Caste Down, yet Hope Remains: The Untold Stories of India’s Untouchables
The people in the picture above come from a leper colony I brought aid to while living in India. They are Untouchables, some of the most abused people in the world. They live in constant physical pain and dire conditions because their society deems them unworthy of anything else. From birth, members of the Untouchable caste are rejected, often mistreated by higher caste members, and unable to escape this unmerited curse. Yet hope burns in their eyes like a bright torch in the dead of a moonless night. Their stories need to be told. Though trapped in a broken culture, their circumstances could change with the proper focus and attention. The world needs to take notice of their plight.
Travelers are often coached to say, “It’s not bad, it’s just different,” about any new cultural feature they may encounter when traveling abroad to places like India or Thailand so as not to offend the locals. Take India’s incredibly dangerous traffic patterns, for instance. As bad as they are, a tourist would draw instant rebukes for mentioning this. Nevertheless, some issues need to be addressed regardless of cultural sensitivities. The Indian caste system is an atrocious institution deeply ingrained in Indian culture, but in my opinion, the message contained in the Christian Gospel and extended acts of human care can go a long way in dismantling it.
Many Westerners find it hard to understand the mindset that spawned the Untouchable caste. For instance, Untouchables are born “impure,” which makes them unworthy of integrating into most of the society in which they live. These people are robbed of the basic human need for community. Untouchables have no ability to choose those with whom they interact, so they are left only to “their kind.” Dorothy is one of these people. Deemed impure at birth because of her caste status as an Untouchable, she was refused proper medical care growing up, thus causing her to contract leprosy. She now lives in a small village miles from central Chennai. Children born to the people of this village seldom leave, increasing their own likelihood of contacting their parents’ fatal disease. Their caste status sentences them to the destiny of their parents, and the cycle goes on and on.
Although India remains a predominantly Hindu nation, most of the Untouchables in the leper colony proclaimed Christianity as their faith. We attended their church service that day and performed a few skits portraying the Gospel of the Bible, one of the scarce messages of hope no one can take from them. Jesus of Nazareth is a vastly different God than any they have known. Throughout the entirety of the New Testament, Christ is shown loving the unlovable and hearing those cast to the wayside. He says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In other words, Jesus is not a distant, angry, brutal, and selfish idol. Dorothy knew this Jesus, which gave her a peculiar hope. Although her body continued to waste away and her dire situation remained unchanged, she told us that she felt profoundly loved and renewed.
We distributed a month’s worth of food to as many as we could that day. The true service accomplished, however, was breaching a life-long gap of untouchability in the simple act of laying our hands on their disease-ridden bodies to pray for them and listen to their plights. Clearly, hope still remains for the Untouchables, and it does not currently lie in government policy. While their inner selves are renewed by the hope of the Christian Bible and their spirits encouraged by the gentle touch of compassionate people, their physical wellness and living conditions must be confronted head on. Untouchables, officially called “Dalits,” remain oppressed, poor, and often disease-ridden although India’s economy booms. Tellingly, the word Dalit means “suppressed, crushed, or broken to pieces.” Members of India’s elite caste can and often do hold them in that state all their lives. The Dalit are an entire culture “broken to pieces” at birth with no means of collecting those fragments. This brokenness was so prevalent during my time living in India that, even to this day, I’m often consumed by thoughts of how I can help them. In order to make at least a small difference, I began to find nonprofits, such as Food for the Poor, that I could give to that bring material aid to India’s impoverished.
The Indian government has also realized a need to help their countrymen shackled to the dirt. Although the Indian Constitution, written in 1950, officially abolishes untouchability and forbids caste-based injustice and discrimination, any progress along these lines has been nearly invisible. In her article “Untouchability Today: The Rise of Dalit Activism,” Christine Hart of Denver University states, “Despite domestic policy measures and increased attention to the issue, the practice of untouchability remains ingrained and touches nearly every aspect of Dalit life.” The Founding Fathers of America were influenced by the biblical principle Imago Deo, “in the image of God,” thus treating people with inherent dignity. I hope one day India will see all of its citizens in this same image.
