Reaching Out to the Untouchable
By Alyce Gilligan
December 16, 2009
Today, India is known as a rapidly growing superpower. But for thousands of years, the caste system has held an oppressive reign over their society, regardless of glittering general improvements. The most affected are those of the Other Backward Classes, or OBCs, and the Dalits, also known as outcasts. These groups, told by the upper castes and years of tradition that they are less-than, make up more than half of the population. The most destructive part of this system is the fact that it is upheld by their moral beliefs and approved by the leadership, prompting the United Nations to call it “the most oppressive social system on the planet.” These people have no hope of breaking the shackles of 3,000 years of history unless a revolution occurs, socially and spiritually.
Recently, more attention has been raised for the plight of the millions victimized by the castes, especially their woman and children. Even Hollywood took notice, praising and promoting the hit film Slumdog Millionaire. But real and sustainable change is coming from groups like Operation Mobilization, the Dalit Freedom Network and Truthseekers International, organizations that go into India to work with the leaders, ensuring improvement for the next generations.
Operation Mobilization, or OM, is a ministry of relief, education and evangelism working in more than 100 nations, as well as on two missions ships. Their work in India largely consists of opening education and freedom centers for the Dalit children, perhaps the most affected by prejudice. There are 1.2 million kids involved in the sex trafficking industry in India. Malnutrition claims the lives of 2 million children under the age of five each year. These dire circumstances are experienced from birth, and anchor the youth in the destructive paradigms of the caste system.
“You can’t break the cycle unless you take this new generation, bring them up, empower them, teach them, let them know they are made in the image of God, let them not think of themselves as slaves,” says Dr. Joseph D’Souza, the leader of the program. OM has opened 90 centers and freed more than 18,000 young Dalits to date. Their goal is to open 1,000 facilities like this. “These children come into our centers, they receive a great education in English, they’re protected, they’re given a political worldview,” D’Souza says. “But so many of these children don’t even eat one decent nutritious meal a day. So how on earth can you educate them if they have empty stomachs when they come into our schools?”
D’Souza is also the president of the Dalit Freedom Network, which is dedicated specifically to ending the trafficking and slavery of the Dalit people. Through education, medical resourcing, economic development and social justice, they reach out to touch the supposedly “untouchables,” to help them realize their true value and potential. Much of this work is done in partnership with the All India Christian Council, a coalition for preservation of the Christian faith.
Truthseekers International is another group working for social and spiritual revolution for those oppressed by the caste system, lending their support to leaders in the political realm, and otherwise. Founded by Indian national Sunil Sardar, their mission is named for another movement that began in the 1800s with Mahatma Jotirao Phule, the first social reformer in India. Truthseekers is primarily focused on assisting the OBCs, the fourth and lowest caste in the system. This large group of people, which makes up roughly half of the population of India, is often overlooked, as most relief efforts have been applied to the downtrodden Dalits. The Hindi name for this community is “Sudra,” which literally means “slave,” and includes essentially all laborers. “The higher up you are, the less work you do, or no work. Work is not considered necessarily noble or honorable, it’s considered polluting,” explains Noel Bechetti, the U.S. director for Truthseekers International.
Bechetti says the OBCs have often been considered unreachable because they are Hindu, but that Truthseekers is working on the inside to change the spiritual tides. Many other countries and religions already have mythologies that contain evidence of the Gospel, redemptive stories of a Jesus by another name. Truthseekers believes that focusing through this familiar lens on the salvation message of Christ is a non-threatening means of spreading the Gospel and inspiring the people of the OBCs to rise above the current constraints of the caste. As John 8:32 says, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
He also points to an English education as a key to their redemption from slavery, and Truthseekers supports 10 schools in Delhi. Their main strategy is to cross caste lines to educate and inform the leaders of these communities, who will then rally their people to pursue change from within. “They have less access to education, less access to jobs, less access to health. And your duty is to be obedient to whatever you were born into. There isn’t any sense of moral compunction in a system like that. It’s divinely sanctioned,” Bechetti explains. He adds that the caste system is still so strong that it even crosses the boundaries of Hindusim and becomes prevalent in other religious circles as well, even Christian Indians.
Truthseekers’ other projects include literature distribution and foot-washings, highly symbolic ceremonies that missions teams participate in a couple times a year. While they aren’t a relief organization, they have become a valued voice in a necessary spiritual and political conversation, helping to lay the foundation for lasting social change. EFI’s general secretary Richard Howell even called Truthseekers “the most creative theological movement I have seen in my lifetime” and “the movement that the Indian church is longing for.” “Truthseekers is only one piece, of course, but we might be one piece of maybe a bigger mosaic that God is beginning to do in this part of the world that could possibly take on the longest-running divinely sanctioned slavery system we know to exist on the planet,” Bechetti says.
These organizations are just a few on the front lines of a long-awaited confrontation of the caste system. As D’Souza says, “This generation will not be able to excuse themselves and say, ‘I didn’t know.’”