Theologically Reflecting on the Dalit Situation – by Philip Vinod Peacock

Read Salome Neeraja’s Essay, “Dalit Feminism”
Read Peniel Rajkumar’s Essay, “Dalit Theology”

Over the next few days, a series of articles on Dalit Theology will appear as part of This first article is an attempt to outline the Dalit situation and to outline the theological resources that can be drawn from this for a Dalit theology.

The term Dalit refers to those who lie outside the caste hierarchy and is the term that those who were formerly untouchable have chosen for themselves. We use the term ‘formally untouchable’ because untouchability has been outlawed in India. Though while the practice of untouchability is illegal, as we shall see, its prevalence and practice dominates Indian culture.

The term Dalit itself comes from the root Dal a word that essentially means “crack, split, be broken or torn asunder, trodden down, scattered, crushed or destroyed” in Sanskrit. The term Dalit is not only used as an noun where it denotes a certain group of people but is it also used as an adjective where it describes their state or condition. If this is true then the question we must ask ourselves is: what is the state or the condition in which these Dalits find themselves in today?  What is the experience of a Dalit today?

Pollution: The unique nature of Dalit oppression is that they are considered to be a polluted and a polluting people. Therefore Dalits were referred to as “Untouchable” and “unseeable”. This system of hierarchy based on a system of purity and pollution has ensured that Dalits are not allowed to enter into temples.  It is ironic and hypocritical therefore that those who the upper castes led by M.K. Gandhi call the children of God are not allowed into the so called house of God. Likewise they cannot dine with members of the upper castes. In several villages across India it is not unusual that Dalits are not allowed to draw water from upper caste wells or to bathe in ponds belonging to the upper castes in the fear that these may become polluted. If an upper caste person or an object used by the upper caste comes into contact with the Dalit, elaborate rituals of purification have to take place. One can only wonder at a perverted system that accounts some people as being polluted and others being pure.

The cause and the nature of the pollution of Dalits draws itself from the twisted logic of the upper castes who have denoted certain occupations as being polluted. These so called polluted occupations are usually those that have a certain closeness to organic matter. But not only do the upper castes denote certain occupations as being polluted, they have also historically forced Dalits into these occupations. Therefore we find that Dalits are involved with the cleaning of human and other excreta, the disposal of the dead, leather work, weaving etc. Even today although dry toilets have been banned by the government we find that the cleaning of human excreta still a Dalit occupation in several places

Exclusion: One of the main features of Dalit experience in the present context is the experience of exclusion. Traditionally Dalits were excluded from three core areas of life.  Firstly they were not allowed to own land. Today we find that though a majority of Dalits are agricultural workers very few of them are landowners. Even when a little land is owned it is not sufficient for survival and the Dalits have to work on others’ land so to be able to make ends meet.

Moreover Dalits are made to live separately from the main village. It is said that in India there are six lakh villages but Dalit scholars have pointed out that in reality there are twelve lakhs villages because every village in India is divided into two, the main village and then the Dalit Vada, the Dalit Cheri or the Dalit Village. This Dalit part of the village is situated in the part of the village which the dirty water flows into; it is the part of the village that is marked with poverty and dirt. Today this system of the segregation of Dalits is being continued by such programmes such as Indira Awaas Yojana which builds Dalits houses in the Dalit vada. The Dalits are not allowed to use common water resources and common lands.

Not only are Dalits segregated to one corner of the village but it is also in several areas they are not allowed to walk on the main streets of the village, or allowed to use their own vehicles on village roads. Dalits are not only excluded from land but in fact it would not be wrong to say that Dalits are excluded from all resources. Therefore we find that it is not uncommon to find that in several villages’ tea shops still two tea cups are used, one for the Dalit and another for the non-Dalit. Likewise Dalits are disallowed from entering into non-Dalit houses, or eating at certain public restaurants.

Secondly we find that education was denied to Dalits.  It is said that if Dalits even heard the scriptures being recited they would have hot lead poured into their ears. Even today we find that Dalit children are excluded from the structures of education. A closer analysis will show us that they are not only excluded in terms of education being denied to them but we can also note that the Indian school syllabus makes the whole Dalit question invisible by not mentioning it at all.

