Going deeper on India

Posted: May 20, 2004 12:00 AM

 India has hit the headlines twice within the past week, but the biggest long-range story has remained submerged.

 The two headlined stories were important ones. Indian voters surprised pundits by tossing out the incumbent Hindu nationalist party. The leader of the winning party, Sonia Gandhi, then said she would not be prime minister.

 But the deeper problem will take more than an election to fix: Over 200 million Dalits ("untouchables") still face discrimination at least as great as that faced by black Americans 50 years ago.

 Although officials legally abolished the caste system in 1949, culture almost always trumps law, so castes remain a significant force throughout India. (Generally, the lighter-skinned Indians belong to a higher caste, the darker-skinned ones to a lower.) As in the United States up to the 1960s, those near the bottom can lord it over those at the bottom. Sudras (members of the peasant class) can feel superior when they refuse to drink from the same glass as a Dalit.

 Some Indians joke sadly about a prominent Dalit politician who returns to his small village to open a hospital and is welcomed by those who once looked down on him. After a fancy lunch, he is preparing to leave when another Dalit comes into the room through a back door. The politician says, "You don't have to come in by the back way now. I was once like you, and see what I have made of myself." The other replies, "I just came to get my plates. They borrowed them to serve you your lunch."

 Why does such bigotry remain in India at a time when it is largely gone from the United States? One reason may be the difference between the biblical sense of equality and a common Hindu theology of inequality. The biblical understanding is that all of us are sinners (Psalm 14:3: "there is none who does good, not even one"). We all owe anything good in us and our living circumstances to God's grace. Many of us know that God offers that grace to people of all races. Kids convey more truth than they realize when they warble, "Red and yellow, black and white/ They are precious in His sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world." 

 Hinduism, however, pushes Dalits into believing that their karma for this life is already determined, and that submissiveness can make their next birth better. Although Social Darwinism -- the idea that helping the poor obstructs societal evolution -- is a 19th century Western invention, Hindu racists a millennium before developed strong rationales for malign neglect of those in need: The poor are suffering in accordance with their karma and their qualities.

 Indian leaders have long criticized others while letting themselves off easy. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1953: "India will not go with the doctrine of racial inequality. Wherever there is racial discrimination we shall do everything in our power, short of war, to oppose it." Good words, but he pointed to Africa and the United States as problem areas and left out the biggest one, his own country. Today, India is clearly the largest purveyor of racism in the world.

 Could that be changing? Vishal Mangalwadi, director of South Asian Resources, points out that over the past 70 years four major viewpoints have competed in India. Secular humanists contended that the British were India's chief problem. Radical Hindus blamed Western culture and Muslims, leftists slammed capitalism. Dalit leaders, though, insisted that Hinduism was the cause of India's oppressive backwardness. Mangalwadi states, "The Dalit analysis is now winning the day."

 Let's hope so. Institutionalized U.S. racism took a body blow in the 1950s and 1960s through the efforts of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Council. Since no similar group within Hinduism has arisen, Christians have a God-given opportunity to show that Christian faith offers tangible change in this life. That lesson will lead more Indians to consider their true hope for the next one.