Unjust acts against these precious yet wounded people are no hidden or scarce matter. One survey of Indian news in 2006 collected just a handful of reported events that occurred the previous year. A Dalit leader was severely abused for sitting on a chair unfit for “his kind” to use. One young man was lynched as he gathered grain for his family. Another girl of the same caste had her arm severed as punishment for resisting rape by males of a higher caste. Yet another was bludgeoned to death while drawing water from the town well. The road to ridding India of caste-based injustice is a lengthy and trying one. Nonetheless, an entire people and their future generations’ freedom depends on its government, fellow citizens, and any others willing to stand up for their cause to walk it with persistence.
I spent some time on that road with the Dalits—the people in need of a voice. To me, they aren’t distant statistics but faces in my dreams and names forever in my memory. Participating in the jobs they held gave me an abrupt awakening to how often I used to complain about long shifts or cleaning the restroom at my work place. Since that trip, I have refused to grumble about such menial inconveniences. Abdul Majid of the University of the Punjab Lahore says the Dalits’ vocations are “‘invisible’ [and] nonproductive in economic terms.” Their livelihood consists exclusively in working the most hazardous and lowliest jobs in all the country. Unlike the American dream of working hard to enrich life’s pleasures and pass wealth to offspring, these people work only to sustain life itself.
Within Indian culture, each caste, or social sect, represents a different portion of the body. The Brahman signify the head and hold the noblest jobs such as temple clergy. Shudras, the bottom caste, exemplify the feet and are permitted only physical labor vocations. The Dalit symbolize a region below the feet. One doesn’t need to examine Indian economics closely to see the vast divide that exists between castes. As Majid notes, while members of the Brahman caste often inherit wealth and ease of life by virtue of birth, Dalits inherit debts from generations past. India’s allowing of people to inherit debt is an atrocious and broken system that must be done away with. Wages from their physically demanding and health-damaging labor are by no means adequate to both pay off inherited debt and put food in the stomachs of their families.
I had the privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with the Dalit in some of these underpaid, overly-hazardous vocations, namely latrine and street cleaning jobs. Most Westerners are unable to comprehend just how hazardous these jobs are because most of us have no frame of reference for India’s exceedingly unsanitary conditions. From sunrise to sunset each day, these people take a tin bucket and a metal scoop and make direct contact with human and animal feces and long-dead cow and dog carcasses already decomposing in the intense sun. We used those small scoops to move piles of waste weeks, even months, old into a truck until overflowing. Once the truck reached its utmost capacity, it would drive off to other Dalits waiting to unload it by hand into one of India’s large landfills. I cannot count how many dead animal remains I threw into the back of that truck while working with them.
Pastor Joshua, my contact for the trip, advised me to wear rubber gloves and a paper mask to guard me from the hazardous materials. The gloves tore wide open and the mask caked with soot in the span of an hour, so I threw the remnants of my gloves and mask into the truck and looked at one of the locals working alongside me and said, “Like you, Friend.” I wonder if he had ever heard someone of “higher social status” call him friend.
Their work scarcely supplies the resources they need to sustain life, but a deeper issue than monetary debt plagues their lives. Americans only know of monetary debt, but in India, debt to the universe—called Karma—is just as real and just as bonding. The Dalit work strenuously to pay off monetary debt generations old, as well as an untold sum of Karmic Debt given them by virtue of Hindu belief. An estimated forty million Dalits are bonded workers, which is just another phrase for “slaves” because their work only pays off ancestral debt. Higher-caste members hold that “Dalits are supposed to be suffering from the punishment for their deeds in previous lives.” In other words, this life they now live is merely the outworking of bad Karma acquired in previous lives. Upper castes use this Hindu belief to justify their lack of action to combat the deadly conditions Dalits live in, thus freeing themselves of any responsibility or care for their fellow countrymen. Ravi Zacharias, a world-renown speaker and native to Chennai, India, says that Karma is a cruel beast since people know they’re paying for the past, yet they have no idea how much they owe.
