Caste as a Protected Category and Indian Christianity

by Sonja Thomas | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

St. Thomas mosaic, Syro-Malabar Church, Kerala, India. Photo by author.

It is time for Eastern rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians in the United States to join hands and fight against casteism. Members of the community must support initiatives to make caste a protected category at schools, colleges, and universities as well as in the workplace. Likewise members of the community must unmask the false message that to stand up against casteism is Hinduphobic. Standing up to casteism is a human rights issue, plain and simple—one that cuts across all religions including Christianity.

Contrary to popular belief, caste is not solely tied to the Hindu religion but functions across religions. In fact, casteism, defined as “adherence to a caste system,” has been perpetrated by dominant-caste Christians for centuries and is embedded in Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Indian Christian traditions and practices.

Casteism is a form of decent-based discrimination. Descent based simply means that an individual is born into a certain group, and therefore it matters profoundly who one’s parents and ancestors are. For Americans unfamiliar with caste, it can be helpful to think in terms of racism as a parallel construct.

Because racism and casteism are both forms of descent-based discrimination, the effects are similar. These include segregation, employment discrimination, discrimination in education, sexual violence, police brutality, and even structural barriers to receiving state aid. Like racism, casteism is institutionalized, systemic, and intersectional with race, color, class, gender, and sexuality.

Anyone that can access caste privilege upholds a system in which “others” are dominated. This is why anticaste activists use the term dominant caste, to refer to those with caste-related power and privilege. Dalit Bahujan castes, or those who experience the multiple and intersectional effects of casteism, violence, and caste apartheid, are subordinated in a caste-stratified society.

I study and my ancestry comes from a group of Christians known as the “Syrian Christians”—so named because they follow the eastern or “Syriac” traditions. In the southwest state of Kerala, India, Syrian Christians are also known as St. Thomas Christians. Syrian Christians believe that St. Thomas came to the Kerala coast in the year 52 CE, performed miracles, and, according to the oral history of the Syrian Christians, converted (the “highest” or most dominant caste) brahmins, to Christianity.

The caste system in Kerala as known today did not become a primary social system in the region until at least the seventh century. However, the St. Thomas/brahmin caste-origin story of the Syrian Christians remains a large part of the community’s identity. From the omnipresent Syrian Christian family histories, touting the brahmin roots of the first converts, to the prolific presence of St. Thomas portraits in almost every Syrian Christian Church, these believed dominant-caste origins fuel present-day justifications of Syrian Christian traditions and practices as well as their caste, class, and racial status.

Over the centuries, Orthodox Christians and Eastern rite Catholics solidified their caste standing through landed power, documented as early as theninth century. Syrian Christians became an intermediary “purifying caste” and began to practice strict forms of distance pollution from Dalit Bahujan Hindus and Christians. As Placid Podipara reveals in The Latin Rite Christians of Malabar, by the late eighteenth century, dominant-caste Syro-Malabar Catholics were arguing for segregation from Bahujan Latin Catholics in seminaries, objecting to Latin Catholic use of Syrian Christian vestments, and arguing against any training of Latin Catholic priests in Syrian Christian traditions.

In addition to segregation in ecclesial settings, dominant-caste landowners enslaved Dalit slave castes in a feudal agricultural system. The Syrian Christian community, made up of landowners and merchants, was part of this slave caste system. As discussed by Sanal Mohan in Modernity of Slavery, after the abolition of slavery in 1855, Dalit attempts to own land were met with “stiff opposition from upper-caste Hindus and Syrian Christians.” Mohan further reveals in Modernity that Syrian Christian landlords evicted Dalit peasants, attacked Dalit Christian anticaste activist Yohannan and his people, and attacked when Yohannan gave a speech in Vettiyad, resulting in the death of a Dalit woman. Furthermore, in the early twentieth century, Syrian Christians argued for segregated schools and cut off access to status by way of higher paying jobs, which were already beginning to be monopolized by dominant-caste Nairs, Namboodiris, and the Syrian Christians in the state. 

Because caste power operates at the intersection of class, generational wealth and status are accrued by dominant castes and passed down through family lines. According to K. C. Zachariah, author of The Syrian Christians of Kerala, Syrian Christians are the largest landowners in Kerala today. They do not receive reservations, India’s caste-based affirmative action policy, while Dalit Bahujan Christians do.  Kerala is the most educated state in India, and the Syrian Christians are known for administering and sending their children to the more expensive private schools in the state—schools in the “English medium” that allow for tech-sector jobs and transnational opportunities.

As Yashica Dutt explains in her memoir, Coming Out as Dalit, “English-medium education, . . . often privatized and costly, is not available to most Dalits. In the ‘new’ India, speaking good English was the mark of the new upper caste.” Politically, the Syrian Christians claim a minority status and lobby for scholarships for students in their community, often at the expense of Dalit Bahujan Christians and Muslims. Syrian Christians dominate other industries, such as rubber cultivation and banking. They rarely hold agricultural-labor jobs typically associated with the former slave castes. Indeed, dominant-caste Catholics welcomed a recent court order that struck down the granting of specific scholarships to Muslims, Latin Catholics, and Dalit Bahujan Christians. According to Syrian Catholic hierarchy, if Latin and Dalit Bahujan Christians receive scholarships, it will “divid[e] the Christian community itself.”

The intersections of caste, gender, and sexuality is key to understanding how casteism functions. For example, one of the most striking forms of casteism in Christianity is seen in how the Syrian Christian hierarchy and community have taken an active role in discouraging community members from marrying outside the caste. The tendency toward endogamy, or “marrying within the caste and faith,” gives rise to and maintains caste boundaries. Furthermore, gender roles within Syrian Christian culture make it so that dominant-caste women are restricted and live with little agency, and yet they benefit from caste privilege when they adhere to specific gender norms.

