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Dalit Christians in the State of Punjab: Issues and Problems

Prof. Emanual Nahar Prof. Emanual Nahar
20 May 2024

Christianity is India's third-largest religion, according to the census of 2011, with approximately 27.8 million followers, constituting 2.3% of India's population. Christianity in India has different denominations. Christians form about 2% of the total population in Punjab, India. Sikhs form the majority in the state. The Diocese of Amritsar and Chandigarh of the Church of North India has its seat in Punjab, as does the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jalandhar. There are thousands of settlements with a Christian congregation. From 1881 to 1891, the then united Punjab's Christian population increased rapidly. The Church in Punjab is a Dalit church because the majority of Christians are Dalits. Although Dalits form the majority in all these churches, their place and influence in these churches are minimal or even insignificant. Their presence is totally eclipsed by the power of the upper-caste Christians, who are only 20% of the Christian population. This is all the more true in the case of the Catholic Church, where such discrimination is strongly felt.

The problems of the minorities are not confined to any specific region. They are, in fact, universal in scope. However, they vary in nature and extent according to the particular circumstances of place and time, various combinations of powers and the relative strength of the minority and the majority communities. In this context, besides the general problems faced by the Christian community, there are some specific issues faced by the community in Punjab. Dalit Christians in the Punjab are marginalised, microscopic, socially depressed, economically backward and politically powerless. A change of religion has neither healed their scars nor brought sweeping changes in their socio-economic status. They had joined the Churches seeking liberation and solace in the new community but found their expectations unfulfilled. At present, they stand in the lowest wing of society among the Dalit classes in the Punjab. They are always in debt. They live in deplorable conditions. Socio-economic problems have compelled them to work in the landlords' fields.

In Punjab, Christian Dalits live in the same kind of villages, are dependent on the same type of land owners, suffer the same sort of disparities and atrocities, are subject to the same social and economic pressure and face equally limited occupational opportunities as other rural Dalits. About 80.56% of Dalit Christians have low socio-economic status in rural areas, and nearly as many remain socially separated and are forced to live in separate residential localities. About 3% of Dalit Christians, especially in the border belt, are considered bonded labourers. And 95% remained socially separated and forced to live in separate localities. (Nahar and Kamla, Problems of Religious Minorities in India, 2022)

1. Socio-Economic Status of Dalit Christians in the State of Punjab Harassment against Dalit Christians in Punjab occurs primarily due to their economic weakness, vulnerability and dependence on the rural power structure for their survival. The economic backwardness of the Christian community is aggravated by socio-economic disabilities and lack of political influence.

Table: Dalit Christians of Rural Areas (Data: Nahar and Kamla, Problems of Religious Minorities in India, 2022)

•    Agriculture Labour – 72.41%
•    Land-less – 95.5%
•    Lower Social status – 80. 55% (in Rural area)
•    Higher middle status – 19.45%
•    Illiteracies – 89.49%
•    Govt employee – 7.8%
•    Private job - 14.17%

Table: Dalit Christians of Rural & Urban Areas (Data: Nahar and Kamla, Problems of Religious Minorities in India, 2022)

•    Higher Status-19.45%
•    Moderate Status-30.14%
•    Low Status-50.14%

Unfortunately, the community could not produce gazetted officers, PCSs or IASs in Punjab.

Dalit Christians in Punjab primarily belong to the landless class. They work as agriculture labourers in rural areas and constitute the lower strata of the rural population. However, the urban counterparts fare slightly better because of their job opportunities. Backwardness, illiteracy and poverty, along with low social status, are considered by the Christian leader to be the most significant problems of the community. As a result, they are exploited socially and economically by the landlords and higher castes in Punjab. Most of the Dalit Christians are poor and are objectified. (Nahar, Minority Politics in India, 2007)

Secondly, they are also ignored by the political parties and administration. They are suffering from what is called structural violence.

Thirdly, they have been neglected throughout based on religion and caste, which can be called Symbolic violence.

They experience double discrimination – firstly, for being Dalits and then for being part of a minority religion.

