01 July 2011
Untouchable: Re-humanising the Dalit people
The Hindu caste system is bad news for the 250 million Dalit people classed as 'untouchables'. But a Christian entrepreneur is demonstrating how we can bring good news to this people group treated as social outcasts. Chine Mbubaegbu writes...
Slumdog. Untouchable. Outcast. These are just some of the words used to describe the 250 million 'Dalit' people living on the lowest rung of India's ancient caste system. Born into a world where they are considered the scum of the earth, dehumanised and discriminated against without a challenge to this age-old system, the Dalits live bleak lives without hope. Global research and reports regularly site the Dalits as the largest number of people categorised as victims of modern-day slavery.
In the Hindu caste system, the four castes are said to have originated from four parts of the body of the god Brahma. At the top is the Brahmin priestly caste that comes from his head, followed by the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaisyas from his thighs and the Sudras from his feet. Where do the Dalits fit in? They are seen as complete rejects from the social order and not even made by God.
Because their humanity is denied, Dalits find themselves assigned to working in the most degrading jobs in society. Only Dalits can become 'safai karmacharis' - the name given to manual scavengers who have the task of cleaning out human waste from the latrines of wealthy households.
For Simon Hawthorne of Life Association, which has been working with the Dalit community in India for the past 20 years, we have an opportunity to radically reverse these people's view of themselves by telling and showing them about God's love for them.
In God's image
"As a Dalit, you start off living life thinking you are not made by God," he says. "It's such an oppressive system and, because of the sheer numbers of people, it's the biggest human rights issue today. But in the message of Christianity you were made in the image of God. There is nothing more opposite to the message of Christianity than the Hindu caste system."
It's precisely because of this love for people that Life Association has worked over the years to build schools and orphanages among the Dalit communities in India. The charity aims to address the daily issues that Dalits face - limitations in education, healthcare, employment and even where they can worship.
Life Association's vision is to broaden support for the projects in the Andhra Pradesh region of India where they mainly work, by building 50 projects including orphanages, schools and health centres over the next 10 years. The project also supports a foster home for street children in Mumbai.
For some people, such as Ashok Khade, who heads up a $32 million construction business in Mumbai and employs more than 4,500 people, it is possible for Dalits to make something of their lives. But for the vast majority, daily life is bleak. They are shunned in every area of society.
If you're a Dalit who goes to a chai or coffee shop, you are even forced to drink from separate disposable clay cups so you do not pollute the vessel.
But Simon, in his 18 years of travelling to India and meeting Dalit people, is always struck by their grace and dignity even in the midst of such horrendous conditions.
"In glorious defiance of their oppressors, the women emerge from shacks in brilliantly coloured and beautiful saris, and their children, even when their clothes are almost threadbare, will have their hair in plaits of bows or decorated with a freshly picked flower," Simon explains.
"My wife Julia tells of one woman who carried an old tin can full of human excrement on her head. She wore a purple sari and the contents were dripping down onto it. She is a sister, a mother and also someone's daughter."
Commenting on the plight of the Dalit community in India, Manoj Raithatha, national co-ordinator for the Alliance's South Asian Forum, said: "As a British Asian in the 21st century, it saddens me to see that the Dalit community are still being subjected to discrimination. And yet in the eyes of God we are all of immense worth, so much so that in Christ God gave Himself for the sake of all humanity.
"Thankfully, in Christ's commandment of 'love your neighbour as yourself', we have a wonderful mantra for change and we as the Church must continue to shout even louder this important message of committing our lives for the welfare of others."
Simon, an entrepreneur who spent 30 years in the fashion business and also set up music, retail and wholesale businesses, as well as co- launched The Message Trust with brother Andy, has now launched Dalit Candles - a company which raises money for the Dalits in India.
The candles are manufactured in Dharavi - Asia's largest slum and home to more than a million people right in the middle of India's financial capital of Mumbai.
"Despite abject poverty, the people living in Dharavi have a great sense of community, contentment, almost full employment, virtually no crime and recycle 80 per cent of Mumbai's plastic, as well as being incredibly enterprising," says Simon.
"While the level of poverty is unacceptable I believe we have much to learn from them."
Sales from the candles and their clay Indian-style clay pots go towards raising awareness of the plight of Dalits and raising funds for Life Association.