Dalit Solidarity: A Question of My Christian Faith

I was invited to present a paper at the annual meeting of Dalit Solidarity International held at Portcullis Hall on British Parliament House on September 9, 2014. Parliament member Mr. Jeremy Corbin presided. The title of the paper was ‘Dalit Solidarity: A Question of Christian Faith”. My long time friends Rev. Fr. Joy George and Mrs. Elizabeth Joy were with me at the Portcullis house and earlier at the Methodist Center for preliminary discussion.

Bishop Yuhanon Mor Meletius (Malankara Orthodox Church, Thrissur Diocese)


While I was on my way by air to Delhi to catch a flight to Birmingham a news item in The Hidustan Times daily news paper of August 22nd 2014, someone left on the seat pocket, caught my attention. It reported, “A Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court on Thursday acquitted all 46 accused in the Kambalpalli Dalit massacre case where seven Dalits were burnt alive by a mob on March 11, 2000”. The reason for the acquittal was that the incident happened 14 years back and all the eye witnesses were hostile; also because the police officers who filed the case and some of the eye witnesses were not cross examined properly. The incident occurred some 75 km from Bangalore in Kolar district which resulted in mass exodus of Dalits from the area, among majority have not yet returned. How silly a reason for the court to dismiss the case given the fact that many of the cases charged by police in others matters go on for decades and still very much live in judicial courts. This clearly tells us about the situation in India with regard to the plight of Dalits.

The Dalits

John C.B. Webster, Editor of the Dalit International News Letter, defines Dalit as “the people belonging to those castes at the very bottom of India’s caste hierarchy”. Jyotirao Phule coined the term “Dalit” as a more descriptive and sympathetic term for the untouchables. It means, “The crushed people.” Gandhi called them “Harijans” to boost their morale. Independent India created a schedule with several special rights and benefits for them. This measure certainly made the life of Dalits a lot better as testified by Michael, S.M. (Untouchable: Dalits in Modern India, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999). But it even today Dalits are outside the boundaries of the society without of equal status with others, especially in the villages of india where more than 70 percent of Dalits live and where still feudalism and landlord rule exist.

Caste System in India has its origin from the period of the arrival of the Aryans with their classification of the society known as ‘Chathurvarna”. The Dalits are outside the ‘Chathurvarna’ and are generally classified as the outcasts, slaves and untouchables who enjoyed no rights in the society, but to live like animals under mercy of the so called higher caste people.

Dalits of Indian sub-continent has always been under subordination, deprivation and slavery. Attempt to be liberated was not been successful for several reasons. One of the ways to face this challenge was to get in to political power structures as India has a democratic system and numbers matter. But it did not help so much for at least two reasons. One, political parties are several who claim the support of Dalits and hence a united stand has not been easy. Again, those leaders from among Dalits who came to power used their background only to come to power after which they forgot all about it. Another way of attempting to come up socially and economically was to change their religion. Budhism provided a space for them for some time. But it did not last long. Christianity was also considered as an option. Here again two issues made it difficult. One, Christians who got converted earlier and were socially uplifted did not quite accept those came later. Two, the Hindu political and aggressive movements strongly objected conversion as they were afraid of losing the number.

Dalits suffer routine violations of their right to life and security of person through state-sponsored or sanctioned acts of violence, including torture. Dalits suffer caste-motivated killings, rapes and other abuses on a daily basis. Between 2001-2002 there were 58,000 registered aggression and abuses against Dalits and Tribals. 2005 government report stated that there is a crime committed against a Dalit person every 20 minutes in India.

Foundation of My Faith

To me, a Christian, the question of Dalit solidarity is a question of faith.

