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.
A few days ago, I called up a Jesuit priest in Bihar (an eastern state of India) to know his thoughts on the conditions of Christians during the ongoing pandemic. He was bemused by the question and emphatically stated—the rich survive and the poor die, that’s the story of the pandemic. Christians, like all others in India, are privy to this rule. According to him, there isn’t a “Christian angle” to the pandemic. His answer was understandable. Having worked in one of the poorest, ill-resourced states of India—all his life—the faultiness of class and caste are too apparent to him. Thus, talking exclusively about Christians or Christianity, especially during a pandemic, isn’t a priority.
Less than three percent of Indians are Christians. Yet, their absolute numbers are comparable to the Christian populations in Spain, Kenya, Poland and Ukraine. In fact, there are more Christians in India than Venezuela. Christians are not uniformly spread across the country. Half of them are concentrated in the southern peninsular states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh (Kerala alone makes up 22% of the total Christian population). Out of the remaining half, nearly eighty percent are spread in eastern and north-eastern states and the rest in the western, northern and central states of India. The population is further divided along confessional and caste/ethnic, linguistic lines, with varying class interests and political affiliations. All these factors make religion-based generalization on a national scale a problematic terrain. Owing to the confessional variety, Christian populations are linked to different civil society groups and global circuits.
The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has struck India with more than 400,000 COVID cases per day, the death toll reaching its peak, to the point where people are dying in the streets, and hospitals are at maximum capacity with limited resources and overflowing. Rural areas of India are disproportionately affected, with limited resources, and people are dying due to lack of access to medication and a severe shortage in equipment and oxygen. Due to India’s dense population, the number of cases continues to rise and, in turn, so does the death toll.
One of my parishioners from St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, Suffern, New York told me that his aunt who was critically ill with the coronavirus had contacted the Indian Prime Minister’s office in an effort to seek admission to a hospital in New Delhi, to no avail. Due to lack of beds and equipment available at hospitals, and not receiving medical care, she died at home. Even those who are lucky enough to gain admission to a hospital are not able to receive appropriate care, due to severe shortages of antiviral drugs, medical oxygen, and ICU beds.