06/01/2010, 00.00
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The social revolution of India’s outcastes

by Piero Gheddo
The redemption of the outcastes began in the early nineteenth century with the presence of Christian missionaries: PIME for example is in India (Andhra Pradesh) and in Bengal since 1855. Today, Andhra Pradesh has 80 million inhabitants and the Church has 12 dioceses (six of which were founded by PIME) with about a half million Catholics.

The elimination of the caste system, in particular of the title of "untouchable", the "outcaste" it is a cultural problem but also political one, that has dragged on in India since before independence. In Tamil Nadu the first conference of Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front was held on Sunday. The heart of the problem can be found in the words of Secretary of the Communist Party of India, Prakash Karat, "even after 62 years of independence, what we find in our society is that caste exceeds every class."

The meeting, which saw the presence of numerous human rights groups, affirmed that all discrimination against Dalit Christians must be overcome, they suffer because of their faith and find themselves excluded even from the “quotas” which are reserved in public administration for outcasts.

Yet, as explained by a missionary of great experience, Father Piero Gheddo, Christianity itself gave rise to the first affirmations on the equality of all men.

The great social revolution that is sweeping through the India of the economic "boom" is not “newsworthy” in the West: 160 million "Dalit (" untouchables "," Dalits "or" Harijans ") have become aware of their human dignity account and are asking that their trampled rights be respected  The Indian Constitution of 1948 abolished the caste system, but in rural areas (70-75% of over one billion Indians) caste separation and discrimination are still very much alive.

Even less than a century ago it was much worse. Father Louis Misani, PIME missionary in Andhra Pradesh in 1934 writes: "If you want to have an idea of the situation of Dalit, read the story of former slaves. The condition of the pariah is worse than that of  a dog, free to enter and lie down in homes and woe betide anyone who touches it!  Everything is forbidden the pariah and if someone beats him he must laugh and encourage harsher lashes.  Before the coming of the British there were no courts or judges for the outcast. Were the pariahs unjustly deprived of some good? “Mi Cittamu prabuvu'', he would say,''Thy will be done, sir, but try to be merciful.'' The death penalty was reserved for any Dalit who dared enter the houses of Brahmins or temples. No pariah could go to school and nobody thought to open schools only for the pariahs. Hence the great ignorance and moral degradation. They were so accustomed to this state, they did not dare to think it possible that it could be improved”,

Today we tend to forget that the redemption of outcaste began in the early nineteenth century with the presence of Christian missionaries: PIME for example is in India (Andhra Pradesh) and in Bengal since 1855, Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of all India " (India, Pakistan. Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka) in 1876. The Catholic and Protestant missionaries immediately turned their attention to Dalits and tribals, building schools. The principle was: "First the school and then the church." Gradually, the pariah began to understand that they too were human beings and to become aware of their dignity and their rights. Meanwhile, the colonial government introduced laws in India to improve the human condition and abolish religious and cultural traditions contrary to human rights such as for example, the widows who immolated themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre.

In the nineteen twenties, the nationalist movement and the charismatic figure of Mahatma Gandhi began the political movement for the redemption of pariahs. Gandhi entered politics in 1919 with his "non-violent non-cooperation" against the British and was a resounding success. The realization of the right to freedom for the people of India went hand in hand with the second aim of Gandhi’s "nonviolent revolution": the struggle for political independence, uniting all the people against the British, had to overcome divisions of caste and religion, for example between Hindus and Muslims to unite them all together in one, single independent India. This second aim was less successful than the first, but there were positive results: for example, "dalits" (untouchables) and tribal also became aware of their political rights.

One Indian historian writes: "The strong impression made by Christian charity in the traditional mindset of India can be illustrated by numerous quotations from authors and leaders who are not Christians. The heroism of raising the most humble people from the swamp of their degradation and their degradation was a fact unknown in India of the past "(Louis D'Silva," The Christian Community and the National Mainstream, Poona 1986, p.. 50 ).

In the twenties and thirties, the Dalit in Andhra Pradesh started mass movement towards the Catholic Church. Ready to fight and die for independence, the pariah understood that they could also fight for their rights. But at that time the Indian nationalism of Gandhi against England was dominated by the caste people, who did not want the outcast. "The pariah of Andhra Pradesh - writes father Augusto Colombo - thanks to the schools built by the missionaries, became aware of their identity, but did not know how to express it in the political and social terms. So they saw that Christian missionaries were the only ones who stood beside them. Hence the desire to embrace a religion that teaches the dignity of every human being and equality of all men as children of God.  It was the Church to convert the pariah, but the pariahs who entered the Church. The movement was prepared by PIME, who since the last century had been dedicated to the poor, opening schools, clinics, etc... "  

One of many examples of this initial process, which began in the social field and ends in religion, is the case of Denduluru and father Silvio Pasquali (1923-1964). Defeated in their rebellion against their former caste landowners who still oppressed them (with the help of police), the village outcasts turned to the missionary who, writes a fellow priest, "in his profound humanity and supernatural spirit, was for them worth more than a thousand books on liberation theology. " A man of prayer, but also a man of action, affable and gentle but also firm against any injustice, Pasquali turned to the government which in principle was favourable to the distribution of uncultivated lands of large landowners among the poor. So, despite the resistance of the owners who saw their cheap labour vanish before their eyes, he bravely battled with the authorities and the courts and succeeded in the requisition and distribution of land to landless, not by violent means, but according to existing law. The result, in church terms, were the 400 baptisms in Vatlur in 1918 and the 700 in 1921 in Denduluru. Father Pasquali administered more than a thousand baptisms per year.

With this and similar cases, the movement of the outcaste towards the Church has become significant. Today, Andhra Pradesh has 80 million inhabitants and the Church 12 dioceses (six of which were founded by PIME) with about a million and a half Catholics, the vast majority outcasts. Now even the pariahs study and grow as a social group and discrimination against them is decreasing to the point it has, almost, disappeared in the cities.

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See also
Campaign in favour of Christian Dalits meets first success
PIME dean celebrates 75 years of priesthood, entirely dedicated to China
Congress Party issues campaign platform
An outcaste will address the United Nations
Christian and Muslim Dalits backed by fellow Dalits from other religions


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