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1999 NCC News Archives

Caste Insecurity is at Root of Anti-Christian Violence in India, Minister Reports
Visit Comes on Heels of NCC Letter Deploring Anti-Minority Attacks in India

March 9, 1999, NEW YORK CITY -- An Indian minister who has been on a government-sponsored team investigating recent incidents of religious violence in his country says that homegrown hatred and fear, and not outside influences, are at the root of the attacks.

The Rev. Dr. James Massey, a minister in the Church of North India and a member of the government-sponsored National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which conducts on-site studies of the most severe incidents of anti-minority violence, visited New York Feb. 24-26 as part of a delegation from "Dalit Solidarity Peoples" (DSP).

After investigating the highly publicized Jan. 22, 1999 murder of Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two young sons in Manoharpur village of Orissa and studying anti-minority attacks in six states, Dr. Massey said the NCM team concluded that the incidents are part of a "definite plan on the part of militant Hindus to create insecurity among Christians."

The New York visit, which was co-sponsored by the National Council of Churches Southern Asia Office, the United Church Board for World Ministries and Union Theological Seminary, came on the heels of a Feb. 11 pastoral letter to high-level church leaders in India about anti-minority violence in India. In it, NCC General Secretary the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell says, "We deplore attacks on any minority community in India." She calls on the government of India to "find moral, legal and constitutional ways to address these violations."

Interplay Between Caste, Religion and Politics Fuels Violence

Dr. Massey explained that a complex interplay between caste, religion and politics fuels the violence in India. "The government and Hindu nationalist organizations say that anger over forced conversions and international conspiracies to discredit the government are behind the attacks," Dr. Massey said. "This is not true. In fact, we found out that militant activists in Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS), two groups with the aim of preserving Hindu cultural dominance, met last year and came up with a strategic plan to weaken ‘Christians, Dalits and other backward classes.’ That plan included raping women, destroying places of worship and using local criminals to kill missionaries and other religious leaders."

"As I said in the letter, we are deeply disturbed that a long and noble history of harmonious religious pluralism is being shattered by a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance," Dr. Campbell said. "In addition to appropriate government response, we pray that Hindus, Christians and other religious communities will continue to find opportunities to cooperate and to rebuild mutual respect and trust."

"The word ‘Dalit’ means ‘oppressed.’ The term is a purposeful self-designation by people belonging to a number of castes considered ‘untouchable’ including Chamars, Chuhrahs/Bhangis and Mahars," explained the Rev. Dr. John Webster, a Presbyterian who is Editor of the Dalit International Newsletter. "There is a raised fist in the term, because it implies that caste status is not of their own doing and the injustice needs to be set right. Dalits make up 18 to 20 percent of India’s population of 950 million."

In spite of lip service to the rule of law protecting minorities, Dalits continue to be killed and their homes and places of worship vandalized. Dr. Massey reported 750 murders and between 500 to 1,000 homes destroyed each year. Poverty and unemployment are also astronomical among Dalits.

Delegation members said that a link has long been made between Christians and Dalits for two reasons. First, 50 percent of Christians in India are Dalits. "There is a tradition that says, ‘India is meant for Hindus,’ meaning that we don’t really belong to this country," said Ms. Soosai Raj Faustina, a teacher and member of the DSP National Working Committee.

Secondly, "Christians have a history of helping Dalits with education and economic development," Dr. Massey said. "This is very threatening to the upper castes because they have an interest in maintaining a pool of cheap labour. They fear losing their position."

"Even within the Christian church, Dalits are kept separate, so we suffer discrimination even there," Ms. Faustina said. She also reported that upper caste women have kept Dalit women out of the women’s movement, proving to her that "communal and caste feelings are primary over other commitments like feminism or even religious faith."

The primacy of caste is exactly what Dr. Massey said he and the NCM team discovered in their extensive investigations of anti-Christian violence in Dumka, Ludhiana, Gujarat, Nasik, Jhabua and Manoharpur. These crimes include:

"We found that neither the state administration nor anyone else could produce proof of mass or forced conversions," Dr. Massey said. "This is a myth being spread to create hatred among different groups. Also, tribal communities are being set against one another." The NCM team found the source of the attacks and divisive rhetoric to be right-wing groups.

"The culprits include people belonging to various fundamentalist groups as well as personnel belong to government administration and police," Dr. Massey said. Yet according to Dr. Massey, "in nearly all the cases of anti-minority violence, the culprits have not been punished."

Lack of Political Will Prevents Execution of Recommendations

Pushing both for punishment of offenders and prevention, the NCM Commission issued detailed reports, including extensive recommendations, to the government. In the NCM "Report on Minority Situation in Gujarat," 20 concrete recommendations included:

Dr. Massey said that so far, the NCM recommendations have not been acted upon "because the political will is lacking at the state and central levels."

Dr. Massey and other delegation members said they expect continued attempts to divide their movement. That Dalits might be united "creates the greatest fear in the minds of the upper classes," said Professor N.G. Meshram, National Treasurer of DSP and a Buddhist. But he said that DSP does not wish for revenge. "All we want is to be able to identify ourselves. Enough miseries have been suffered for the ages," he said.

"Politically and economically, the upper castes hold the power," added Ms. Faustina. "So the fear is always there, especially among those of us who resist."

Meanwhile, Dalits continue to face daily discrimination and violence no matter what their economic status. "I am a teacher with some economic resources, and still I am always reminded of my Dalitness," said Ms. Faustina. "I have trouble finding housing, because the first question on a housing application is ‘What is your caste.’"

Ms. Faustina explained that even though she teaches in a mixed school run by the Roman Catholic church in Ongur, Dalits are still separated in the village. "Normally, Dalits are put on the East side of the village because the wind goes from West to East and non-Dalits don’t want to be contaminated by wind that has touched Dalits. Meanwhile, all the institutions are in the non-Dalit area of the village. We are resisting all these things," she said.

Dr. Massey encouraged U.S. church members to learn about the Dalit’s situation and to support organizations like DSP as well as schools and other institutions that support Dalits.

The NCC has supported Dalit programs for many years including the DSP’s predecessor, the Dalit Solidarity Programme of the World Council of Churches.

-end-

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