Poverty in North India has every third inhabitant in its grip in some states. The Christians in the northern regions mainly belong to the poverty-stricken Dalit caste or to tribes. Indians are deeply spiritual. But radical groups are threatening Christians today: In some places they attack their schools, they try to create a hostile atmosphere and to brand Christians as enemies of Indian society. The freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution in India is in danger. On the other hand the poorest of the poor, in particular Dalits and tribal people, discover Christianity as a religion that liberates them from their isolation in society and helps them grow in dignity as brethren in God.

The meaning of being a Dalit

The term Dalit, formerly used in the sense of “untouchable”, means “broken” or “oppressed”. Dalits live at the bottom of India’s rigid social order known as the caste system. They are so low in the social hierarchy that they are considered out of the caste system – literally “outcastes”. They are expected to perform tasks considered too menial or degrading to be performed by caste system members, such as removing human waste and dead animals. 240 million Indians (almost one fifth of the Indian population) are Dalits.

The Indian Constitution contains a reference to the principle of equality and prohibits discrimination in employment and education, yet social caste discrimination still exists throughout much of India. Dalits suffer segregation and discrimination on a daily basis, as well as violence and abuse by upper-caste members. Most of India’s bonded labourers are Dalits. Dalit women and children are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and forced prostitution.

Consequences of becoming Christian

Of India’s 29 million Christians, around 60 to 70% are Dalits. For the Dalits, who are branded as outcastes, who have endured discrimination and humiliation in daily life for centuries, the message of Christianity brings salvation. It is an almost incredible relief for them to learn that there is a God who suffered – as they do – and who invites especially the poorest to his community as brothers and sisters in Christ. This faith leads to a transformation. The Dalits feel stronger when they become part of a community. However, when Dalits choose to become Christians they are subjected to yet more suffering in their already difficult lives, because as Christians they face further exclusion and harassment.

Most Catholics in the North and in parts of the East of India – the majority of whom are Dalits – live in pitiful conditions. As landless bonded labourers, they earn barely enough to survive. Once they fall into debt with their landlords and employers, they are reduced to little more than outright slavery. Official efforts by the Indian state to promote small businesses, introduce widows’ pensions and similar benefits are entirely inadequate and frequently redirected into channels of corruption. They live far below the poverty line, confined to the edge of the villages in mud or straw huts, sharply segregated from the homes of the higher castes. In some parts, they are banned from entering any temple, from drinking from the public wells and even from attending school, for the caste system is still very deeply entrenched in this region. And in professing their Christian faith, the Dalits lose all official entitlement to state social benefits. Women are even further discriminated against, having absolutely no voice in any decisions that affect them personally. Instead, they are utterly at the mercy of their fathers, husbands and sons.

“It is our responsibility as the Church to show ever greater concern for these people and to contribute day by day to their spiritual growth and at the same time to their overall human development,” says a religious sister who works with Catholic Dalit women in a diocese of northern India. When they discover Christianity, the Dalits begin to understand their human dignity as sons and daughters of God. They experience a new way of looking at life through the reading of the Gospel and by being welcomed into a loving community. They are not outcastes anymore; they are part of the universal Church. Yet they are also exposed to further injustice, discrimination and even violence. India, known as a country whose population respects spirituality, has recently been shaken by extremist groups that deny Christians and other religious minorities the right to live and practise their religion in freedom.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding. ACN – Aid to the Church in Need gGmbH, HRB 8446 is non-profit organization officially registered in Germany and audited internationally by KPMG.