Is the Church finally acting against India’s caste system?


A dalit manual scavenging. Dalit Network under a Creative Commons Licence

Over 20 years after Mari Marcel Thekaekara’s exposé of dalit manual scavenging, somebody might finally be taking action.

I took pride in the fact that as a student I was exposed to work with slum dwellers, poor village folk, adivasis (India's indigenous people) and dalits, (people dubbed untouchable in India). We were sensitised to poverty, its causes and effects early, because of the Catholic students movement we belonged to. I started writing about social issues way back in the early seventies. And in 1984, my husband and I moved to the Nilgiris to work with adivasis or tribals, India's indigenous communities. So I thought I'd seen it all.

Then in December 1996, I heard a dalit friend talk about the existence of manual scavenging, the cleaning of excreta by a particular caste, with their bare hands, a broom and a bucket.

‘My people are carrying shit on their heads. And as a dalit leader, I did not know this,' Martin Macwan said in a choked voice. I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that after 50 years of Independence, we, India, could still have people carrying shit on their heads.

Was the allegation a bit of exaggeration perhaps? My journalist hat suggested ‘be cautious, verify facts’. The official Prevention of Manual Scavenging Act of 1993 had legally abolished the practice. So I went to Gujarat to investigate the allegations. What I saw shocked me out of my complacency.

Gujarat is a more wealthy, prosperous state – so dalits are far worse off in other states. Yet dalit women from the manual scavenging or balmiki community were indeed carrying shit on their heads. The toilets they cleaned were not city-type toilets. They were rivers of flowing shit.

It dripped on their heads and clothes. Hard for middle class Indians to imagine, leave alone international readers.

My first article on manual scavenging was published in 1997 on the eve of 50 years of Indian Independence. I subsequently wrote a book, Endless Filth, which I was happy to note was used by students all over the world as a reference point.

An example of manual scavenging in India

Research and reference however, does not always lead to action. I didn’t want people merely reading about depressing situations. I wanted change for the community. I wanted to see the end of manual scavenging.

A month ago I was delighted to hear that the Catholic and Anglican churches were seriously discussing doing something concrete about eliminating casteism and discrimination within the church.

Yes you read that right. There is casteism with the Christian churches. Christians in India, both Catholic and Protestants, observe caste within their churches. There are many places where dalits cannot attend, or even enter, dominant caste churches. There are separate cemeteries and churches for them. The caste hierarchy is almost as rigid inside as it is outside Christian communities. There are caste wars should dalits overstep the boundaries ordained for them. And all hell breaks loose if a dalit Christian marries a dominant caste Christian.

When I first heard a friend's mother announce she wanted a Brahmin Catholic for her daughter, I thought it was a joke. ‘How can you be Christian and be Brahmin?’ I naively asked. Many articles and a book later, I have travelled the length and breadth of India writing about manual scavenging. I now know better.

The conference to fight casteism within the church is in London on 9-10 May. It gives me hope. The churches need to inspire young people in order to attract them back into the fold. If young folks have been raised half decently, they yearn for justice and peace. They fight for causes they believe in. Currently, the most popular issues young people tend to march for are the environment, against war and the gay movement. In spite of the apparent obsession with consumerism, I think if we can strike the right chords, people everywhere can and will respond to a huge campaign for peace and justice.

I hope this can be a turning point. And I fervently pray it will bring hope back into our lives.