NORTH EASTERN MINNESOTA SYNOD ASSEMBLY OF ELCA, DULUTH
LUTHERINISM AND THE DALIT SITUATION IN INDIA
Dear Bishop, Officers, Delegates of North Eastern Minnesota Synod Assembly of ELCA.
Greetings to you in the Name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I am happy to be one of the Delegates from South Adhra Lutheran Church to our companion Synod. Our Bishop Michael Benhur and Officers join with us to convey our greetings to the Bishop Tom and all the delegates of North Eastern Minnesota Synod Assembly. It’s a great privilege for me to present a paper on Lutheranism and the Dalit situation in India.
I. Lutheranism in India
Lutheranism in India
Lutheranism is a tradition within Christianity that began in the Protestant Reformation. The term “Lutheranism” is used as a general description for the ecclesiastical, theological, spiritual, social, and cultural tradition related to the Lutheran Reformation. Lutheranism is based on the faith and confessions taught by Martin Luther, the reformer. Lutheranism is the third-largest Protestant movement with a membership estimated at around 80 million members worldwide.
Less than two centuries after the Reformation, the first Lutheran missionaries entered India and today we have 12 Lutheran indigenous churches, with more than 600 ordained Indian pastors including around 185 women serve over 4000 local congregations. Lutherans in India found common ground with regard to the authority of the Bible, Lutheran catechisms and Liturgy. All Lutherans and Lutheran churches come under the umbrella of United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (UELCI) with its headquarters in Chennai, India.
The Lutheran church in India is a confessional church and Lutherans have always had a very strong self-identity. Lutherans always feel Lutheran identity as an achieved identity and a proud identity. Our faith and practice are deeply rooted in the scriptures and our Lutheran confessions. Lutheranism in India claims continuity with its biblical and confessional foundations. In the 300 year history, Lutherans in India demographically represent a vibrant minority among the Christian minority in India. As the first Protestant mission to India, the contributions of Lutheranism to the Indian church have been significant, especially in areas of Bible translation, national and regional theological education, printing and publishing Christian literature, education, disaster relief, medical missions, and promoting the rights of marginalized and Dalit communities. Lutheranism continue to involve in massive humanitarian relief and development work. Lutherans in India have chosen to retain their historical and denominational identity by not merging with other ecumenical denominations. However, they have maintained full-communion relationships and collaborative engagements with all major Protestant Lutheran churches in India.
Indian Lutheranism have been faithful to the received heritage and have preserved much of the Lutheran hymnody, catechisms, liturgy, and polity. The presence of Lutheran churches in India has become visible and concrete in different shapes in their ecumenical dialogues. However, relevant theological articulations of Lutheranism in India remains insufficient. In a country that is facing the challenges of widespread poverty, economic injustice, and social discrimination, gender discrimination, religious fundamentalism, violence against women, and so on Indian Lutheranism has not addressed the issues adequately in their theological and confessional articulations. Lutherans in India are challenged to articulate their theology, mission, and ministry in a more meaningful and relevant way.
One challenge that Indian Lutheranism is facing is an issue of caste.
II. Dalit Situation in India.
Dalits comprise 201.4 millions in India. The Sanskrit word Dalit means: the broken, trampled underfoot, coerced, the torn, the burst, the split, the scattered, the down trodden, the crushed, the destroyed and so on. Dalithood is a life condition which characterises the exploitation, suppression and marginalisation of Dalits by the social, economic, cultural and political domination of the so called upper castes. Those castes under the social ladder in India have chosen this term for themselves. Dalit is not a name for caste, it expresses the situation of life. Over the past 200 years, Dalits in masses have converted to Christianity, hence the majority of the Christian population of India today is Dalit.
Dalits in India are the most oppressed group. They have been treated untouchables and underwent very much inhuman condtions in the past. That doesn’t mean that there are no such violent aspects in India against Dalits today. The atrocities against Dalits are continuing. According to official statistics, crime is committed against Dalits every 15 minutes in India, six Dalit women are raped every day. Atrocities against Dalits in the past ten years hiked to 66% (2007-2017). Most atrocities against Dalits involve crimes against women. Data from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) shows that the rape of Dalit women has doubled in the last 10 years. Media reports every single day incidents such as: Dalit man shot for fetching water from a government tube-well; Man beaten to death on suspicion of cow smuggling, Dalit bridegroom was thrashed for having wedding parade; Dalit girl assaulted; Dalit killed over land dispute; Dalit woman gang-raped; Dalits face social boycott; and so on. Dalit students are committing suicide due to unbearable violence against them. For the past 3000 years Dalits are denied to have life in fullness, they were denied access to education, employment, economic, religious and political fields
Dalit story, however, is not only a story of victimhood but also a story of assertion and a story of new identity. India witnesses to a new generation Dalit politics which is more organized and connected. For example, South Andhra Lutheran Church which is comprised of Dalits and caste converts may handful, have been transformed in various ways. We don’t see caste humiliation in our church. But this story is not the same story of Dalits in other religions and other churches. The main ingredient in empowering Dalits is education. Only education will help Dalits to overcome their vulnerable situation. Power is need to grab opportunities. Without education power cannot be attained. Without power privileges cannot be realized. Politics can become a powerful platform to Dalits to attain power. No doubt, there is a considerable transformation among Dalits and particularly Christian Dalits due to missionary intervention and the reservation policies and the inspiration by the Dalit thinkers. Education, employment and conversion played a major role in transforming the lives of Dalits in India. These privileges alone are not sufficient to make Indian society caste-free. Much more needs to be done. Dalits politics both in the church and in the society need to be more assertive in the present context where caste and Hindutva takes a central place in Indian politics. On the one side Dalits are progressing in India. On the other, the violence against Dalits increasing alarmingly. But welcoming move is that Dalits have come to a new sense of their new humanity and they are moving ahead to shape Indian politics.
India’s Catholics and Protestants jointly observe Dalit Liberation Sunday on November 11th with liturgy and activities calling for an end to discrimination suffered by Christians of lower caste origins within the Christian community and in society.
The observation is a call to the whole Christian Community to renew our faith to awaken our consciousness to be the voice of the voiceless and to stand with vulnerable Dalit in society. Bishop Mascarenhas said the day is “Important for us because at least once in a year we think of the Dalits in a more focused way. The one remembrance should last throughout the year.
Pigilam Alfred Deva Prasad
Delegate, South Andhra Lutheran Church
Andhra Pradesh, South India.