I believe in a God who is an incarnate God. John’s Gospel 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and lived in our midst”. I see two implications to this statement, one what happened during the time before Jesus and two during Jesus time. God did not incarnate in a vacuum. He has a long history of working in nature and in history all along. When human violated the identity of a defenseless fruit of a tree, He intervened and took disciplinary and defensive measures as I see in the 3rdchapter of the book of Genesis. God could not approve injustice being done to even a fruit and the tree that gave it. God did not like land being monopolized. He wanted every one to have access to it. When the Philistines did not allow the exodus people who had no land to take some of it, He turned against them.

He ‘came down’ to liberate the people in Egypt (Exodus 3:8) who were oppressed with hard labor and ill treatment by the rulers. The very identity and self of those slaves were questioned by the oppressors. Retelling of this story of God’s intervention and liberation became a liturgical creed for the liberated and it shows how much it meant to them (Deut. 6:21 ff.; 26: 6 ff.). The Lord even travelled with them and helped them face each and every situation, protecting them and judging them (Exodus 13:21, 22; 14: 19, 24). After they arrived at the destination too the help of God continued to establish themselves as a people. Judges 2:18 says, “When the Lord raised up leaders for them, the Lord was with each leader and delivered the people from their enemies while the leader remained alive. The Lord felt sorry for them when they cried out in agony because of what their oppressors did to them”.

He also worked through prophets. Hebrew prophets are known for their concern for justice and righteousness. Amos, an 8th Century BCE prophet, said “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever rolling stream” (5:24). He called those who oppressed the poor ‘cows of Bashan’ (Amos 4:1). The prophet became much emotional when he had to talk about the poor, oppressed and neglected (Amos 2:7; 5:11; 8:6 etc.). Other prophets were also concerned of the issue (Hab. 3:14). Zechariah asks the people not to oppress “the widow, the orphan, the foreigner or the poor, nor should anyone secretly plot evil against his fellow human being (7:10). God calls the poor as “my poor” and asks, “Why do you crush my people and grind the faces of the poor” (Isaiah 3:15). God takes the responsibility of caring for and protecting the poor and the needy. Isaiah 14:30 says, “The poor will graze in my pastures; the needy will rest securely” (also see Isaiah 25:4). Here in these statements I see the mind of God before the historic even of incarnation. The incarnation event was, though a unique work of God was a continuation of what God has been trying to do in history. (Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 Pet. 1: 20). This event gave new dimension to the continuing work of God in history. Hence the period has to be seen with added importance.

The work of God Incarnate, according to the Gospel of Luke, begins with a proclamation that He was anointed for the up-liftment of the oppressed, the poor and the marginalized (Luke 4:18). The announcement that came at His birth was certainly a matter of good news to those who were in darkness ( Mtt. 4:16). His association with the people on the fringes of the society was a clear message that God was truly with them. Fisher folks, women, children, neglected, the Samaritans who were called dogs by the Jews, all experienced the uplifting experience of Jesus. Jesus said in public, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). He called his disciples from among the most neglected ones and his followers were the common folks and women. They found a liberator in Him. He was their hope. One among them exclaimed, “Where shall we go, you have words of eternal life” (John 6:68). He came to serve and give life to those who were without identity and recognition (Matthew 20:28).

God who called out Moses, who had run away from being with the people, though initially a bit concerned of the plight of his own people, but could not do things in the right manner and who could not stand before the powerful oppressor after what he did, to go back and be in solidarity with the oppressed people, to stand before the persecutor once again to place the demand of God before him, to work for their rights and for their liberation by being a leader of the people. Me who believes in this kind of a God have the de-facto responsibility to accept the same call where ever oppression and marginalization exists and to declare solidarity with the oppressed. It is a question of my faith. The commission I received to ‘go’ tells me to go to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:19) where people are left at the end of the society.

So I believe that the Incarnate God was with the people in the side walks of the society and hence the Incarnate God is a God of the Dalits. He has a special interest in the Dalits as He is a liberating God and Dalits are a people who need liberation. Since I am asked to go and carry His work I need to proclaim solidarity with those who need liberation and hence with Dalits.

