Caste Discrimination

Is the caste system deep-rooted among Christians in India? A Kerala bishop stirs up a hornet’s nest

The senior priest said he would stop attending traditional family gatherings held by members of the church to celebrate their upper caste identity and lineage.

A senior priest from Kerala’s Jacobite Syrian Christian Church recently put the spotlight on the fact that some Christians in the state practice the caste system, when he announced that he would henceforth stay away from traditional family gatherings organised by members of the Church.

In Kerala, some financially sound Syrian Christian families organise annual family meetings, which are attended by prominent priests. The bishop of Niranam Diocese, Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, said that these meetings were organised to “proclaim the artificially cultivated upper-caste identity and lineage” and he would not like to be part of this tradition any more.

On April 9, Mor Coorilos wrote on his Facebook page: “These people believe that their ancestors were Brahmins converted by St Thomas. They even publish family history books during the get-together. Such baseless upper-caste myths have to be busted. I had attended such events in the past, but not anymore.”

Syrian Christians are one of the world’s oldest Christian communities and trace their origin to St Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ. It is believed that St Thomas visited Kerala during the 1st century CE, and converted members of Brahmin families to Christianity. The Jacobite Church is one of the state’s four main Syrian Christian Churches, with the others being being the Syrian Catholic, Orthodox and Marthoma denominations.

Mor Coorilos’s comments also revived a long-running debate – whether St Thomas did indeed come to South India himself. Syrian Christians believe that he did, and that they originated from his efforts at evangelism.

Caste oppression and Christianity

Scholars say that the tendency of some Christians to hark back to their Brahminical lineage indicates that Christianity is not free from the blight of caste. As evidence, they point to the plight of those Dalits who converted to Christianity from Hinduism to escape caste oppression, only to find that things were much the same on the other side.

Caste oppression among Christians in Kerala has led to the formation of many churches meant exclusively for Dalits, said historian Dr Sanal Mohan, visiting fellow in Commonwealth Studies at the University of Cambridge.

A prominent Dalit church is the Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha, commonly known as PRDS, founded in 1909 by the Dalit activist and poet Poikayil Yohannan. “PRDS was an early movement against caste oppression,” said Mohan. “The World Evangelical Mission, CMS Anglican Church, Salvation Army are some of the exclusive Dalit churches formed later.”

Mohan said neither the Church nor its members have addressed the problem of caste among Christians in India. He pointed to a casteist taunt made by independent MLA PC George in March against a Dalit Catholic priest who took a stand against George Alenchery, cardinal of the Syro-Malabar Church, in a row over the controversial sale of church land in Kochi. George, who represents the Christian-dominated Assembly constituency of Poonjar in Idukki district, had called the priest an illegitimate son of a Pulaya (a Dalit community) woman who could not be called a Catholic. “It [the comments] showed the mentality of upper-caste Christians in Kerala,” said Mohan. “What shocked more was that the taunt did not elicit angry reactions from Dalit priests.”

Boby Thomas, author of the Malayalam book, Christians: A handbook for Christianity, agreed that caste discrimination was rampant among Christians in the state. “Christians in Kerala always pretended to be from the upper castes,” he said. “That is why the church [clergy] and laity [lay people] take pride in their mythical Brahminical roots.”

Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu

It is not just Kerala. The plight of Dalit Christians in neighbouring Tamil Nadu is similar, if not worse.

Earlier this month, the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front published a damning report that exposed discrimination by Christians against their Dalit bretheren in the state.

The report said that the practice of caste is prevalent in the formation of parishes (an administrative district headed by a parish priest) and seen in the construction of separate chapels in the same village for Dalits and other caste Christians. Discrimination is also evident in the denial of opportunities for Dalit Christians in the parish administration, as well as in jobs and the priesthood.

Antonysami Marx, a Dalit activist and writer, said the Church could not find a solution to the caste issue. “Dalit Christians have been facing discrimination at the hands of rich Christians from mainly Vanniayar and Nadar communities [in Tamil Nadu],” he said.

According to the 2011 census, Christians form 6.1% of Tamil Nadu’s population. In absolute numbers, Christians are a 44 lakh-member strong community in the state. “Dalits constitute 70% of the Christians in the state,” said Marx. “They converted from Hinduism to escape the clutches of caste, but ended up being in the same situation.”

Marx said Dalit Christian students were also denied admissions in schools and colleges run by the Church. “Untouchability and social boycott are prevalent here,” he said. “The church has even allotted separate graveyards for Dalits.”