Along with Dalits, Dalit Christians in some parts of Punjab are also exploited by wealthy landlords. They are forced to work at lower wages. In the areas bordering Pakistan, Dalit Christians still work as bonded labourers. They are humiliated because of their lower socio-economic status. They stand nowhere in the Punjabi Society.

Christians do not enjoy state patronisation, reserved for the Schedule Castes and Backward Classes. After conversion to Christianity, they lose the right to reservation in government jobs. They stand at the lowest rank among the Dalit classes in rural society. All Christian denominations have failed to solve their socio-economic problems.

2. Identity Crisis

A change of religion has not relieved the Dalit Christians of their scars. Although conversion to Christianity was to protest against the obnoxious caste system and to seek liberation and solace in the new community, the churches failed to fulfil their expectations. They are still considered untouchables because of their association with their caste. Dalit Christians still follow and practice the old traditions. (Nahar and Kamla, Problems of Religious Minorities in India, 2022)

1. 56.25% of respondents claimed they still celebrated non-Christian functions and traditions.

2. 51.67% of respondents practice the tradition and culture of the dominant community.

3. 98% have marriage ceremonies within their own caste and hesitate to do inter-caste marriage.

4. 67.84% of the Christian respondents replied that they have not been able to make their own independent identity in Punjab.

Other communities' domination has impacted them in a way that has led them to adopt the culture of the dominant communities. Dalit Christians do not have their own separate identity, traditions, and cultural values. They follow the more powerful communities. Social identity and relationships are determined by the overbearing majority rather than minority norms. That is why Dalit Christians do not have their own separate identity. They have mixed, dual, stigmatised, and fragmented identities in the state of Punjab. Their religious identity has crystallised into either Catholic or Protestant. Both have different identities depending on the rule of the Church, its institutions, and its leadership. In a nutshell, Dalit Christian identity is not autogenerated but is a product of other people's perceptions and opinions.

3. Politics of Exclusion (Marginality) with Dalit Christians 

(a) Since 1952, there has been provision of a legislative council in which every section of the society or minorities had the provision for representation for the community's interest. But in 1967, the Akali Dal moved a resolution in Vidhan Sabha to abolish the legislature's council with the help of the Congress party. After that, not a single Christian was nominated for the state of Punjab.

(b) In 2007, the Punjab government increased the reservation quota for Balmiki and Mazhbi Sikhs through amendment but refused to give this benefit to Dalit Christians. It was a total violation of Articles 14, 15, 16 and 21 of the Indian constitution.

(c) In the same year, the Punjab assembly also recommended reservation to the parliament for Rai Sikhs to the central government. Parliament resolved to include Rai Sikh in the SC list but refused to give the same to Dalit Christians; it was total discrimination based on religion.

(d) In 2022, when the AAP government came into power in Punjab, some welfare facilities were given to other Dalit communities but denied to Dalit Christians. No kind of representation is given to Dalit Christians. The CM of the Punjab even announced that from December 23rd to 29th, there should be no celebration on these days, which coincide with Christmas, celebrated enthusiastically by Christians. It was a total violation of Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.

The state government has further aggravated their condition by denying them protection against discrimination. The Punjab government has given a lot of facilities to economically weaker sections to SC or Dalits but not to the Dalit Christians. This is a violation of the articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Indian constitution. It is difficult for them to get any facilities from government authorities. Their primary problems are always ignored.

4. Inactive Political Involvement of Dalit Christians in various Elections

Dalit Christians in Punjab constitute about 2% of the state population. About 15-20 legislative Assembly of Constituencies of Punjab have a considerable population. The Dalit Christians living in the Majha region have been playing a deciding factor in the Lok Sabha elections. Political participation of the Dalit Christians in Punjab state is a serious issue of the contention of the present and future political life. It has been observed:

(a) Socio-economic backwardness does not seem to have directly affected general political participation. Still, it has dramatically affected the entry of Christians and their active political involvement in the Punjab.

