Prem Chand has led a church for Dalit and non-Dalit Christians in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh for years. But despite his title and experience, he’s learned one painful lesson over and over.

“A Dalit always stays a Dalit, an outcast, even if he is educated or has a good economic status,” he said. “Both believers and nonbelievers do not respect a Dalit pastor as they would a high-caste Hindu convert pastor.”

Despite making up a significant number of the Christian population—both Catholic and Protestant—Dalit Christians have historically been shut out from church leadership. As Chand knows firsthand, many Christian Dalits face persistent caste discrimination in their congregations. Outside the church, the government denies them affirmative action benefits available to Hindu Dalits, keeping millions of believers stymied in poverty and shut out from formal education.

To this day, Christians from different castes worship in different locations and bury their dead in separate graveyards in some Southern Indian congregations. Dalit believers face less overt discrimination in the northern and central parts of the country, if only because many Christians in these regions are from the Dalit or Tribal background themselves. Yet a discriminatory line remains, even though some parts of community life are shared.

“For generations people have been living following the set rules of caste, and it does not leave an individual even after they start to follow Christ,” said Chand. “Even after many years of faith and associating superficially with Dalits, when it comes to marrying their children, high-caste Christians will search for brides and grooms who belong to their own castes and not go for intercaste marriages.”

Efforts are being made to address the discrimination, but no church or Christian leader has committed to any binding resolutions. These are only individual church efforts, and there is yet a long way to go.

“When a Dalit hears [Genesis 1:27], it is the first time in their entire life that they feel like a human,” said Ram Surat, an activist and Dalit scholar, who prefers to be addressed as a Balijan or Mulnivasi Christian (see sidebar). “But it is heart wrenching when a Dalit converts to Christianity to gain dignity and to get away from the grip of untouchability and the caste system but finds that she or he continues to face discrimination, thus marginalizing them twice with respect to both caste and religion.”

Left out

Numerous Indian Christians come from Dalit and Tribal backgrounds, many drawn to the gospel as a means of fleeing the Hindu social order’s oppressive caste system.

In 2008, a government report by the National Commission for Minorities stated that 2.4 million Dalits are Christians but added, “Most scholars and activists put the proportion at between 50 and 75 percent of all Indian Christians, although it is not possible to corroborate these claims in any decisive manner due to the difficulty of the category being officially unrecognized.” Today, Dalits make up one third of India’s Christian population, according to Pew Research Center data released in 2021.

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For years, Indians from other castes considered Dalits so impure that their touch or even shadow was said to pollute other groups in the Hindu social order—a belief that justified expelling them from public life. Though the practice of untouchability was legally abolished by the Constitution of India, it continues to be practiced in India today and manifests itself in regular physical and structural violence against the Dalits.

Every 18 minutes, a crime is committed against a Dalit, leading to a disproportionate number of Dalit murder, rape, and arson victims. More than half the children in the community are malnourished, and 83 per 1,000 children die before their first birthday, noted a Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) report from 2016.

Dalit households often lack basic facilities like access to water, denied to them by the high castes living in the vicinity, notes the report. Public health workers refuse to visit Dalit homes. Police stations often refuse entry for Dalits, and they are made to sit separately while eating in school or at public gatherings.

In an attempt to circumvent such discrimination, many Dalits (from all religious backgrounds) have exchanged their easily recognizable surnames for more caste-neutral or high-caste ones. After changing their names, many move away from the areas where they grew up to avoid being identified.

While the Indian Constitution officially offers affirmation action (or reservations) to Dalits, these measures apply only to Dalits from Hindu, Buddhist, or Sikh communities and exclude Christians and Muslims.

In 2008, one government agency published a report arguing for equal treatment for all Dalit members. Several Christian bodies, like the CBCI, had petitioned the Supreme Court to demand justice for Dalit Christians and Muslims so reservation benefits could be restored. Filed in 2004, the petition is still pending.

“As of today, Dalit Christians lack education, equal opportunities, and most do not own any agricultural land,” said Bishop Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy of the Church of North India (CNI).

Though many Dalit Christians have embraced the faith for generations, conversion to Christianity has brought little change in their social or economic status—something that even the Supreme Court of India observed.

“Conversion does not change one’s status or caste, though the heart and mind may change,” said Surat. “I do not notice any economic leaps in the lives of Dalit converts. They should be getting reservations.”