In an article written by the Dalit activist Chandra Bhan he informs us that 49.35% of Dalit children drop out of school at the primary level, 67.77% at the junior high school level, and 77.65% by high school. In fact what is to be noted is not only the lack of representation of Subaltern people in education and the high dropout rates but what is also to be noted is the lack of sensitivity of our school and college syllabus to the issues of caste and tribal concern. The curriculum of school education speaks of a world that is vastly different from the world of the Dalit child. Geetha B. Nambissan of the Zakir Husain Centre of Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in an article written for the PUCL bulletin reports how the Dalit Children are marginalized by both the official curriculum and the hidden agendas behind these curricula. She informs us that scheduled caste communities and the experience of untouchability rarely find themselves discussed in the context of school education system. Even in states where scheduled caste communities form a sizeable majority the issues pertaining to them, their culture or even the fact of untouchability is rarely discussed.

Compounding the problem of course is the whole question of accessibility to schools, even in areas where the schools are physically or geographically accessible we have the question of social accessibility. In most villages the schools are in the upper caste section of the village and more often than not the teachers are from upper or middle caste backgrounds which further exacerbate the problem. If this is the case then Dalit Children obviously face discrimination from their upper caste class mates as well as by their teachers. It is reported that Dalit children are asked to sit separately from their classmates that they are refused drinking water and are sometimes served in broken teacups other reports show us that they are made to dine separately. Geeta Nambissan also goes on to report that the Upper caste teachers pay little attention to the academic needs of the Dalit Students often refuse to touch their slates or books and sometimes resort to physical punishment for fear of pollution. There are also cases of discouragement of Dalit students.

Even at levels of higher education we find that Dalits are excluded and discriminated against in several ways. The Telegraph on the 5th of July published on its front page the atrocities being committed against SC and ST students of the AIIMS.  The article reports that foul language is used on the doors of SC and ST students asking them to vacate that particular wing of the hostel and ghettoizing them elsewhere. In other parts of the article also the students narrate the various other atrocities committed against them.

The third way that the Dalits were excluded is by disallowing them the right to protect themselves. The upper castes probably understood that kept under the extreme conditions of oppression as they were the Dalits were always a heartbeat away from revolt. In traditional sayings therefore Dalits were not allowed to have land, education and arms. This of course should be seen in the wider context of denying Dalits the very right of protest itself. This too can be seen today where many Dalit activists have faced the threat of arrest, where Dalit voices have been systematically and surely been silenced. Dalits suffer under a system that even takes away from them their legitimate right to protest. Even when Dalits speak from their own perspective they are immediately chastised as being aggressive or casteist.

Yet while the Dalits are themselves offered no way of revolt or even of protection of themselves we find that the cases of atrocities and crimes against Dalits is only increasing. National Geographic reports that Statistics compiled by India’s National Crime Records Bureau show us that in 2000, 25,455 crimes were committed against Dalits. The report further goes to show us that every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered and two Dalit homes are torched. What must also be mentioned is that these are merely reported cases, a far larger number of cases go unreported because of a caste prejudiced police force, media and judiciary. We can therefore note how the everyday experience of Dalits is an experience of exclusion from society.

Poverty: Apart from being deemed polluted, and excluded, many Dalits also face dire poverty. As we have mentioned before the term Dalit does not mean poor, but poverty in an economic sense is very much a part of Dalit reality and Dalit experience. Hunger and starvation still make up the everyday experience of many Dalits. In fact it is ironic that though 60% of Dalits are involved in agricultural labour a majority of them are on starvation level.  Those who grow the food of the country itself have nothing to eat. The economic oppression of caste affects Dalit women in the worst way possible as they are the backbone of the Indian agricultural labour force. The interplay of caste, class and patriarchy therefore has a severe impact on Dalit women.

The cause of Dalit poverty can essentially be pinned down to three factors. Firstly is the fact that Dalits are denied access to resources, particularly land. Alienation from land can be cited as the single greatest reason for the poverty of Dalits. S.K. Thorat and R.S. Deshpande tell us that “as far as land distribution is concerned, SC’s are higher in proportion in the landless, marginal and small farmer categories.” Of greater interest is the fact that they also show us that the figure for landless Dalits has only increased between 1982 and 1992 while for the same time period there has been an decrease in non-Dalit landless labour.

