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A student at work at the India Heritage Center in New York.

Hidden apartheid

India | For lower-caste Indians in America, injustice and discrimination can persist

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

Increasing liberation or renewed shame? Christians who originate from the lower "Dalit" caste in India and now live in America face challenges different from those their ancestors faced in India, according to Rachel Fell McDermott, a professor at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City. She has interviewed dozens of Dalit Christians in the New York and New Jersey area in recent years to discover if a new environment can change thought. Her conclusion is that the "hidden apartheid" the so-called "untouchable" caste faced in India still persists in America, although less pervasively.

"One would expect the United States would give freedom from the norms of India," said McDermott at a recent forum at Columbia University. She said that while many Dalits, who have Christian faith, see themselves as children of God, many still describe feelings of withdrawal, pain, and self-hate. They don't want to be identified as a Dalit, historically the lowest caste in the Hindu religion and sometimes called "untouchables."

In India the lower-caste members are generally more open to converting from Hinduism to either Christianity or Islam. The message of human equality is appealing to them as higher castes oppress them in their own culture with injustices ranging from house burnings, theft of cattle, rapes, workplace discrimination-even forcing them to use separate wells for water.

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Missionaries to India were some of the first visitors to bring attention to Dalit issues. Christianity was an early force that gave Dalits dignity, and McDermott says the person of Jesus Christ became a hero to the wounded psyche of the Dalit community. "The resurrection occurred in my life," said Gideon Jebamani, a pastor in New Jersey. "The missionaries resurrected my life. I was dead in my culture."

McDermott said she found several Christian congregations of largely Dalit caste members thriving in the New York area since churches were established in the 1940s. The New York and New Jersey area has 20 percent of the Indian population in America. Many Dalits come to the United States for theological studies (about 50 percent are Catholic), where they are free to pursue higher education. Some become lawyers, doctors, or theologians, achieving a status much higher than they could dream possible in India.

The economic boom in India, although changing many cultural norms, at this point has not fundamentally changed the caste structure. "I think it's quite a good chance that it will remain," said Owen Lynch, a professor emeritus of anthropology at New York University and a student of the Dalit community in India.

But in America many Dalits find that their status continues to haunt them. Other Indians still judge them by their skin color, last names, or locations of their hometowns in India. Some Dalits change their names to hide their identities. Some will say they are from Jamaica. "The silence hangs in the air today," McDermott said. "Dalits often don't want to draw attention to themselves."

Dalit communities in America often remain segregated from other Indian or non-Indian church congregations. Some find it's easier to have their own congregations because upper-caste Indians in America won't associate with them. McDermott compares it to suburban churches that resist or fail to incorporate inner-city Americans into their churches. It makes Dalits in America wonder why social justice stalls. In Dalit understanding, God is an engaged, even subversive God, who "engages in activism" rather than therapy for one's Dalit caste.

McDermott said it leaves many wondering if their new geography and religion gives them increasing liberty or renewed shame. But a few of her interview subjects did suggest new pride in their identity as a Christian, not a Dalit. Others indicate that the new experience of life in America helps them change their outlook on life to issues such as getting their children into college rather than wondering how others from the Indian-American community perceive them.

"It allows a new map to be drawn," she said.

Paul David Glader
Paul David Glader

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