Caste the First Stone

Life in the lower castes: Persecution of Christians in India, a pastor notes, has become common

from Madras, India

In Madurai piles of rags in the streets are actually sleeping untouchables. Fog and choking heat hang over this city of 5 million like the spiritual oppression Pastor Jonathan Fredrick describes. Despite constitutional protections, he says, Christians are not protected from local and state government-sponsored oppression. “The Hindu majority wish to keep India a Hindu nation,” he told WORLD. “We cannot openly preach the gospel in the streets of Madurai. It is legal, but prohibited. In order to be able to hold public services or crusades in town, we must get permission from the police commissioner.” Too often, according to Mr. Fredrick, the response is “Request denied.”

In a country defined by its diversity, the constitutional issue of the freedom of religion is less important than the issue of conversion from one religion to another. Lone among India’s smorgasbord of minority religions to be regarded as an import, Christianity is singled out by the courts and society for condemnation. Many expected last year’s election of H. D. Deve Gowda, the first lower-caste Indian to become prime minister, to end the injustices of the country’s entrenched caste system, which has long shoved Indians who take up the cross of Christ to the lower castes. To the contrary, lawmakers in two Indian states—Madhya Pradesh and Orissa—acting on the strength of recent legal interpretations, have passed laws making conversions to Christianity illegal.

In the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, harassment of missionaries and physical abuse of converts has become a frequent occurrence. This has prompted several evangelical organizations to pull out their missionaries. Last year a team from Youth With a Mission was forced to leave the country after local opponents hired a crime ring to harass and threaten to kill them.

“We do enjoy the constitutional right of the freedom of religion,” said Benjamin Rajan, a pastor in Madras. “Generally there is little overt physical persecution of Christians in India. But there is strong social discrimination. There is widespread denial of educational and job opportunities for Christians. The government has a policy to provide jobs in quota to certain castes of people. However, if the person is a Christian he will be denied the job. Many Christians in my church claim to be persecuted this way.”

In the state of Andhra Pradesh, north of Madras, pastor Vincent Joseph says, “Things are beginning to change for the worse. Persecution of Christians, which was social and sporadic in the past, is now becoming political, organized, and regular.”

Born in Burma, Mr. Joseph has ministered since 1949 in the Araku Valley of Andhra Pradesh. He says that the indigenous “tribal” people there have historically qualified for those government benefits intended to compensate lower castes for the societal discrimination they face. “They lose them if they become Christians,” he told WORLD.

Although the caste system is no longer officially sanctioned to control public life, the government still classifies India’s 850 million people into some 4,635 different social castes or “people groups.” The latter term has become the politically correct rendition of the ancient hierarchical system that assigns people to a social status based on birth, race, education, vocation, and other factors. Despite its new face, the system is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche and dominated by Hindu teachings.

Every ethnic group—with distinctions as detailed as Negrito, Mongoloids, and Nordic Aryans—is classified as “forward,” “scheduled,” “backward,” or “untouchable.” Further disjointing the country is the baffling array of state-recognized languages, which number more than 1,600. Added to that soup is a religious base where majority Hindus account for 65 percent of the population, Muslims are second with 14 percent, followed by Sikhism and Buddhism, and then the minority religions like Jainism, animism, and witchcraft. Christianity accounts for only 2 percent of the population.

The array of cultural disparities now poses an escalating threat to the unity, solidarity, and security of the country. Calls for unification and “a composite code of values” from President Shanker Dayal Sharma are overshadowed by the rise of radical Hindu and Muslim groups. Militants like the National Self-Supporting Society, known by its Hindi acronym RSS, head a growing movement demanding “India for Hindus.”

“When India’s constitution was written in 1927, it granted citizens the freedom to preach, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs,” says W. L. Masilamaani, retired director of the Bureau of National Statistics in Tamil Nadu. “However, even before the ink was dry, there was a great debate over the definition of the term ‘propagate.’ Hindu radicals were concerned about people leaving Hinduism and following other religions.”

In the town of Chitoor, a new Christian describes the difficult choice he made to identify fully with Christ. “It cost me everything,” says 65-year-old Subbarami Reddy. “I am from the highest ‘forward’ caste. All my life my family warned me not to mingle with low-caste people—and especially stay away from the Christians. When I did accept Jesus, I was immediately disowned by my family. I lost my 5,000-rupee-per-month income and all of my inheritance. No one in the family will talk to me. I am disowned and considered dead because I have become a Christian.”

Some Christians, not wanting to compromise their favored social position, will maintain dual membership in Christianity and Hinduism. For religious purposes they are Christians and participate in the life of the church. For government purposes they remain Hindu, in order to be eligible for economic and educational benefits.

But that doesn’t always work. In Madurai, Balakroshnan shares his testimony. “My wife and children came to Christ first, but I was determined to remain a Hindu. After I gave my life to Jesus, my barber shop was broken up and all my tools were stolen. I had no way to earn a living.”

For Balakroshnan there is now no turning back. He plans to attend Bible School this year and would like to become a pastor. Then, he says, he will take a Christian name to replace his one given name, which in Hindu means “flute musician” god.

The disadvantages and disincentives for conversion to Christianity are well understood in Indian culture. While they create barriers to conversion, some believe they serve to strengthen the church because the sacrifices of becoming a Christian are clearly understood.

A sacrificial spirit, however, means Christians are increasingly caught in the middle of Hindu-Muslim tension. Both sides want to purge “foreign religions” from India. Both sides find, when they face each other, retaliation follows. When they attack or otherwise oppress Christians, however, there is no retaliation.

“A full-scale war is developing that is becoming more and more violent,” said Mr. Joseph. “Christians have very little political clout. I fully expect that Christians will be dragged into the fray. We will be asked to take sides between the Hindus and Muslims. And, when we refuse, then you will see real persecution of the church.”

Mr. Dabel is Director of program development for Bible and Literacy League World Missions.

Reprinted from World Magazine, March 8, 1997