For nearly her entire life, Muniyamal Krishnan has worked around human waste. In her job as a “human scavenger,” she has cleaned latrines and carried buckets of waste on her head. Obviously, she didn’t choose this line of work; it was all she could get — and for religious, not economic reasons. Krishnan is an “untouchable,” the lowest caste in Hindu society.
For millennia, the “untouchables” have suffered unimaginable discrimination at the hands of their fellow Hindus. As a result, millions have converted to other faiths, including Christianity. But now, Hindu nationalists, with the Indian government’s blessing, want to deny them that opportunity.
In Hinduism, the “untouchables,” who call themselves “dalits,” are said to be the descendants of the illegitimate children of the union of prehistoric lower- and upper-caste people. Their place in life is believed to be deserved. As Stephanie Giry, an editor at Foreign Affairs magazine, recently wrote, the belief in the dalits’ “tainted origin” forced them into “the most squalid jobs.”
The resulting social structure is every bit as oppressive and dehumanizing as apartheid. Dalits are forced to worship in different temples and aren’t allowed to eat or drink in their employers’ homes.
For many dalits, the best way to escape the misery to which Hinduism consigns them is conversion to another faith, especially Christianity. I have preached in Indian prisons and seen “untouchables” flock to Christ. Conversion, however, doesn’t mean an end to discrimination, since their Hindu neighbors still view them as “untouchables,” and because they become Christians, they forfeit Indian government programs put into place to benefit them.
Still, as a non-Christian dalit leader told Giry, conversion to Christianity is worth it to his people. He said that his people “gain dignity and access to the Christian community’s vast network of social services.” He then added, “whatever the government can do for dalits, Christian missionaries can do better.”
But if the Indian ruling party, the BJP, has its way, dalits will no longer have that option. The BJP, which espouses Hindu supremacy, has introduced the Orwellian — named “Freedom of Religion Bill” in India’s Gujarat state. It punishes anyone who converts another person through “allurement” with three years in prison and a $2,200 fine, an enormous sum by Indian standards. The law prohibits conversions performed by “religious priests,” meaning Christianity and Islam, since Hindu and Buddhist conversion rites aren’t officiated.
Giry points out, as well, that the law instructs local magistrates, mostly upper-caste Hindus, to look for any evidence of “allurement,” which is conveniently, by the way, undefined. Thus, the people who have oppressed the dalits for generations have the authority to block their conversions. And this statute is considered a model for similar legislation across India.
This year, India will be a subject of debate in the presidential campaign because of the “outsourcing” of American jobs to Indian firms. We need to insist that the talk in the campaign go beyond “call centers” and computer programmers. If we’re putting business in India, our policy-makers ought to be demanding that India respect the most basic of human freedoms, freedom of religion.
For further reading and information:
Stephanie Giry, “Chennai Dispatch: SOL,” New Republic, 26 April 2004. (Available to subscribers only.)
Daniel Lak, “Dalits’ political awakening,” BBC News, 28 September 1999.
Nirmala Ganapathy, “In Venkaiah’s town, Dalits can’t share the well,” Indian Express, 26 April 2004.
Girish Kuber, “Are the Dalits becoming just an election statistic?” Economic Times, 12 April 2004.
Gary Haugen, The Good News about Injustice (InterVarsity, 1999).