Bamonns, Sudra and Dalit Christians – The Caste System Among the Indian Christians

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Call me naive, but I always believed Christianity to be an egalitarian religion. After all, Christian egalitarianism holds that all people are equal in moral status and their fundamental worth. Going by this theory, Christianity is casteless. However, it would be a big lie, to even claim that there is no caste system among the Indian Christians.

Christianity in India and the Caste System

In India, based on the caste, creed and tribes, there are Bamonn (Roman Catholic Brahmin – The Brahmins who converted to Roman Catholicism in Goa), Sudri (Shudras converted to Christianity in Goa), and Dalit Christians. Besides, there is community based Christianity too – Kuruba Christian, Madiga Christian, Akkasali Christian, Lambini Christian, Nadar Christian, Nekara Christian etc and there also exists Tribal Christians (Khasi Christians, Jharkhandi Christians, Naga Christians, Mizo Christians etc.)

Yes, the low caste and the Dalits who converted to Christianity did not escape the caste system which has a strongly ingrained presence in Indian society that is not limited to Hindu religious ideals. Thus, having dual identity.

The different branches and sub branches of Christianity in India still engage in these societal practices with regards to the caste system, along with all its customs and norms.

The Oppression, Inequality and Discrimination Faced by Dalit Christians (DC)

Mass conversions of lower caste Hindus took place in order to escape discrimination and unfair treatment faced by them. They believed that Christianity is a true religion; a desire for protection from oppressors and, if possible, material aid as they thought Christianity was egalitarian and could provide mobility away from the caste.

However, even after conversion, Dalits are discriminated due to the “residual leftover” practice of caste discrimination. The environment and power structures of the society they are engaged in, is the same. The only change seen is their personal religious identity. In many cases they are still referred to, by their Hindu caste names. Example, Pariah in Tamil Nadu, Madigas in Andhra Pradesh and Pulayans in Kerala.

Caste based occupations held by Dalits also illustrate a segregation which continued even after the Dalits became Christians. Occupational patterns including manual scavenging amongst Dalit Christians in north-west India is quite similar to that of Dalit Hindus. The occupational discrimination is not only restricted to employment, but also to water and clean sanitation.

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Inter caste marriage among Christians is also not commonly practiced. For example, Syrian Christians in Kerala do not marry Dalit Christians. Even intermarriage between Bamonns and Sudri in Goa is quite uncommon.

Discrimination against Dalit Christians also remained in mannerisms and interactions between castes. For instance, the converted ‘lower caste christians’ had to close their mouth when talking to a Syrian Christian. Even after conversion, segregation, hierarchy, restriction and graded ritual purity remains. There are data that shows that there is more discrimination and less class mobility in rural areas.

In many cases, the churches themselves perpetuated the caste system. Few churches referred to the converted Dalits as “New Christians”. It is undoubtedly a derogatory term that classify the Dalit Christians, which allows other Christians to look down upon them. In many churches in south India, Dalits had either separate seating or had to attend the mass from outside. So, conversion didn’t really help Dalits to get over the oppression. They are still given labels.

Dalit Christians are also grossly underrepresented amongst the clergy. However, there are a few churches that accept the reality of castes in Christianity.

Dalit Christians, Caste System in India & Demand for Reservation in SC Category

After seeing discrimination in their converted faith (which obviously should not have happen as it contradicts the basis of Christianity) DCs are now seeking reservations (as SC) under the Indian caste system as they feel they are still ‘oppressed’ even though they were technically relieved from caste system and its discrimination the moment they got converted.

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However, now that the Indian Constitution and the Center recognizes that there is no caste in Christianity, the SCs (Dalits) who got converted to Christianity are not entitled to reservations. Still, the Indian Constitution have quota for Christians in general. Christians come under OBC quota for minorities. Well, a SC Hindu who converted into Christianity is now treated as OBC under Serial No 22.

On the other hand, Tribal Christians do enjoy reservations under ST category as there is no religion barriers for ST.

This is the reason why the converted Dalits too seek reservation under the SC quota. Besides, their point of argument is that, if Sikh and Buddhists can be included why not them too.

This makes me wonder why the convertees and the entire Christian community in unison are not fighting for getting equal rights in the church by protesting casteism in their own religion which is against their own belief.

But instead they want to adhere to their caste and still want to be labelled as downtrodden even when the Indian constitution is giving them rights according to their religious beliefs. Instead of blaming and fighting against the made up religious framework, the community is blaming the country for inequality. Now isn’t this culpability?

Don’t you think the Dalit Christians, Sudri and other lower caste Christians should unite against this illegal framework of caste system in Christianity in India than fighting for a SC quota for equal rights? After all, Christianity treats everybody equal.

What are your thoughts?

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