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Notebook Religion

A Dalit’s dilemma

Dalit Christians gather in rural India for a women’s conference in October 2018. (Sarah Holcomb)

India

A Dalit’s dilemma

For some, a choice between livelihood and Christian identity

For Dalits—formerly known as “Untouchables”—in rural southern India, officially declaring their Christian faith comes with a cost: Leaving Hindu caste identity requires Dalit Christians to abandon government benefits such as free college tuition and potential job opportunities.

For more than 3,000 years India’s Dalits were oppressed and outcast, prohibited from even drinking water from the same wells as high-caste members. Today, Dalit Christians continue to face poverty and exploitation because of their low caste. At a local Baptist church where women wearing vibrant saris sat on felt mats, some gave rupees while others contributed a container of rice or an occasional egg.

Many congregation members—mostly women—eagerly participated in a service featuring traditional drums and Telugu worship songs. Many read their Bibles daily. Yet according to government records, none of them identifies as Christian. Even most local pastors are “Hindu” on record.

That’s because the decision to convert on paper seems more than they can afford. India’s government administers many welfare programs according to caste, rather than income level. Upon converting away from Hinduism, “you actually lose the caste,” explains Indian scholar Regina Sudheer-Alexander—and Dalit Christians become no longer eligible for caste-based government benefits.

One government program, commonly known as “fees reimbursement,” provides Dalits with free higher education at India’s private colleges. Although some students’ high-school exam scores gain them free entrance at government colleges, few Dalits (called “Scheduled Castes” or “SC” in government lingo) qualify. Most Christian families would have to pay hefty private college fees, or forgo higher education, if they were to change their categorization.

Some Dalit families receive subsidized government loans, which allow them to purchase assets like tractors, vehicles, or small shops and only repay 60 percent of the cost. 

India also reserves 15 percent of “open competition” government jobs for Dalit (“SC”) candidates. The coveted posts, including constable, secretary, teacher, and engineer positions, offer good salaries and guaranteed job security. Despite soaring competition, many Dalit parents remain hopeful their children might obtain an SC-reserved post. They know Christians aren’t eligible, and SC benefits far outnumber those provided to religious minorities.

Sudheer-Alexander’s husband, Rev. B.M. Sudheer, oversees 40 Baptist congregations. He challenged local Christians to change their categorization: “We are Christians, but people are afraid [to declare themselves Christian] because … we will lose so many benefits. Let us live on limited income; it is OK. We will give testimony to the Lord [and] to the public.” 

Inspired, local church secretary G. Rajanikanth (Rajani) wanted to change his documents to reflect his Christian faith three years ago. This required altering his “SC” categorization to “BC-C,” a category created for Christian religious minorities in India. But he quickly ran into trouble.

Rajani’s job in the local government is reserved for Dalits. He’s received two promotions since he started 10 years ago and now earns nearly five times his entry-level salary—but abandoning his caste would mean losing his promotions: “I will be the junior-most on the BC-C roster,” the secretary explained. He would no longer generate enough income for his family.

So Rajani remains “Hindu” on government records, but he’s encouraging his church’s younger generation to change their categorization to align with their faith. Some have come forward but face resistance from parents and elders: Rajani says they ask, “What will happen to our children?” When his nephew decided to change his categorization, relatives blamed Rajani for “ruining him” so he will “lose all benefits.” 

Fearing for their families’ future, older generations remain content to keep their caste. Sudheer-Alexander laments how Dalit Christians lack resources and opportunities, but she believes they will make a greater impact by relinquishing caste identifiers: “If you are not taking a stand, then how can you witness Christ to others?”