to Bengal, where he established sound educational activities.
After traveling for many months and living in tents, G. W. Olver decided to make Sarenga in Bankura (a principally Tribal area) the centre of his operations, and the church in Sarenga was founded in 1888. The missionary ministers were especially concerned with the lack of education and medical facilities in and around Sarenga. People were dying without treatment during epidemics of cholera, smallpox, and typhoid. Through the Methodist Missionary Society in London, arrangements were made to build a hospital in the region and Dr. Caleb Davis arrived in Sarenga in 1914.
During this early period of mission work, a sensational incident concerning caste and conversion occurred that presaged the tensions around caste and conversion that continue to this day. On December 25, 1890, Kuladaprasad Pande, son of Anatalal Pande and Parbati, converted to Christianity. Then twenty years of age, he was a student of Kuchkuchia H. E. School, which was run by the Methodist Mission. His act of conversion, which was solemnized by the Rev. W. Spink, took place at his native village, Panchal, a famous centre of the Shaivite stream of Hinduism in the district of Bankura. Because Kuladaprasad came from a high Kanjakubya Brahmin family, his conversion created a great commotion among the higher castes, and an anti-missionary riot ensued in Bankura town. Two missionaries who were coming from the coal mining town of Ranigunj to Doletala, the northern threshold of Bankura town, were attacked by an agitated mob. The Pathakpara area adjacent to Doletala, is inhabited predominantly by the Kanjakubya Brahmins. The two missionaries were rescued from the mob’s fury by a Bengali Brahmin physician, who received the Rai Bahadur award from the government. The irate mob set fire to the thatched school rooms of Kuchkuchia High School.
In commenting on the anti-missionary riot, the Methodist analyst W. T. A. Berber states that many of the outbursts were borrowed from the militant infidelity then prevailing in the West, and that the political dissatisfaction of the talkative Bengalis frequently found vent in religious animosities. But Berber is not correct. The men involved in the riotous occurrence were not acquainted with Western infidelity, and they had nothing political against the missionaries. They were die-hard conservatives who possessed large properties and hence had good social standing. Kuladaprasad’s embrace of Christianity wounded their honor and prestige in society. The emotional and violent protest was designed to chasten evangelistic endeavors. As work at the mission returned to normal, the damaged school rooms of Kuchkuchia High School were repaired, and the school earned fame as one of the leading schools of the district in terms of university examination results. The incident illustrates the concern that Caste Hindus continue to have about conversion, a concern that extends to Dalits, whose conversion is perceived as threatening the social system.
The Church’s Solidarity with Dalits and Tribals in the Wider Society
Solidarity is a promising ethical norm that helps focus the church’s social involvement. The biblical and theological resonance of this norm bridges the gap between theologies of liberation and theologies of reconciliation. Solidarity ethics affirms the equal worth of human beings in God’s creation, advocates for the rights of all who struggle for freedom, seeks justice for those who lack abundant life and expects a unity of effort to achieve systematic change (Dieter T. Hessel, “Solidarity Ethics: A Public Focus for the Church”).
Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidarity; it is a radical posture. If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master, as Hegel affirms, true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them “beings of another”. The oppressor is in solidarity with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them as persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice and cheated in the sale of their labour. He must stop making pious, sentimental and individualistic gestures and risk an act of love. It is a farce to affirm that men and women are persons and as persons should be free and yet to do nothing tangible to make this affirmation a reality.
The church celebrates the story of Jesus Christ and God’s continual presence with God’s people. God is revealed in a special way through those who are marginalized by the society. Marginalization can involve any individual or group of people, and it affects everyone at different times. We need to work with others in order to achieve God’s will, and we must recognize God working in others. This approach challenges our faith to be lived out in reality. It provides opportunities to recognize the growth in faith of all those involved, and it is an effective tool for mission in a community setting.
The church in India has an important role to play by looking beyond the four walls of the church and the Christian community. It must intervene and equip the Dalits and Tribals with necessary information, knowledge and skills through its various community-based programmes so that they may lead lives that are full, abundant and graced with dignity.