The second factor that has contributed to Dalit poverty is the whole issue of infrastructure. Studies have shown us that if there is any kind of infrastructure in a village, from a school, to a primary health care centre or to a water tank, this is most likely to be in the upper caste part of a village. This discrimination has even led some scholars to theorize on the spatial nature of poverty within the Indian context. Therefore a survey on human development by National Council of Applied Economic Research shows us the spatial disparity in access to health care and safe drinking water. According to the survey, while 22 percent of villages have some sort of health care within the village, only 18 percent of Dalit villages had health care within the village.  Similarly, for access to safe water while there were 60 percent of villages covered by protected water sources, this was only 46 for Dalit villages.

The third reason for Dalit poverty is a denial of education but since this has already been addressed before we shall not be looking at it again.

What we have to draw our attention to though is the specific impact of globalization on Dalits. The onslaught of globalization and the privatization of common property resources are totally breaking the back of the Dalits.  This is true not only in the agricultural sector where capitalist modes of agricultural practice have ensured that many Dalits who found some employment in agricultural labour have been forced into unemployment. In the service and manufacture sector with the privatization of State owned companies and the refusal of Indian owned private companies as well as multinational companies to put into place systems of affirmative action we find that less and less employment opportunities will be available to Dalits.

Dalit Theological Resources

In the following sections we shall offer some direction in which this context can impact us to theologize from a Dalit perspective. Basically we shall be asking ourselves what are the ingredients from which to do a Dalit theology that is rooted in the context? The following are some resources by which we can move forward; by no way is the list exhaustive or complete.

Pathos: Pathos has been a central theological concept for Dalit theologians and Dalit theology almost since the very inception of Dalit theology. The word pathos is defined as a quality that arouses emotions, especially pain and sorrow. A.P. Nirmal writing about a Dalit historical consciousness and the real life situations that his Dalit ancestors had to face says, “My Dalit consciousness therefore has an unparalleled depth of pathos and misery depth of pathos and misery and it is this historical Dalit consciousness this Dalit identity that should inform my attempt at a Christian Dalit theology.” To do Dalit theology with Pathos means that one has to do theology with pain and with suffering. The real pain that a Dalit feels in the face of oppression should be the raw material from which theology is done. Dalit Theology is therefore made up of the stories of pollution, the exclusion, the poverty, the feelings of shame and the wounded psyche of Dalits. It is the real everyday experience of Dalits that make up the ingredients for an authentic Dalit theology.

Pathos also means that Dalit theology can never be a neutral theology.  To do a theology with pain and suffering means that theology has to take sides – take the sides of the suffering ones. Likewise Dalit theology can never be a passive theology, that just accepts pain and suffering; again Nirmal reminds us, “A Christian Dalit Theology will be a theology full of pathos, but not a passive theology.” An authentic Dalit theology will be a theology that is full of pathos, but not a theology that accepts pain and suffering but rather seeks to overcome it.

Solidarity: Another central theological concept in Dalit theology is the concept of solidarity. James Massey proposes this concept as an alternative to the concept of historical praxis of the Latin American Liberation theologians in the Indian context. For him the term solidarity has basically the same meaning as historical praxis. For Massey the concept of solidarity has its basis and meaning in God’s act of solidarity with the people both through the event of the Exodus and through the incarnational act. In fact he argues that the act of incarnation is the climax of God’s solidarity and sees God becoming a Dalit for the sake of humans. This act of solidarity of God therefore becomes paradigmatic for us and “challenges the Dalit Christians to follow the example so that their common experiences should become the basis of an authentic Dalit theology.” Therefore for Dalit theology solidarity at once becomes a response of faith as well as a political act. In Dalit theology however the two cannot be separated. Solidarity is also closely connected to the whole question of pathos.  Solidarity is to feel the pain and the suffering of others and the Dalit theologian’s heart must throb for the affliction of other Dalits and all those who are suffering. To do theology with Pathos therefore also means that I am moved with the pain and the suffering that other people face, it is to understand the pain and the suffering of others as well.