Not only are the Dalits’ vocations cursed by their caste, but so are their living conditions. The scene in the picture to the right, experienced firsthand, will forever remain seared into my memory. As we pulled up in Pastor Joshua’s car, all of the residents of this itinerant tent city made a line with bowls, pots, trash bags, or whatever they had to hold that month’s blessing. Once a month, Pastor Joshua came to give out rice to all he had the resources for. The team spread out through their “village” —a long stretch of tattered, tarp huts lining a highway—to see how we could show that they were heard and loved. With each scoop of rice I dumped into their bowls, I looked them in the eyes. Most of the time I had to posture myself to intersect their gaze at the floor, and although I could not speak their language, I placed my hand on their shoulder and smiled as if to tell them, “You’re not forgotten, dear one.” As we went through the line, Pastor Joshua told us this land they live on next to the highway belonged to the railroad, and at any time, as had happened so many times in the past, they could drive them out or have them arrested. This constant uprooting was all the Dalits knew. No matter where they set up their tents, any of the higher caste members could drive them away, whether they had a legitimate reason or not.
I considered my own childhood and how stable it had been. I lived in three homes, each for a minimum of five years, and I never once questioned where home was. I couldn’t imagine the life these children knew and the pain they suffered from having no place to call home. We invited them to a church service the following day not too far from where they lived. I wanted to do more in that moment but later realized I had at least provided a loving touch to people who desperately needed one.
One woman invited us into her house, a dangerous piece of construction likely to be deemed unlivable in the States. To us, however, it was a palace and we were more than grateful to be invited in. Her smile was peculiar and out of place and her face not like the other dozens of faces I had seen that day. It was warm rather than closed off and expectant rather than dismal. After only minutes of talking through the translator, she revealed that she had forsaken Hinduism, the religion of her youth, in order to become a follower of Jesus. Her husband was a devout Hindu and would abuse or divorce her if he knew of her conversion. This didn’t seem to hinder her from sneaking to church with her two children once a month, saying she was visiting a friend in the neighboring town. She asked us many questions about the Bible being that she didn’t own one herself. She knew nothing of the biblical story of Esther but simply chose the name from its table of contents as she hurried out of the church one day. I had the privilege of telling her the story of the biblical Esther, the woman who knew great hope and saved an entire nation by stepping out in courage. Our Esther clung to every word.
When we choose to reach out and grab a hand in need, remarkable things can happen. When we choose to enter into the desperate situations of people like the Dalit or simply the painful circumstances of our next door neighbors, this broken world becomes a little brighter. I remember my introduction to Esther. Amidst the appalling conditions of a Dalit village, this “light-of-a-woman” radiated with hope. Her face glowed as she spoke her native tongue in a hushed tone. “. . . My secret name is Esther, one that I only use at church each month, so here, I go by. . . .” the translator articulated her tongue into one the team could understand, yet no matter how skilled a translator may be, foreign names hardly reach the brain coherently. Esther, meaning “star,” was the right name for someone of such admirable bearing who lived in such dark circumstances. During our time together, I only called her Esther in order to honor the hope she cherished.
I left her humble dwelling that day feeling as though I had met royalty, and somehow, I was fully confident that she would be alright despite her caste and conditions. We gave her a small financial gift to help her family, but the true help came from the encouragement we shared together as followers of Jesus. Though cast down, she found the hope of the Gospel to sustain and renew her day by day.
Although thousands of other stories still need to be told, I’m glad that these once unheard people are gaining more of a voice—as small as it may be. Despite the injustices previously mentioned having no means of reversal, I have confidence that one day the next Dalit girl will be free to stand for justice without fear of punishment for it. The time will come when these people will no longer be shackled to hazardous vocations, but instead receive the blessing to labor in any field they desire. I believe India will reach a point where appropriate medical care is given to all its citizens and no one is deemed “untouchable” by birth. The hope of the Christian Bible, as seen firsthand, gives the Dalit people a “beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, [and a] garment of praise instead of a faint spirit” (Isaiah 61:3). It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate blessing. The Dalit are not alone, nor without hope. They must be pleaded for, aided, and given a touch of friendship to defy the brutal and unfair standing given them at birth.
*The photographs for this article were taken by Christian Wyder.
Chase Windebank is a Colorado native who skydives and climbs. He grew up adventuring through the wilderness, often writing poetry about its beauty and searching for new creative challenges. He is passionate about family, the Christian Bible, writing, and keeping Colorado beautiful.