Church leaders from around the world heard real stories of injustice based on India’s caste system at a conference in Bangkok this week, where several leaders issued strong statements against the ancient system of discrimination.
“Governments that exclude a whole section of [their] own citizens – or allow them to be so treated – are incompetent to govern," wrote the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, in a statement read out at the conference on his behalf, according to the World Council of Churches. "And members of the international community that know but ignore the issue are accomplices to the systemic violations of human rights resulting from this unjust system."
The Global Ecumenical Conference on Justice for Dalits, held on March 21-24, examined the 3,500-year-old caste system that continues to be practiced despite India’s constitution guaranteeing equal rights for all. The conference was organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in partnership with the Christian Conference of Asia.
Among the true stories told at the conference was one about a young man and woman, both college graduates, forced to drink poison in front of a public crowd shortly after their wedding. The bodies of the couple from a village in southern India were then burned.
Their “crime” was simply that the husband was a Dalit and the wife was Vanniyar with low caste status.
According to the caste system, Dalits are “polluted” and cannot intermarry even with members of the lowest caste system.
Bishop Dr. Vedanayagam Devasahayam of the Church of South India, Madras Diocese pointed out that some churches in India practice discrimination of Dalits as well. Devasahayam is a Dalit.
Non-Indian attendees learned that some churches in India have a separate entrance for Dalits, and leadership positions are overwhelmingly held by non-Dalit men.
"We want the Indian church to declare its identity as the church of and for the Dalits, in order to work towards their liberation," said Devasahayam, according to WCC. " We also want the Indian church to encourage the expression of the Dalits' culture in church life, worship and theology."
Noko said the majority of the people in his region in southern Africa had also suffered institutionalized discrimination.
"I can imagine a little of how it is to be born a Dalit (formerly known as untouchables) and to be the subject of entrenched discrimination based on descent and traditional occupation," he said. "As a Zimbabwean, I also know what it is like for promises and hopes of justice and a better life to be unfulfilled or betrayed."
Noko noted that the church in India has “a Dalit face.”
Lutheran churches in India are predominantly made up of Dalit and tribal members. Out of the 25 million Christians in India, about 20 million are Dalits.
"As churches, we confess that we are all members of the one body of Christ, the whole body sharing in the pain of just one of its members," said the Rev. Vincent Manoharan of the National Campaign for Dalit Rights. "Can any part of the body of Christ be considered 'untouchable'? Everyone is 'touchable' by God. No one can be excluded from the means of grace."