A Question of Theology

Theology to me is verbal and concrete articulation of my faith in God. Since my faith is in an Incarnate God who Incarnate among the Dalits, I need to articulate my faith in that line. M.M. Thomas says that theology has to be living theology and, “Living theology is the manner in which a church confesses its faith and establishes its historical existence in dialogue with its own environment.” We have a concrete situation in India that calls for a theological formulation of the issue regarding the Dalits.

This God who was revealed in the Old Testament and later in Jesus who was with the Dalits of His time presents us with liberative paradigms for the doing of theology. The liberation – Exodus paradigm which had tremendous implications for liberation theologies in Latin America presents a model for me to do theology. Dr. A.P. Nirmal particularly depended on the Deuteronomic account of the affliction, toil and the oppression of the people of Israelites as parallel to the struggle of Dalits to become “God’s people” from a “no people”. (Arvind p. Nirmal, “Towards A Christian Dalit Theology,” in A Reader in Dalit Theology, Madras: 1991)

Deavasahayam asserts that in Jesus a free God who is free to hear the cry of the oppressed and marginalized in the noise made by the upper class people. The upper class has no control over the power of this God who is for the Dalit cause (Outside the Camp: Bible Studies in Dalit Perspective, Madras). Jesudas M. Athyal says, “God is clearly a Dalit God. The God, who reveals Godself, both through the prophets and through Jesus Christ, is a God of the Dalits. This God, who is revealed in the Old Testament and Jesus, who sided with the Dalits of the world, is the liberative paradigm for the doing of theology” (In Paper presented on ‘Dalit Theology and A Theology of the Oppressed’ at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai, November 13-15, 2004)

I would not label a theology that takes up concerns of the Dalit as ‘Dalit theology’, rather I would say, theology essentially and fundamentally has to be Dalit as it has to have liberation in its full content. There can not be any theology of the oppressor or of the high caste. I believe in a God who takes preferable option of the poor, marginalized and oppressed as testified by the Gospels. For bishop Azariah, ‘like Christ the Liberator, theology will have to be a Theology of Liberation and a Theology of Hope. It has to start from below, from among the situation and not from above as it used to be in the past’ (A Pastor’s Search of Dalit Theology).

Only on the basis of a theological understanding of the issue, I can address the problem. My solidarity with Dalits has to be theologically sound. So what is called for is to create a sound and genuine Christian theology the content of which shall be the question of suffering of the Dalits and their groaning for liberation. This solidarity calls me to engage in dialogue with the existing situation that oppresses the oppressed. To start with, I need to deal with the question of discrimination within the Church. Until the Church addresses this issue it can not be a sent out community to proclaim the Gospel. Until now Indian Christian theology, unflrtunately, has been theology of the upper class or Brahmanic in content. “It is imperative to adopt the Dalit perspective and reject the elite perspective in order to do theology in India”, Says P. Arockiadoss (Gurkul Summer Institute 1996).

Again this theology would not classify the Dalits as Christian Dalits, Hindu Dalits or Muslim Dalit. Dalit is Dalit in all communities. Jesus who is the Word of liberation is not the Word of liberation to Christians alone. This helps us to break down one of the first fences that divide human race. Segregation of any sort will be against the purpose of God with humans. “Dalit Solidarit is an end and means much desired but difficult to achieve; yet many Dalit Christian leaders have come to the conclusion that their Christian hopes for their own people cannot be realized in isolation from the realization of the hopes of all the Dalit people” (Dr. A. P. Nirmal).


I very well know that Church’s solidarity with the Dalits is not an easy thing to achieve given the Indian deep rooted socio- religious context. But if I do not attempt to face the challenge presented by the Incarnate God and try to translate my faith in such a way that it becomes truly good news to the oppressed, I will not be able to call myself a Christian in the first place and even a human being. So solidarity with Dalits and participation in their struggle for liberation is a question of my own Christian faith.