Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dalit Reality

This past weekend we had our second retreat of the year. We were staying in Kozhencherry about two hours by bus from Kottayam. As I have mentioned before retreats are a time for us to get together, share stories, laugh, relax and also be exposed to a different reality in India.

This months retreat was focusing on the lives of Dalits in India. Dalits are what we know as the "untouchables" cast. Although, technically, they are so low that they aren't even considered to be part of the caste system.

The caste system in India has been in place for thousands of years and is deeply ingrained into Indian society. Unlike the racial divide that persisted (and still does in some way) in the United States, the caste system in India is not based on ethnicity or race. It is essentially a division of labor. Different professions are assigned to different castes. The Dalits are the lowest of these caste and are stuck with menial jobs that no one else wants (or is allowed to do). Ghuri, an Indian anthropologist who studied the caste system in his book, Race and Cast in India, described the caste system as having six features that kept it ingrained in society.

Six Features:
1. Segmented Society
2. Heirarchy
3. Restrictions on feeding and interactions
4. Civil and Religious privileges and limitations
5. Restriction of occupation
6. Restriction of marriage

Because they have been oppressed and marginalized for centuries the disparity between the lives of the dalits and those of other castes is extremely wide. They don't receive good education and they aren't offered good positions which makes it very difficult for social mobility or improvement of life.

One example that I experienced first hand was from a young woman in the Dalit community we visited. She had had the fortune to study all the way up to a Masters Degree in Molecular Biology (largely because of the practice of "reservations" for students from certain communities). She was offered a position at a hospital four hours away from her home. She had to decline the opportunity because her family did not have the money or the connections to find her a place to stay for the first few months before she received her first pay check. Now, instead of working at the hospital research facility she is teaching Biology to high schoolers. 

The Dalits usually live in close community with one another and rely on the community as a whole to provide for many of their daily needs. In older towns the Dalit community lives in the eastern part of the town because the upper-castes don't want the Dalits to pollute the breeze flowing from east to west. In more recent decades dalit families have financed their most promising young adults migration to other parts of India or the world (usually the Gulf states). They work jobs that no one else will do in these countries and send back most of the money they make to their families back home.

As in all other parts of their lives, their religious communities are separate from non-Dalit congregations. Their churches don't receive full-time clergy and severely lack funding and basic infrastructures.
Thomas John's grandfather was the minister of a Dalit congregation. Although not a Dalit himself, Thomas John grew up in this community and the people here were his neighbors and friends. To return to this community is always an emotional experience and we spent our time going around and visiting many of the families.

One of the interesting recent trends amongst many Dalit communities is the mass conversion to American Pentecostal churches. These churches come into the communities with conversion quotas and give out monetary and material gifts to all those who come to their meetings and are "saved". For the average Dalit family these physical incentives can be enough to get them out to these worship services and the parents usually come away with some money in pocket and the children usually have new school supplies. In our short stay near to this community we met two men from the United States who were Pentecostal ministers.

I know that people like pictures and I apologize that I cannot really provide them for this experience. Due to he sensitive nature of the situation we weren't walking around with our cameras around our necks.

Thursday was Kochammas birthday and so we celebrated that with cake and a small gift from us volunteers

Our novelty card to Kochamma


  1. I was most interested that the church (of southern India??) doesn't fund ministry tot he Dalit well. I also have a question - sparked by the story of the lady who now teaches biology - are there not any micro-loan or grant programs in place to help fund housing for people such as her?
    I am really blown away that inability to fund her housing meant that she couldn't take the job, although teaching high school is a noble profession :)

  2. Fascinating. Did you have an opportunity to speak with the American ministers regarding the "gifts" they give to the newly converted? Who knew bribery was one of the paths to Christ...

    As someone used to our Western culture of economic mobility and that being encouraged, I am having difficulty wrapping my mind around the fact that the caste system is ingrained even in the churches to the point of reduced funding for the Dalits.

  3. I'm a little ashamed to say that I hadn't really heard about this until your blog. SO I definitely learned a lot. What sorts of jobs do the Dalit do?

  4. teaching middle school is a noble profession too you know!

    thanks for sharing your experience this past weekend. what is the church doing about these injustices?

    PS I finally saw your picture in Presbyterians Today!

  5. This morning Bob & Sherri, a Charlotte syndicated morning radio show, had "untouchables" as their take off for a discussion of undesirable jobs done with the hands. It seems the folks who clean the latrines are petitioning to have some equipment,other than their hands to accomplish the job. Interesting that I heard that on the day I read your latest post.
    Helen G OAPC

  6. very interesting I have had some experience of the caste system here in Coventry at times members of different caste appear racist towards lower caste's and on one occasion had to intervene in a situation between 2 members of staff Last night I had difficulty getting home from work ,buses were on a reduced timetable & there were very few taxis it was Diwali !! we did have some wonderful fireworks Can you email grandpa when you get time love you xx

  7. Keep on truckin' Jim! You are learning more about what goes on outside of these United States than most will in a lifetime. Thanks for sharing your experience with us!