Caste and rules create 'dual faith' Dalits in India

By Ecumenical News International
November 15, 2007

Some people estimate that Christians make up more than one third of the 300,000 people in the now-closed mining area of the Kolar Gold Fields in India's southern Karnataka state - writes Anto Akkara from India.

Others suggest that with Evangelical groups flourishing in the area, following the closure of the government-owned mine in 2001, the proportion of Christians could be as high as 50 percent.

Still, according to government documents, Christians account for less than 10 percent of the population of the region.

"Here, many are Hindus in government records but Christians in faith," says church worker Vasanti Selvaraj, explaining the discrepancy between the government statistics and what many people believe is the actual number of Christians in the region.

The reason for the different figures, says Selvaraj, is based on the fact that the majority of the region's population are Dalits, low castes treated as untouchables under India's caste system.

Today's gold field Dalits are the descendants of those the British brought to the rocky terrain in the 1880s. Stone crushing was considered an ignoble profession by the upper castes, who were reluctant to work as miners, so lower castes were shipped in.

After India's independence from Britain in 1947, the Indian government reserved 15 per cent of government jobs and places in the universities for Dalits in an effort to reduce caste discrimination.

These reserved places were initially confined to Hindu Dalits but later extended to Sikh and Buddhist Dalits as well.

But if these Dalits convert to Christianity or Islam they lose the protection of the jobs reserved for them by law, and often find themselves more discriminated against than before.

"It is certainly ideal to declare that one is a Christian but the consequences will be very harsh for the people here," S. Edwin, a retired school principal and member of the Church of South India, told Ecumenical News International.

The children of Christian Dalits do not receive the free government scholarships to which other Dalit students are entitled. Nor are Christian Dalits eligible for the reserved quota in educational institutions and government jobs.

As a result, many Dalits remain officially Hindu while also worshipping as Christians.

"This is the only way for the people here to enjoy the reservation benefits," said church worker Selvaraj, who, like many people in the region, uses a Hindu rather than a traditional Christian name.

In many places, people celebrate Hindu festivals as well as Christian feasts, and almost every mining hamlet has a Hindu temple and a Christian church, often side by side.

Such "dual faith" is symbolised by a display at a tailoring shop in Champion Reef, which has the second deepest mine in the world. Here, a statue of Jesus Christ has been placed among a host of Hindu deities.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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