Simultaneously, subordinate caste men and women face entirely different gender and caste realities. As Isabel Wilkerson juxtaposes in her work Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, in a caste system, rape of subordinated caste women is ignored by the state and community, while subordinate caste men can be lynched for bonding with dominant-caste women: “In this way, the dominant gender of the dominant caste, in addition to controlling the livelihood and life chances of everyone beneath them, eliminate[s] the competition for its own women and in fact for all women.”

Then, there is the whipped-up caste-based moral panic over love jihads. In this rhetoric, Syrian Christian women have no agency or choice regarding partners and no rights over their own bodies. In June 2015, Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop Mathew Anikuzhikattil used the term love jihad to allege Syrian Christian girls were being forced into marriage by Muslims and Bahujan Ezhuva caste men. In a Synod in 2020, Syrian Christians again promoted the casteist rhetoric of such love jihads, alleging Syrian Christian women were being forced to marry and convert from the caste/faith. In 2021, a Syrian Christian family WhatsApp group chat went viral with a widely shared video of an alleged love jihad.

In September 2021, Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt alleged that Muslims in Kerala were initiating both a narcotics jihad in the state and love jihad against dominant caste Christian women.  His comments were met with protests from Muslims and allies. In turn, Syrian Christian faithful organized counterprotests in support of the bishops’ comments. The demonstrations rocked the state for over a week.

Ousting members from the faith for marrying outside their caste is the status quo and justified within dominant-caste Christianity. In May 2021, the Kerala High Court ruled against the Knayayan (dominant-caste Syrian Christian sect) for excommunicating members who had married outside the caste/denomination. Subsequent news reports highlighted Knayanan Catholics marrying non-Knayanan Catholics.

As I explain in Privileged Minorities,it is easier, ritually speaking, for dominant-caste Syrian Catholics to marry dominant-caste Orthodox Christians than it is for dominant-caste Catholics to marry Bahujan Latin Catholics—despite both dominant-caste Catholics and Latin Catholics supposedly being part of the same “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” This points to how dominant-caste Orthodox Christians and dominant-caste Catholics ensure boundaries of caste are maintained through endogamy and brahmanical patriarchal controls over women’s sexual agency.

Casteism continues to perseverate throughout the Indian Christian diaspora. Many Indian Christians in the US today migrated after the 1965 immigration act which allowed for the migration of skilled professionals to the United States. Christians with money and the ability and privilege to do so (typically those with excellent English language skills and medical and engineering degrees) migrated to the United States in this era. Thus, the caste-privileged Syrian Christians are the largest group of Indian Christians found in the United States, as noted by Prema Kurien in Ethnic Church Meets Megachurch. Although many Syrian Christians in the United States experience racism to this day, the caste networks that aided their migration go  unacknowledged.

For instance, my mother and father were able to travel to Germany through dominant caste Christian networks to study nursing and medicine respectively, and from there, to the US. Post 1965 Syrian Christian migrants established dominant caste Christian organizations in the US and became leaders in the ‘Indian Christian’ diasporic community. Indeed, the churches we consider “Indian Christian Churches” in the US are dominant caste eastern rite Catholic and Orthodox Christian Churches. Leadership positions in these Churches are held by dominant caste members. And the casteist attitudes, although not often discussed explicitly within the community, continues to inform everyday life amongst the Indian Christian diaspora.

My current research with Indian Catholic priests in the US has uncovered that Latin Catholic priests from India have felt unwelcome in Syrian Christian American households. While dominant caste Catholic priests become bi-ritual to administer sacraments in Latin Catholic churches in the US, Latin Catholic priests becoming bi-ritual to administer sacraments in dominant caste Syro-Malabar churches is rare. Indeed, based on my research with the dominant caste Catholic community, I have no doubt that a Latin Catholic priest administering sacraments in a dominant caste Catholic Church would cause an uproar amongst the dominant caste congregants. But because of casteism, the reverse happens all the time: The Catholic Church continues to appoint dominant caste priests and bishops for Dalit majority congregations. For example, although the majority of Catholics in the state of Tamil Nadu are from the subordinated castes, only 1 out of 18 bishops in the state is Dalit. The May 31st appointment of yet another non-Dalit bishop has led to an outcry amongst Dalit Catholics in the state. Casteism is systemic, intersectional with gender and sexuality, and institutionalized in Christianity. Caste exists across religions and is a form of discrimination that every member of every religious group should stand against. Why, then, is the Hindu American Foundation claiming that to have caste recognized as a protected category amounts to Hinduphobia?

As in other dominations, those with power have vested interest in keeping that power by diverting attention from the actual workings of caste. The mere mention of privilege gained from ancestry evokes a fragility among dominant-caste people. Those with caste privilege—those least likely to encounter caste discrimination in their own lives—respond to discussions of casteism with argumentation and anger. Hence, the most privileged within a minority group claim victimization without having to account for centuries of caste oppression, without having to discuss how all of us may participate in casteism.

Likewise, for dominant-caste Orthodox and dominant-caste Catholics, it is neither in the hierarchies’ interest nor the community’s to dwell on the history and legacy of slavery, or to dismantle caste power, since they both benefited from it over centuries. Many Syrian Christians in the United States remain unaware of their caste privileges, formal and informal caste networks, or casteism in Christianity.

But that needs to end. Now.


Sonja Thomas is an associate professor and program director of the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at Colby College. Colby College is the 2nd college in the US to add caste to their non-discrimination policy.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.