‘Power within the Church still lies with the upper castes’

Ruth Manorama, herself a part of the Dalit Christian Liberation movement and founder of Women’s Voice and the Dalit Women’s Federation, Bangalore, spoke to Teesta Setalvad on the issue of caste within the Indian church and the un-addressed plight of Dalit Christians.

What about the question of Dalit Christians and women among them?
Of the 20 million Christians in India today, some 160–170 million are Dalits. However, the power within the Church still lies with the upper castes that control all the institutions of better education. So, it is true in a sense that the Church in large part has remained within the control of the upper castes.

Has conversion of Dalits to Christianity liberated them significantly from their earlier plight?
The legacy of the missionaries has alleviated large sections of the most marginalised sections but the endogamy within the Church has remained. Progressive forces from the Christian Dalit liberation movement — of which I am a part — have been working hard to revolutionise the Church and reaffirm its missionary zeal which has always been present in service and justice, not just for the rich but also, for the poor.

However, while critiquing the Church we must always remember that the critical mass of the Church’s functionaries have always worked guided by the philosophy of love and justice. That is part of their faith, as they understand it, guiding them to areas no one else goes.
In the field of education, health and other social sectors, Christian contribution is enormous. In running thousands of institutions for the aged, the infirm, leprosy homes, child-care homes and homes for single women, women’s hostels, too.

For the missionaries who are dedicated to this service, imparting education and running educational institutions itself is evangelism, running a hospital is itself an act of evangelism, going to far-off areas and setting up a health clinic, is evangelism. And for them, the love of Jesus has shown them this way.

Besides, there is a lot of dialectic within the Church. Do you know that women and men within the CSI and Lutheran and Anglican churches have struggled for the right to get women ordained as priests? Today, the Lutheran and Anglican churches in India have ordained their women. This has not happened in the Catholic Church, unfortunately. It is within the Catholic Church, especially, that nuns and sisters need to be liberated from the hierarchy that is rigid and often unsympathetic to their dedication.

The dedication of these nuns is second to none. They go to remote areas where not even a mosquito would go, driven by their mission, giving education and health services to sections are the most uncared for. But the Church that ought to be providing the necessary shield and umbrella is being defensive. The Church needs to stand up and talk the truth and speak out, openly. It needs to awaken, show more solidarity to its sections that are being threatened. It is time for the church to stand up.

You began your career working within the Church but have now moved to more radical pastures…
I began my career working within the church institutions, by getting trained in community organisations, imbibing the radical methodology of Soul D’Alinsky, and later the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire — to conscientise the poor for the their liberation. 
While students in the Christian schools were initiated to involve themselves in services of the less fortunate, many of the theologians and activists within the Church were inspired not only by the scriptures but also by a Marxian analysis of society. This coincided with the time when our country was also pursuing the Russian model of socialism.

The liberation theology pursued by the radical Indian churches in the seventies and eighties has inspired many young people of the time. It also helped us to ask the Church very uncomfortable sections related to position, status, power and sharing of resources, distribution of resources and wealth.

Where does the Dalit Christian issue stand today?
The issue of reservations for Dalit Christians remains a key issue when we are struggling for liberation. There is no difference at all between the conditions of the Dalit poor and the Christian poor. Our real task is to get the discriminatory Presidential order of 1950 repealed. Why is the Church evading this critical issue that is important to 75 per cent of Indian Christians?

Would you say that conversion to Christianity has met the expectations of the sections that converted to escape the scourge of caste and untouchability?
Conversion has liberated large sections from the scourge of untouchability, yes. However, it is also a fact that in many parts of India, the Church itself could not escape the clutches of the Hindu caste system. Which is why we have the Syrian Christians, the Goa Brahmin Christians, and grossly discriminatory practices within the Church. Why? Because the Church did not take it’s own theology very seriously, and also because it was not able, or did not want, to address the deep-rootedness of the scourge of caste. After the missionaries left, sections of the Indian Church got sucked into the caste system that catered only to the rich. 

Are there attempts within the church to rectify this?
This is now being analysed and addressed, thanks in so small part to the Dalit Christian liberation movement. What we must not forget, however, is that many Hindus converted themselves to various religions to escape the agony of the dreaded, treacherous caste system and the agony of untouchability. Conversion was and is the most available form of awakening for the most downtrodden in the Indian context.

Internally, these large conversions brought a lot of problems to the Church because the new converts, the idealistic pastors, began asking questions, demanding radical and more equitable approaches from within the Church itself.

The conversion issue is being whipped up by communal outfits in the context of brutal attacks on Christian religious persons and institutions. As a Dalit Christian what do you have to say on the issue of conversion? 
Even in the face of these brutal attacks and violence led by communal forces, the Church should not be defensive on the issue of conversion. It is still the way out of oppression for hundreds of thousands of our people. 
Look, it is the sheer humanity and stupendous success behind the work of Indian Christian institutions that motivates the current attacks. The Church should resist these attacks and speak out firmly. Christian schools and institutes of higher education are producing the best minds, leaders in their fields. Besides, education in Christian institutions comes with a life ethic of caring, justice and compassion that is missing elsewhere. 

The Church is afraid to speak out but why should it be? Under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, you have the right to practice and propagate your religion; this is part of individual freedom and personal liberty and it cannot be taken away. Put this in the context of the Indian socio-economic reality where caste is the major source of lived discrimination; if our work by it’s mandate take us to these sections whom no one is looking at, why should we be defensive?

The Church is being unnecessarily defensive. The role of the church has been decisive, it has been a major contributive factor in the building of our nation and it should assert this as such. The Indian Christian has not been committed to anything other than peace and justice.



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