More than 90% of the respondents have participated in various elections in Punjab. Still, poor socio-economic conditions compel them to vote for landlords and the wealthy during elections. It is a fact that the socio-economic status of Dalit Christians has much to do with the character of political participation. Their disadvantageous socio-economic position has undoubtedly affected their active participation and political aspirations and denied them the opportunity to enter mainstream and active political life. 91.83% of respondents do not have any membership of a political party, 87.33% have no awareness about their socio-political and economic rights, 73% said that the community have no adequate representation in governmental institutions, 50.33% respondents believe that the Christian community need a powerful political group, 38.82% respondents accept that there is lack of unity, lack of dynamic leadership and political spirit. (Nahar and Kamla, Problems of Religious Minorities in India, 2022)

(b) The socio-economic hierarchy of the landlords and Jatt Sikhs in the political institutions is the principal means through which landlords deprive the Dalit Christians of the fruit of their labour.

It is difficult for the Dalit Christians to make progress in caste-ridden Punjab politics; besides, they are considered an insignificant vote bank by the political parties. The participation of the Sikhs and their virtual monopoly in electoral politics in the Punjab enabled them to elect their candidate either from the Congress or the Akali Dal. The political scope of the Dalit Christians depends on the Sikh leaders and their socio-economic conditions. During the elections, the rich landlords and feudal people employ various means to capture the Dalit Christian votes in their favour.

(c) Role of Dalit Christians in Political Parties

The participation of Dalit Christians in the various political parties is minimal. It was mainly confined to the Congress, but now Dalit Christian voters are shifting to other political parties to fulfil their expectations. Akali Dal and AAP are gaining support in all elections, but neither Akali, AAP, nor the Congress have any positive interest in their welfare and development. Actually, the caste structure of the society does not provide a space for the Christian community. In fact, due to the virtual monopoly of the Sikhs over political power, political parties always rely on Sikhs. Factors such as inactive participation in electoral, poor socio-economic conditions, the lack of cohesion, and the lack of excellent and dynamic leadership have become obstacles to political involvement.

(d) Lack of Social Pull

Fundamentally, Dalit Christians lack social pull, which is necessary in politics. There is also political groupism within denominations and a lack of unity. They have no proper organisation or political leadership among the minorities.

5. Church, Dalit Christian & Religion

Failing to find solace in established Churches, many Christians are shifting to Dera churches. The status of established churches is decreasing daily. They are fighting for their survival in the state of Punjab. Many established churches have already sold some of their property, while some are controlled by various agencies and mafia.

Many churches have been opened by non-Christians. They control most of the leading Dera churches in the state. There are about 20 to 25 dominant Dera churches. Their establishment and rapid growth have become a serious matter for established churches. The members are shifting from established churches to Dera churches. About 10,000 to 25,000 people attend the Dera Churches each Sunday.

a) Dalit Christians in Punjab are discriminated against based on religion, and some established churches do not allow graveyard space for their dead bodies. It is a very acute problem for Dalit Christians. They do not have sufficient land for a graveyard.

b) About 70.5% believed the state discriminated against them on religious grounds.

c) 77.67% of the community leaders agree that the central and state governments ignore them because of their religion.

d) 83.76% agreed that Dalit Christians must be adequately represented in government institutions.

e) 77.67% expressed that neither Akali nor Congress paid attention to this community.

f) Dalit Christians have been neglected throughout and suffer Symbolic Violence.

The condition of Dalit Christians has deteriorated over the last decade. They are glaringly excluded from the mainstream. The apathy of the administration, violation of constitutional religious rights and religious discrimination has created an extraordinarily helpless and frustrating situation.

1. The state should take steps to provide welfare facilities and proper representation in every field.

2. The state should also restore Dalit Christians' confidence.

3. It is also the duty of churches, leaders, and educational institutions to come forward and guide their development properly.

4. A social movement involving all denominations is necessary for social justice and equality.

5. Dalit Christians should form alliances with other Dalit organisations to promote and support social justice within society.

The community faces severe social, economic, educational, and cognitive deprivation. These conditions deprive individuals of opportunities and consequently restrict the optimal development of their personality's cognitive, financial, and behavioural spheres. Political education alone will not be sufficient to improve the situation.

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