Theological Understanding of Solidarity with Subalterns
The church holds on to the Bible as its backbone, and the Bible gives the church its life and meaning. The Bible is the liberation story of the oppressed. Yahweh took a stand with the slaves of Egypt, led them through the Red Sea, the blood-bath of the oppressor, and established them as a mighty nation. Jesus of Nazareth took up the cause of the marginalized as he proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The word “kingdom” in the gospels translates the Greek word basileia, by which Jesus meant kingly rule, sovereignty and kingship. It did not mean God’s rule over a particular domain. When Jesus used the phrase “Kingdom of God” he meant God’s sovereign and dynamic rule over all creation as her creator.
In his account of Jesus inaugurating his ministry at the synagogue in Nazareth, Luke gives a clear picture of the nature of the kingdom that Jesus was announcing:
The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it he found the place where it is written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-19)
Jesus not only preached good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), which was bad news for the rich, but he identified himself with the social untouchables, namely the Samaritans. While the Jews ignored them, Jesus stayed with them (John 4:40), and it was a Samaritan woman to whom it was first revealed that Jesus was the messiah (John 4:26). It was the socially deprived, again the Samaritan, who was shown as a role model for the society: to be compassionate as was the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), and to be grateful as was the healed Samaritan (Luke 17:18).
If the church is a continuation of the Word of God, the church can have no other option except the option that Jesus had in his life – the option for the poor and marginalized. The Bible is full of the poor and the marginalized. If all the texts in the Bible that speak of the poor and marginalized were to be cut out, very few pages would be left. All the gospels speak of the marginalized and the poor. Through the whole Bible it is very clear that God exalts the insignificant and the least ones. God loves the poor, whose miseries reveal the absence of justice within society. God is their lawyer. Let us not mention the marginalized and poor as an afterthought in our ministry, but let us take it up as the prime mission from Christ our High Priest and leader.
CNI and the Tribal Community: The Diocese of Durgapur
The vast geographical jurisdictional area of the Diocese of Durgapur has given it the opportunity to serve a diverse socio-political community. Being a predominantly Tribal diocese has given it the opportunity to serve the Tribals on a large social scale. With little political influence, insignificant economic resources and widespread illiteracy, the Tribal villages were historically on the fringes. Dependence on fast depleting forest resources left the people with minimal resources of livelihood and forced many to migrate from their villages to towns and cities.
Over the years the diocese has been able go deeper into the life of the people around it. This enabled it to understand basic problems that poor households are undergoing in their daily lives. They often become prey to diseases due to unhygienic conditions existing in their vicinity. There is still lack of awareness about basic education for children, especially girls. The economic condition of people is appalling. Credit facilities are not available for the poor due to lack of collateral, and the only source of credit are the moneylenders who charge exorbitant interest for short periods. There is no assured food security for most of the households belonging to the backward castes in the area. Their source of income depends on the availability of work. Our experience with the villagers taught us that the resources available in the villages are underutilized due to poor knowledge and lack of credit facility. There is no diversification of crops and villagers have only poor knowledge of animal husbandry.
Through its community development programmes, the diocese has intervened to equip people of the villages with information, knowledge and skills that enable them to lead more fulfilling lives. Strategic interventions are in the areas of Tribal and Dalit community organization and development; women’s empowerment through self-help groups; training and animation; education, counseling, identity formation and sustainable development. A major focus of intervention has been the integral development of the Santal Tribal community through the education of Santal children. Income-generating activities (IGA) enable people to become entrepreneurs and adopt some means of livelihood options.
Conflict and Resolution among Dalits and Adivasis within the Church
Conflict and Coexistence among Adivasis in the Diocese of Durgapur
The Christian mission in 19th-century Bengal, especially in the district of Bankura, became involved in the crucial issue of the Tribal question. The Santhals, the largest tribe of eastern India, attracted the missionaries’ attention for evangelization. Considering the Tribal tradition as a significant factor in the pluralist Bengal society, they penetrated the obscure Santhal world and tried to identify themselves with their life and thinking. Apart from a few colonial bureaucrats, the missionaries were the pioneers in “Tribal Studies”, now an important stream of social science.
The missionaries were in favor of imparting education among the Santhals through their mother tongue and were keen to improve their socio-economic condition as a preparation for evangelism. Missionary efforts created a growing urge for education among the Santhals since the missionaries contended that education was the only safeguard against oppression by Zamindars, Mahajans and Theccedars. Some Santhals longed for English education and undertook to pay for it. The liberal education system imparted by the missionaries benefited a section of the Santhal community, but those who were fortunate to be under the supervision of the missionaries then bifurcated themselves from the Santhal communities and dissolved themselves in the higher-caste society. Their unfortunate comrades were left to fend for themselves, a development which caused them to become hostile against other sections of society for depriving them of their basic rights and opportunities.
