DALITS, From Brokenness to Restoration

Laval Yau

  Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit himself had described the Dalits as a Broken People. Not much has changed since this pronouncement fifty years ago. Dalits continue to be a Broken People but there is hope. It is therefore fitting that I should introduce you to the Dalits in this edition of “By the Streams” which focuses on brokenness and restoration.

  I have been to India twice in the past twelve months to become acquainted with the plight of the Dalits. Two villages, called Pipe Village and IDPL slum, illustrate their dire situation. The Pipe Village gets its name from a village that grew near a factory making large sewage concrete pipes on the outskirts of the large city of Hyderabad. As these pipes were discarded over a large surface area, there was space enough between them for squatters to occupy. Migrant workers from all over India flock to cities where they can find work. They are usually too poor to pay for accommodation, so they look for any area where they can set up tents and erect shelters. These pipes provided the perfect shield from the sun, the home away from home.

  IDPL has a similar story. A pharmaceutical company abandoned its large premises and the people came squatting. 3,000 families now live in this slum of make shift tents. Shops are erected, vendors of fruits and drinks start to line the streets and a community has come to life.

  It is a measure of the hardships of rural India that so many Dalits in recent years are migrating to cities for back-breaking, often unregulated jobs, and that those who remain in their villages consider sharecropping a step up from day labour.

  Who are the Dalits?

  Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the illiterate Indians are Dalits. More than 250 million people in India are considered "Untouchable"—people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure and less than human. Millions of them are agricultural workers trapped in an inescapable cycle of extreme poverty, illiteracy and oppression.

  ‘Untouchables’ perform jobs that are traditionally considered "unclean" or exceedingly menial, and for very little pay. One million Dalits work as manual scavengers, cleaning latrines and sewers by hand and clearing away dead animals. I visited the town of Laksmipuram, 10 km outside Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh and witnessed first hand what these latrines look like. I shuddered.

  In 1950, the term ‘untouchable’ was eradicated under India's constitution, to be replaced by ‘Scheduled Castes’. Gandhi referred to ‘Untouchables’ as Harijan, which means "people of God". Politically active ‘untouchables’ feel that this term Harijan might evoke pity rather than respect, and came up with the name Dalit, which means, "oppressed".

  Dalits constitute most of the estimated 40 million people in India who are bonded workers. Bonded labour, which is illegal in India, is an arrangement whereby a person is forced to pay off a loan with direct labour in place of currency, over an agreed or obscure period of time. Most of these debts were incurred generations ago. These people, 15 million of whom are children, work under slave-like conditions hauling rocks and bricks, or working in fields or factories.

  The Caste System

  How did the Dalits end up where they are? It is all due to a uniquely Indian phenomenon called the Caste system. Caste was originally an arrangement for the distribution of functions in society, just as much as class was in Europe, but the principle on which this distribution was based was peculiar to India.

  The Hindu caste system follows one basic premise rooted in ancient and sacred Sanskrit Indian texts dating back some 3,500 years: All men are born unequal. According to these texts, four Varna groups emerged from various parts of the body of a primordial being. Interestingly, the word "varna" translates literally into the word "colour" in Sanskrit. Each group fulfills a function in society as follows:

  1. The Brahmins, emerged from the mouth. They preside over knowledge and education and are the priests and teachers who look after the intellectual and spiritual needs of the community.

  2. The Kshatriyas came from the arms. They are the warriors and their responsibility is to rule and to protect members of the community.

  3. The Vaishyas came from the thighs. They are merchants and traders and look after commerce and agriculture.

  4. The Shudras, came from the feet. Their task is to perform manual labour. They are peasants, labourers and artisans.

  Within the four castes, there are thousands of sub-castes, defined by profession, region, dialect, and other factors. Hindus believe a person is born into one of four castes listed above, based on karma and "purity” and on how (s)he lived their past lives. Every Indian, born into one of these Varna’s, is supposed to stay with that caste until death. What a person in each of these Varna’s can and can't do, is prescribed in detail in the laws of Manu, written by Brahman priests at least 2,000 years ago.

  To this day, most Indians still believe, and this includes a majority of the Dalits themselves, that Dalits are being punished by God for sins committed in a previous life. Under the religious codes of Hinduism, a Dalit's only hope is to be a good servant of the high castes and upon death and rebirth (s) he will be reincarnated in a high caste. Hinduism is the religion of 80% of India's population and its ancient system of social stratification still rules much of daily life. At the end of the day, the caste system is racially based oppression and as such is the equivalent of Apartheid in India.

