14 September 2010 Last updated at 01:01 GMT
Indian Dalits find no refuge from caste in Christianity
By Swaminathan Natarajan
Till death do us part: Dalits are buried on the other side of the
wall in this cemetery
Many in India have embraced Christianity to escape the age-old caste
oppression of the Hindu social order, but Christianity itself in some
places is finding it difficult to shrug off the worst of caste
In the town of Trichy, situated in the heart of the southern Indian
state of Tamil Nadu, a wall built across the Catholic cemetery clearly
illustrates how caste-based prejudice persists.
Those who converted to Christianity from the formerly "untouchable"
Hindu caste groups known as Dalits are allocated space for burial on
one side of the wall, while upper-caste converts are buried on the
The separating wall was built over six decades ago.
Continue reading the main story
Caste discrimination is rampant in the Catholic Church"
Jesuit lawyer, Dalit campaigner
"This violates the Indian constitution. It is inhuman. It's
humiliating," says Rajendiran, secretary general of Periyar Dravidar
Kazhagam, a small socio-political group that has announced a protest
demanding the removal of the wall.
The Catholic Church in India says it does not approve of caste
discrimination. But it says it is helpless in resolving this issue.
"The burial ground is owned by private individuals, so we are not able
to do anything about this. Even the local bishop is not going to the
cemetery to perform rituals," says Father Vincent Chinnadurai,
chairman of the Tamil Nadu state Commission for Minorities.
He says there is a new cemetery in the town, where bodies are buried
without any discrimination.
Yet burials continue to take place in the controversial cemetery,
presided over by Catholic priests.
For centuries Hindus from different castes have been cremated or
buried in different places, according to their caste.
This practice is fading in the big cities and towns, but in some
places in rural Tamil Nadu, caste-based graveyards are still in
Discrimination against Dalits persists in all strata of Indian
society Dalit Christians are demanding more proactive steps from the
Church to remove the wall.
Father Lourdunathan Yesumariyan, a Jesuit, practising lawyer and
Dalit-Christian activist, says the Church has the legal power to
remove the wall.
Even though the cemetery is on privately owned land, he says, a recent
high court judgement ruled that the Church has full responsibility as
it administers the graveyard.
"The failure to remove the wall only helps cement caste feelings," he adds.
Some years ago two Catholic priests demolished a small part of the wall.
But the influential land-owning upper-caste Christian group rebuilt it.
The Church is meanwhile accused by critics of refusing to give "just
representation" for Dalits in its power structure, even while it
campaigns for a separate quota for the Dalit Christians in government
Fr Yesumariyan says: "In Tamil Nadu, over 70% of Catholics are Dalit
converts. But only four out of 18 bishops are from the Dalit-Christian
"In many places influential caste groups have lobbied and made sure
that only the person belonging to their caste is being appointed as
bishop in their diocese."
He says that in places where Dalit Christians are the majority, they
often struggle to get the top job.
Even though the archbishop of Tamil Nadu region is a Dalit Christian,
he has been unable to improve the situation much for other members of
his community in the Church.
In recent years a fixed number of jobs and seats have been earmarked
in Catholic-run schools and colleges for members of the
There are estimated to be more than 17 million Catholics in India But
this is being challenged in the court on the grounds that "there is no
caste in Christianity".
Fr Yesumariyan continues: "The Indian constitution says it has
abolished untouchablity. But it is everywhere. In the same way, the
Catholic Church says there is no caste bias but caste discrimination
is rampant in the Church.
"There are hardly any inter-caste marriages among converted
Christians. Until recently, Church-run magazines carried matrimonial
advertisements containing specific caste references. Only after our
protest they stopped it."
A few churches in Tamil Nadu have even been closed after Dalit
Christians demanded a share in the administration.
"We say there is no caste in Christianity," says Fr Chinnadurai. "But
in India, Christianity was not able to get rid of caste.
"Those who converted to Christianity brought their caste prejudices
with them. We are trying our best to get rid of them."
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