Today, many lower-caste people--especially in rural villages--are still marginalized, with little access to education, limited resources, and unskilled or menial jobs as their only option. However, thanks to a long history of missionary schools and to various changes in government-sponsored education, many have become better educated and hold higher-paying jobs.
At present, Indian society is characterized by an obsession with the kinds of development that would lead to a free-market economy. The growing economic success of some in India has created a chasm separating the rich from the poor, who make up about 56 percent of the population. Economists describe "two Indias"--one rich and one poor. India's caste system can no longer fully contain the socioeconomic change that the country is undergoing. Different religions, occupations, and levels of education are no longer correlated with caste. A high-caste person cannot be born a chief executive, for example, but must work to become one. A person of low caste may now get a good education and become an executive, a college professor, or even a government leader.
Indians who belong to the lower castes that were once considered "untouchable" now choose to call themselves by the name Dalit, meaning "oppressed," and signaling that they are actively resisting injustice.
Dalits make up 18 to 20 percent of India's population. Only about 3 percent of India's population is Christian, but 50 percent of the Christian population is Dalit, according to Ms. Soosai Raj Faustina, a teacher and member of the Dalit Solidarity Peoples (DSP) National Working Committee. Foreign Christian missionaries have also had a history of helping Dalits with education and with economic development.
Rural India still presents a dismal picture of life for its low-caste people, though. A friend of mine, Dharamnath of Jagdalpur, a member of the Methodist Church and an excellent vocalist, says that the typical low-caste village family may have only one sari (a draped dress using several yards of cloth) for all its women. So, while one woman comes out the hut draped in the sari, four other women must wait inside for their turn to wear the same dress. They can only come out one by one.
Faustina explains 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," she reports, "because the wind blows from west to east, and non-Dalits don't want to be contaminated by wind that has touched Dalits. All the institutions are in the non- Dalit area of the village. We are resisting these things," she adds.
In fact, empowered by India's constitution, the Dalits have organized to push for change through legislation and social institutions. Public transportation, radio, and television have begun to have a modernizing impact, especially on children and youth, even in rural villages. But a lack of political will on the part of the state prevents some recommendations from being implemented. Also, villagers who travel to large cities in search of job opportunities are likely to encounter crime syndicates and mafia organizations there. Even in small towns, gangs have proliferated. Last year, the worst-ever massacre of Dalit and landless men, women, and children occurred in Bihar. Sixty people were killed by the Ranvir Sena, a self-styled armed militia of the upper-caste landed gentry, formed to crush the movements of Dalits and agricultural laborers.
Dr. J. S. Murthy is an award-winning photographer in India and the United States. He is also a lecturer at Leonard Theological School in Jabalpur, India.
Text and photographs copyright 1999 by New World Outlook: The Mission Magazine of The United Methodist Church. Used by Permission. Visit New World Outlook Online at http://gbgm-umc.org/nwo/.
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