  The Dalit Struggle

  Dalits fall into a fifth category outside the varna system. They are required to perform tasks that are considered so impure that they could not possibly be included in the traditional Varna system. In former times, elaborate rules were applied to avoid "cross-contamination." In northern India for example, Dalits had to use drums to let others know of their arrival. Even their shadows were considered polluted. In the south, some Brahmins ordered the Dalits to keep at least 20 metres away from them. If the shadow of a Dalit were to inadvertently fall on a DalitBrahmin, the Brahmin would have to go through an elaborate system of purification.

  To be a Dalit today means having to live in a subhuman, degraded, insecure fashion. In most parts of India, Dalits continue to be barred from entering Hindu temples or other holy places - although doing so is against the law. Their women are banned from wearing shoes in the presence of caste Hindus. Dalit children are ostracized in schools by being made to sit at the back of the classroom.

  Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same wells, attend the same temples or drink from the same cups in tea stalls. India's Dalits are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place.


  To you and me, all Indians look alike and we can be excused for being totally baffled at how such a system can exist and how one can tell one caste from the other. Unfortunately a Dalit cannot hide his caste. Family name, village of origin, body language and especially occupation give it away. The Dalit can try to disguise his caste identity, but there are too many ways to slip up. A Hindu will not feel confident developing a social relationship without knowing the background of the other person. Within a couple of months, one’s caste will be revealed. There is no escape.

  Caste discrimination has allowed, and still does allow, upper castes to maintain their control over cultural, social, political and material capital. But some Dalits are starting to fight their status as social and cultural outcasts. Small but growing groups of activists are working for the liberation of the Dalits. The reaction of authorities to their activism is often unforgiving and police brutality against the Dalit activists is commonplace.


  Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? (1 Samuel 4:8) is the cry of the Dalits today.

  There is a growing grassroots movement of activists, many of whom are women, trade unions, and other NGOs that are organizing to democratically and peacefully demand their rights, higher wages, and more equitable land distribution. There are very small steps in the restoration of the Dalits but they are a start.

  Much help was given by K. R. Narayana who was India’s first Dalit President of India from 1997-2002. On India's Republic Day in 2000, he quoted Ambedkar, India's true Dalit hero who fought for the destruction of the caste system in order to liberate the Dalits. Narayana said that until Untouchability and discrimination against women were eliminated, "the edifice of our democracy would be like a palace built on a dung heap."

  Urbanization also offers hope for the Dalits. Even if it means living in the slums, caste boundaries fade in the chaos of large Indian cities and offer a way out of the oppressing village prejudice that reduces a Dalit to a subhuman creature.

  However, breaking the barriers laid down by the Hindu caste system is an uphill struggle, especially when the government does little to uphold the law of the land that prohibits discrimination on account of descent.

  From our perspective, the most important restoration movement to come out in support of the Dalits has been the Dalit Freedom Network (DFN) started in 2002 by Christians within Operation Mobilization (OM) in India.

  Operation Mobilization as its name implies was formed to mobilise churches to share the knowledge of Jesus and His love with every generation in every nation. Teams of missionaries, mostly young men and women from these churches, were sent around the world preaching the gospel and bringing people to Christ. OM India was started in 1963; 6 years after George Verwer made his first foray in the US/Mexico. Our first short-term missions trip went with OM Canada to Mexico in December 1982.

  Dr. Joseph D’souza has been leader of that movement in India for the last 25 years or so. As you know, Dr. D’souza was our keynote speaker during Missions Conference 2010. When I asked him how the DFN started, he replied, echoing James 2:15-16, “How can we convert a Dalit and then leave him in his subhuman life?” George Verwer was very much aware of this dichotomy between evangelization and social work. He is reported as having said, “OM will never build schools” and OM never has. DFN has done it but all under the OM India’s watchful eye.

  OM India has morphed over this past decade to become a church planting movement that caters to the whole person, with a focus on the Dalits. The current structure puts church planting at the centre of its efforts. The churches planted are all under the umbrella of the “Good Shepherd Community Church”. Whereas in the past the team of mobilisers would channel their converts to existing evangelical churches, the focus now is on planting churches whenever there are enough converts and a pastor/missionary is available. The Mission Mobilisation efforts continue in earnest as at inception.

  The second petal to be added was “Education” and this was in response to the Dalit leaders coming to OM India and asking that their children be given affordable and yet quality education. These leaders realized that it would be virtually impossible to change their lives at such a late stage but their hope was in their children. The decision was therefore made some 12 years ago to start the first school, called Dalit Education Centre (DEC), where the education would be Christian and in English. That combination would give them a head start over all other children. When I was in India in July, I saw two new schools being built through the generous gifts of American and British donors. There are currently 104 of these DEC’s, all of them serving the Dalits mostly and teaching Grades 1 to 10 depending on the location and age of the school. The future impact of the schools will be felt in years to come.

