As the United Nations declares caste-based discrimination a human rights violation, Indian Christian leaders have called on the churches to confess that the caste system has not been fully removed from their own communities.
The call came as senior representatives of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) met last week to discuss the churches' response to poverty and exclusion on the International Day of Prayer for Peace.
They called the UN declaration a "small but significant step forward" on the issue of caste discrimination - an issue on which campaigners from different religious traditions have been active for a number of years and on which humanists and non-religious groups in Europe and beyond have recently been mobilising.
However, activists say that churches have sometimes been better at speaking out on the general injustice than tackling its manifestation in their own midst in societies where it has been regarded as 'traditional', or where the incompatibility of caste distinctions with Christian precepts has been downplayed for fear of offence or controversy in wider family and community networks.
An ecumenical Living Letters team representing the fellowship of the World Council of Churches (WCC) was also present at the recent debate held at the YMCA Conference Hall in New Delhi. The ecumenical group expressed its solidarity with the NCCI in overcoming violence in all its forms – from poverty and neglect to discrimination and murder.
Bishop Taranath S. Sagar, NCCI president, said: "There are millions of people who are subject to poverty and discrimination by the caste system in India. This is equal to racism. The outcast Dalits are being treated as untouchables, not having access to dignified human lives and subjected to all kinds of humiliation".
"Women are being raped, children are undernourished, food is not available to everyone and natural resources are not being distributed equally. Although the Constitution has laws to protect these people, in practise it is not happening," he added.
The Indian Constitution first outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste in 1955 with the introduction of the Anti-Untouchability Act, renamed the Civil Right Act in 1979. Further protection for the outcast Dalits and tribal Adivasi people came with the Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989. However, according to church leaders and social activists in India, the implementation of these laws has been almost non- existent.
Bishop Dr D.K. Sahu, NCCI General Secretary, commented: "The Indian church has to make a confession first. If you are alienated in society and you become a Christian, you are alienated again. We tell them, 'if you become Christian then there is no discrimination', but once they become Christian they are looked down upon by Christians of higher castes. A higher caste Christian will never marry a Dalit Christian, yet we say we are all one."
Meanwhile, progress has been made towards addressing caste-based discrimination at the global level through the UN system. On 16 September 2009, the government of Nepal, a South Asian country affected by caste-based discrimination, supported a recently published draft of UN principles and guidelines which recognizes caste-based discrimination as a violation of human rights.
The draft was also supported by the presidency of the European Union and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Earlier in September, the WCC Central Committee had called on member churches to "recognize that the continued discrimination and exclusion of millions of people on the basis of caste" is a "serious challenge to the credibility of their witness to their faith in God".
Following questions put by the Living Letters team, the Indian church leaders explained what initiatives they were supporting in order to end caste discrimination. The NCCI is backing public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, making the case that Dalits and tribal people of Christian and Muslim identity are not covered by the Prevention of Atrocities Act.
During Lent, the NCCI called on Christians to fast for justice in the name of Dalit liberation. NCCI members are involved in ecumenical dialogue about how the church may be just and inclusive. A number of campaigns by non-governmental organisations also have the backing of the NCCI, such as Safai Karmachari Andolan - a campaign led by Bezwada Wilson to end manual scavenging.
The Rev Dr P.B.M. Basaiawmoit, NCCI vice president, said: "In India, there is apartheid. The Dalit issue is a racist issue. Dalits are not seen as human beings." Tribals were being treated with even less regard than Dalits, he added.