The Term Dalit as emancipatory: Another central theological concept for Dalits is the term Dalit. The term Dalit itself as a term for those who lie outside the caste system should be understood as a protest against the caste system. To claim the term Dalit is to claim a subjective identity that resists the concept of caste itself. Therefore we must understand the term Dalit as a denial of the caste system and all that it entails. The term Dalit, though, is not only a denial but it is also an affirmation: it is the affirmation and a new and common identity of all those who were once considered to be untouchable. When the so called untouchables claim that they are Dalits, this is in effect the reaffirmation of their identity on new terms and is a reclaiming of their identity not on the false basis of being Bhangi, Chamar, Madiga or Mahar, names which were given to them by others, but rather it is a reclaiming of their own identity, common history and culture on their own terms. The term Dalit itself then gives creates a historical consciousness that generates a new sense of self worth and dignity, a sense of political oneness and unity. The term Dalit also is a reclaiming the loss of Dalit history, culture and art. It will be for the benefit of Dalit theology to continue to explore the depth and the meaning of this term and concept.

Anger: A genuine Dalit theology must also be a theology that uses the human emotion of anger. It should be a theology that is done when one’s blood boils at the atrocities that are committed against Dalits. It should be a theology of a righteous rage at all injustice. The Biblical witness reminds us time and again of a God who gets angry with injustice, of Jesus who feels anger at the system of purity and pollution of the elites in his time[1], of a Jesus who overturns the tables in the temple in anger.

But not only should Dalit theology be done in anger, it should also be a theology that is able to make people angry at the atrocities of the caste system. In this way Dalit theology also has the ideological purpose of awakening the masses to the realities around them and inciting them, so to speak, into radical action.

Hope: Hope is of course a very central theme for us as Christians and a particularly favourite one for Dalits. Those who are dissatisfied with this world long for it to pass and therefore dream about another world. It is the hope of the Dalit that another world is possible. In this sense Christian Hope is a very subversive activity where we long for that which is not present and in this way make a critique of this present world that we are in. Very often we as theologians are critical about what we refer to as ‘other worldly’ theologies, but if we seriously look around us it is often Dalits, Tribals and Women who cling to these theologies. It is their way of saying that this world is a world of oppression but the other world, the world that is longed for, is the world in which justice and equality shall reign. In this way they bring about their critique of this world. This same hope and aspiration is articulated we say the Lord’s Prayer where we pray that God’s Kingdom would come, thereby signifying that this earthly unjust Kingdom would pass away. However we have to also caution ourselves here, a hope that does not motivate us into transforming the world is also an empty promise that only seeks to numb us from reality. This is of course not the hope that we are speaking of; rather we proclaim a hope that is transforming.

Reversing and replacing hegemonic Ideology and Mythology: The task of an authentic Dalit theology would be to reverse the hegemonic ideology and mythology of the oppressors. This reversal is of course to be done on the terms of the Dalits. Therefore while the Brahmanical system would speak of pollution being passed on by touch, the ideological response of the Dalits to this is that it is touch that restores community and brings healing. This was very much the method of Jesus as well, as we find that Jesus was always touching people and restoring them to health.  It was his own reversal of the hegemonic mythology and ideology of the oppressors during his time. Likewise as part of this enterprise would be stressing inclusion instead of exclusion, unity and community instead of division and the like.

Closely related to this is the entire issue of replacing the prevalent ideology. This can be well done by reinterpreting several key Christian doctrines in the light of the experience of untouchability. Therefore for example while blood and death are considered to be polluting in the Indian context, we as Christians are well reminded that it is through the blood and death of our Lord Jesus Christ that we receive our salvation. This process reverses and replaces the hegemonic ideology and mythology with the liberating gospel of Jesus.

Conclusion: Finally I would like to propose joy and laughter as being a theological resource for the doing of Dalit theology. The experience of joy can come from many sources. It is the experience of joy at having found a new identity in Christ and the joy of the Spirit that comes out of having a new identity. It can be the happiness and joy that comes out of an authentic solidarity with all our Dalit brothers and sisters. It can arise from a sharing of liberative resources from all religious traditions for the annihilation of caste. It can be the righteous laughter that arises from seeing the caste system being finally destroyed and a new heaven and a new earth coming into being. The call of an authentic Dalit theology is to call all the oppressed to laugh together for their salvation is at hand.

Read Salome Neeraja’s Essay, “Dalit Feminism”
Read Peniel Rajkumar’s Essay, “Dalit Theology”

[1] Cf. Mark 1: 41 it is significant that the textual note tells us that other ancient authorities use the word anger instead of pity as is given in the text itself.

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