He said the Church was reluctant to address the caste issue. “They say that there is no caste in Christianity, and they are turning a blind eye to the situation in Tamil Nadu.”

Reviving a long-running debate

Referring to the debate that the bishop’s comments sparked about whether St Thomas had indeed come to South India, historian MGS Narayanan, who has done extensive research on the subject, said Brahmins were not present in Kerala during the first century, when St Thomas was believed to have arrived. “There is no historical evidence to suggest that St Thomas came to Kerala during that time [either],” said Narayanan.

This is a point that Boby Thomas also makes. “Brahmins began to migrate to Kerala between the sixth and eighth centuries and they became a dominant force only between the 10th and 12th centuries,” he said.

Mohan pointed to another common belief that did not stand scrutiny – that St Thomas brought the cross – the best-known symbol of Christianity – to Kerala. “Historical evidence shows us that the Holy Cross was not an object of veneration in the first century,” he said. “Historians might have made these stories from hindsight, but they cannot be accepted unless they are supported by evidence.”

The Syro Malabar Church, the second largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world, which claims St Thomas as its founder, distanced itself from Mor Coorilos’s statement and said that historical evidence proved that the apostle had indeed come to Kerala. Senior priest Father Sebastian Vaniyappurackal said in a statement: “The Syro-Malabara Church was founded following the gospels of St Thomas. Only a few people contest this fact.” The Church was forced to issue this statement after a former spokesperson of the church, Father Paul Thelakkat, claimed that there was no evidence to prove that St Thomas had visited Kerala.

Sociologist Susan Viswanathan, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has written a book titled, The Christians of Kerala, agreed that it was hard to prove conclusively whether St Thomas visited Kerala. “Whether they were Brahmins or not in the first century is a puzzle as is the question as to St Thomas coming to Kerala,” she said.

But she also pointed out that St Thomas Christians – another name for Syrian Christians – have used their upper caste status through history to remain close to power. “Legends have their own emphases on probability rather than certainty,” she said. “These [Syrian] Christians are patrilocal and patrilineal like the Brahmins they claim descent from.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The cost of setting up an employee-friendly office in Mumbai

And a new age, cost-effective solution to common grievances.

A lot has been theorised about employee engagement and what motivates employees the most. Perks, bonuses and increased vacation time are the most common employee benefits extended to valuable employees. But experts say employees’ wellbeing is also intimately tied with the environment they spend the bulk of the day in. Indeed, the office environment has been found to affect employee productivity and ultimately retention.

According to Gensler’s Workplace Index, workplace design should allow employees to focus, collaborate, learn and socialise for maximum productivity, engagement and overall wellbeing. Most offices lag on the above counts, with complaints of rows of cluttered desks, cramped work tables and chilled cubicles still being way too common.

But well-meaning employers wanting to create a truly employee-centric office environment meet resistance at several stages. Renting an office space, for example, is an obstacle in itself, especially with exorbitant rental rates prevalent in most business districts. The office space then needs to be populated with, ideally, ergonomic furniture and fixtures. Even addressing common employee grievances is harder than one would imagine. It warrants a steady supply of office and pantry supplies, plus optimal Internet connection and functioning projection and sound systems. A well-thought-out workspace suddenly begins to sound quite cost prohibitive. So, how can an employer balance employee wellbeing with the monthly office budget?

Co-working spaces have emerged as a viable alternative to traditional workspaces. In addition to solving a lot of the common problems associated with them, the co-working format also takes care of the social and networking needs of businesses and their employees.

WeWork is a global network of workspaces, with 10 office spaces in India and many more opening this year. The co-working giant has taken great care to design all its premises ergonomically for maximum comfort. Its architects, engineers and artists have custom-designed every office space while prioritising natural light, comfort, productivity, and inspiration. Its members have access to super-fast Internet, multifunction printers, on-site community teams and free refreshments throughout the day. In addition, every WeWork office space has a dedicated community manager who is responsible for fostering a sense of community. WeWork’s customised offerings for enterprises also work out to be a more cost-effective solution than conventional lease setting, with the added perks of WeWork’s brand of service.

The video below presents the cost breakdown of maintaining an office space for 10 employees in Vikhroli, Mumbai and compares it with a WeWork membership.

Play

To know more about WeWork and its office spaces in India, click here.

This article was produced by Scroll marketing team on behalf of WeWork and not by the Scroll editorial team.