KOCHI, India

Churches in India were called upon to tackle “institutional casteism” at a conference organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in collaboration with Indian churches and groups.

Attended by over 70 delegates, the May 1-4conference on “Caste, Religion and Culture” was organized by the WCC Commission for World Mission and Evangelism in collaboration with the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI). The Student Christian Movement of India and the Centre for Social Studies and Culture based in Kerala state also participated.

“Institutional casteism has not been properly discussed in India ... and the colloquium has drawn attention to the need for addressing the issue at all levels,” said a statement released at the end of the conference.

Under the rigid social hierarchy of the caste system in India, dalits — literally meaning “trampled upon” in Sanskrit — lie at the bottom of society. Formerly referred to as “untouchables,” dalits often survive by scavenging and doing other menial jobs while living apart from such upper castes as Brahmins. Though dalits account for nearly two thirds of the 28 million Christians in India, they face discrimination even in the churches and Christian institutions as upper castes hold most positions of power.

“Only the excluded people have the moral stamina to destabilize the oppressive structures and cultures,” pointed out Gopal Guru, a dalit and professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “Dalit studies are done not out of fascination for caste but because of the moral significance for social transformation,” said Guru in his keynote address.

University professor Rajkumar Hans said the deadwood of “oppressive caste hegemony” in India has gone deep into egalitarian religions like Buddhism, Sikhism and Christianity. “Caste cannot be annihilated by good intentions and theological rhetoric. What we need is bold steps,” said Hans, a Methodist.

Geevarghese mar Coorilos, moderator of the WCC Commission World for Mission and Evangelism, noted that “caste dynamics has changed over the decades.”

“The new dynamism must be translated into the life of the churches,” said mar Coorilos, presiding bishop of the Thiruvalla of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian church.

“The hypocrisy between the proclamation of the church as an egalitarian community and practice of caste must end,” said the Rev. Philip Vinod Peacock, professor at Bishop’s (Theological) College in Kolkata. Citing the declaration of a church national consultation on dalit Christian rights in October 2010, Peacock said “churches have to choose between Christ and caste ... Both cannot exist together, for one would despise one and be devoted to the other.”