An unequal church life

Throughout the history of the Indian Church, Christian leaders such as Saint Devasahayam, theologians Arvind P. Nirmal and James Massey, and others have been on the forefront of challenging these abuses.

Yet, according to Surat, most Christians, especially those not from the Dalit community, find it embarrassing to admit that caste discrimination is present in the church and Christian community at large.

Mahesh (who asked to be referred to only by his first name) is a Dalit pastor who leads 32 prayer houses in four locations in the eastern state of Bihar and works exclusively among the Dalit community. He says that he rarely shares the gospel with the non-Dalits.

“They hear the gospel and get convinced. But when they come to attend church services, they are not able to accept the fact that Christ equalizes them with the Dalit sitting next to them, and thus they stop coming to church,” he said.

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The fact that the church radically upends non-Dalits’ social circle makes it very challenging to do evangelism to this community, says Sanjay Kumar, a Dalit pastor who serves in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

“They are hesitant as to how the villagers and their nonbelieving families would react to their faith in Christ,” he said. “They directly say that ‘accepting Christ would mean that we will have to rub shoulders with the Dalit-background believers, intermarry, and such a binding is problematic for us.’”

In recent years, because of the rise of Dalit theology and rights movements within the church, Christian leaders in mainline churches, like the Methodist Church in India and CNI in Delhi, have sought for more equality in church life.

“There is no distinction in the sitting arrangements in the church or eating arrangements. Neither is the church hesitant in giving them church memberships,” said Surat. But “though there is certainly an improvement, it is not sufficient.”

Whose problem to solve?

Protestant Christian leaders in India acknowledge Dalit presence and participation in leadership roles but confess that many of them are not comfortable identifying themselves publicly as Dalit. Some, however, like former CNI bishop Karam Masih, proudly wear their Dalit identity and are activists for the cause.

“If I start to name pastors and leaders from Dalit background, I can go on with a long list, but I would not like to name anybody unless they themselves are comfortable in accepting and identifying with their roots,” said Surat.

Dalit representation in Catholic leadership is tiny. “Of the country’s 31 archbishops, only two are Dalits, and of the 215 bishops, only 11 are Dalits,” Crux noted in a recent report.

Still, many cheered when, earlier this year, Pope Francis nominated Anthony Poola, the previous Archbishop of Hyderabad, to become the Catholic church’s first Dalit cardinal.

“This is good news for Dalit Catholics and for the entire Church in India,” Poola told AsiaNews.

For years, few non-Dalit Christians have seen lack of Dalit leadership representation as a problem, says Samantaroy, pointing out the lack of initiative by the Christian community at large in bridging the gap.

“The church has neglected their own community by only seeking support from the government and from outside. We [Christians] have prime institutions both in health care and education serving the country, but many of our own Dalit Christians did not have access to such education,” he said. “I don’t see that we have made conscious efforts to groom Dalits to leadership.”

Conscious efforts have begun in churches to build up Dalit leadership, but nearly every change exists only at the individual level, says S. Duraiswamy, the senior pastor at Chennai Diocese of the Evangelical Church of India.

“In the local church committees, we make sure that Dalits are included in church decision-making committees and that there is a balance between the Dalit representation and others,” he said.

A growing number of Dalit Christians are seeking higher education, cognizant that university is often a vehicle of upward mobility at least within the Christian community.

At Baring Union Christian College in Punjab, “five years ago there were less than 25 total Dalit students receiving formal training in the college, but today we have 100 Dalit students,” said Samantaroy.

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Many of the new independent churches and house churches throughout India are being led by Christians from Dalit background, but their experiences continue to point toward discrimination.

Congregations under Dalit pastoral leadership may struggle to stay afloat because their congregations are economically weak themselves and lack support from outside the church, says Chand.

Chand once approached a high-caste believer for some work-related advice.

“That man asked me my name and confirmed from me if I was a Dalit. Immediately his way of talking with me changed. When I tried to place my views before him as we discussed, he said, ‘Will you [a Dalit] teach me now?,’” said Chand.

There’s little hope for a strong Indian church if the disunity among Dalit Christians and their non-Dalit counterparts persists, says Surat.

“If [this discrimination] continues to exist, then church will not make any progress. When they come together [to] the table to discuss the [Christian] community-related larger issues, they would be divided,” he said. “The division based on caste is very dangerous. It will divide the church and make it very weak.”