The Diocese of Durgapur intervened through its development agencies, especially in the predominantly tribal areas of Sarenga and Shyamadi, to resolve the persisting conflict. Through its community development programmes the diocese incorporated both the advantaged and the disadvantaged Adivasis and Dalits in the sustainable development of their communities. Although they are a privileged section of the Santhal community, the developed Dalits and Adivasis, including the converted Dalits and Adivasis, do not obtain the opportunities of the higher castes, as they are still not considered to be incorporated into the Indian caste system and so remain on the fringes of the society.
Conflict in the Diocese of Eastern Himalaya
The Diocese of Eastern Himalaya is one of the dioceses in the Church of North India which had a constituency consisting solely of indigenous people, mainly the Nepalis, Boros, Lepchas and Adivasis. In the past the Nepalis led the diocese from the front, being the dominant tribe amongst the four. Although the other three form the majority in the diocese, they were subdued due to an acute leadership crisis.
Due to the intervention of the church, all four groups have become able to coexist and labor toward their overall development, overlooking the conflicts within for a bigger and brighter future. They have risen up from the fringes and are able to congregate together and to integrate into mainstream society. The Boros have been successful in making everyone aware of their importance through the well known Boroland revolution. The Lepchas and Adivasis have now claimed recognition that they are an important factor in both church and society.
Dalits and Tribals in India continue to be on the margins of the society today. The Constitution of India gives special status to Dalits and Tribals, but we see only a handful of people enjoy those rights and privileges. The majority, whose homes are the forests, are deprived of the radiance of enlightenment.
Even after 63 years of India’s independence, Dalit and Tribal villagers are without safe and clean drinking water and sanitation. The women are still victims of acute sexual abuse and exploitation. The children are without proper education and personal and environmental hygiene. There are no proper roads leading to their villages. Thus the overall picture continues to be dismal.
But we, as the body of Christ in India, have sought to be in solidarity with Dalits and Tribals and address the oppression that they experience. Further, we have tried to address internal tensions and conflicts so that groups with historic differences can coexist and minister together fruitfully. We can and must continue to try to transform the dismal situation of Dalits and Tribals. The social teachings of Christ have influenced millions of people around the world. We, as the members of the church, must respond to the clarion call to develop the world of Dalits and Tribals from a socio-economic point of view, based on justice and peace. Our approach should be guided by the words of Christ, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none, and he who has food let him do likewise”. (Luke 3:11) As the Lord Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. (Matthew 25:40)
Clapham, John. “Bengal Methodism: First Hundred Years, 1813 to 1931,” in Methodists in Bengal, edited by N. B. Mitra. Durgapur: Shanti Griha, 2007.
Hessel, Dieter T. “Solidarity Ethics: A Public Focus for the Church.” Review of Religious Research 20:3 (Summer 1979): 251-263.
Khalko, Amita. “Adivasi Movement in Jharkhand: The Role and Contribution of Christian Missionaries.” New Delhi: Church of North India, Synodical Board of Social Services, n.d.
Narayan, Sachindra. Dynamics of Tribal Development: Issues and Challenges. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2002.
Padhi, B. C. Socio-Economic Conditions of the Tribal under the British Rule, 1803-1936. Calcutta: Puthi Pustak, 1992.
Sural, G. B., ed. Aspects of Tribal Life. Durgapur: Shanti Griha, 2009.
Probal Kanto Dutta has been Bishop of the Diocese of Durgapur in the Church of North India since 2003. He holds the B.A. degree from the University of Kolkata, B.D. from Bishop’s College, and M.A. in missiology from the University of Birmingham. As a presbyter he served congregations in the Diocese of Kolkata. He was National Programme Secretary for the Vigil India Movement, a unit of the Ecumenical Christian Center at Bangalore, and was Director of Kolkata Urban Service. In 2000 he was appointed Chief Coordinator of the Synodical Board of Social Services in Delhi. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Indian Institute of Theology, Madurai.