  The 3rd petal is the Justice/Advocacy group which is active politically and lobbies the government for more equitable laws or the eradication of the discriminating ones. That work is being done in conjunction with other Christians through the All Indian Christian Council and through co-operation with other like-minded groups’ efforts. On my recent visit, the Anti Human Trafficking group was just starting and has a long way to go to match the efforts of other more established groups like the International Justice Mission. Still, OM India cannot be active in sharing the Gospel to the Dalits and not address the injustices that they are experiencing.

  The 4th petal is the Health Care division which provides for the physical well being of the Dalits in remote villages where access to medical help is neither easy nor available nor affordable. Mobile clinics and teams of visiting medical personnel are deployed on a regular basis but the logistics and high costs of such a venture can be limiting. There are opportunities for short-term teams to come and help in this area as in the area of education.

  I have kept the “Economic Development” (ED) petal last because it is the one that I will be involved with. As its name implies the idea behind this ministry is to help the Dalits achieve a level of economic sufficiency and sustainability. Right now, the majority of them are working in low paying, back breaking and demeaning jobs for about $5 per day for the men and $3 for the women. These jobs reinforce their unworthiness and low self-image. When the Dalits are in Christ, they are now a new creation; the old has gone and the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). The new encompasses both spiritual and social transformations. It is this holistic approach that attracted me first to the work in ED. I grew up poor and I can easily identify with the Dalits. I know what it is like to be poor. To those who think that we should only preach the gospel and not care about the social needs, I would invite you to come and visit with me the Dalit slum villages. Try to live like them for a week and the need for physical restoration will become very apparent and is as urgent as its spiritual counterpart. The two cannot be separated. They are the wings of a bird or the blades of a pair of scissors.

  I have visited many of the Dalits who have benefitted from ED’s work and I have seen the pride and the dignity that decent wages can bring. I have witnessed the changes that occur when men and women live up to the full potential that God intended them to be. During my trip in India, that one phrase from Genesis 1:27 haunted me: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” That’s the goal. It is to make the Dalits reflect the image of their Creator. There is no greater goal. God has already determined that He wants the Dalits to be like Him. We are to be God’s fellow workers. We will just need to come alongside them and help them accomplish that goal which God has already set for them.

  That work is however, a difficult and arduous one. How does one teach people who have for centuries been told that they are worthless and good for nothing, that they can now build something significant for themselves? Only God can do that work. The transformation has to start from the heart. God has to touch the Dalits individually and as a people, depositing in them the spark that is necessary to get the fire of change roaring. Otherwise, we labour in vain.

  The ED work started in 2007 and much has been accomplished by the Grace of God. There are more than 19,000 people whose lives are being impacted by the efforts of the 50-members staff of ED. The work is still in its infancy. Much remains to be done and that is why I am going over to help them. My Macedonian call did not come in a vision but God sent several people to steer me and guide towards that work and when I got there, I knew that this was what God had prepared for me.

  I witnessed the vocational training that purports to equip both men and women with new skills. I saw how the Self-help groups (SHG), which as their name implies, are self-organized groups of men and women, helping each other to better their lives through mutual support, saving money in a common pot and sharing their needs and excesses.

  What however, bowled me over were the benefits of microfinance. By giving to the Dalits a small loan ranging from $100 to $500, those who are entrepreneurial can start a small business or can purchase an animal (goat, water buffalo, cow, etc.) that can bring them extra income. Since they do not have any collateral, banks would not lend them any money. However, ED will but only in the context and support of the church and the SHG’s. Repayment rate are in the 90+%. Had the Dalits gone to the loan sharks, they would have paid exorbitant amounts in interest payments.

  This is a good example of little becoming much in the hands of the Dalits. They are empowered to do much more than they would have been able to do on their own.

  When the work among the Dalits was started, the schools were started all over India in a random fashion based on the call of the leaders. With 100 DEC’s now established, it is clear now that some synergy could be obtained by having them grouped and being closer to one another. These clusters, as they are called, would facilitate the circulation of the teachers within a region; maximize the use of resources available; be more attractive to teachers and other workers who would find fellowship and support more readily; reduce travel costs for supervisors and teams; etc. Each cluster would consist of several churches, schools, training and vocational centres. Everything will be done more efficiently. However, there is a lot of co-ordination involved in making all these clusters work efficiently.

  India has more than 1 billion people and is predicted to surpass China in 2030 and become the most populous country in the world. With one quarter of its population living below poverty level, India has a lot to catch up and clean up. The plight of the Dalits has only highlighted the needs of this nation to the Christian community. We have always known that India is a poor country but the task is so massive and overwhelming that everyone just gives up thinking about solutions. It is better not to think about an insurmountable problem. It is too difficult and may be too painful to continue staring. We look askance.

  What DFN and OM India offer is a practical solution to an ugly eye sore. We can dare to look at it in the face and with the cross of Jesus before us, we can march on to battle.