India’s oppressed Dalits find hope
‘Shining and incredible’ are the adjectives India’s authorities use to describe their nation’s newfound economic confidence.
Whilst the country’s Gross Domestic Product is growing fast, the welfare of a nation’s citizens cannot be summarised by economic statistics. India’s 250 million Dalits still live in poverty and suffer from every conceivable form of discrimination.
Labelled ‘untouchable’ at birth, these people cannot eat with or even drink the same water as those whom the majority Hindu religion identifies as belonging to higher castes, such as Brahmin and Vaishyas.
Furthermore, for three millennia Dalits have been relegated to the lowest jobs and lived in constant fear of public humiliation from upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place.
In 2001, Dalit leaders came together to discuss the unending harsh reality that their people face. From those meetings came a common cry for freedom — from oppression and injustice; from the economic imprisonment of only being given access to menial jobs; and from the hopelessness of a future that offers nothing better in life.
To reach these goals, Dalit leaders asked India’s church to aid them in their plight. This invitation was extended to Christian organisations based in the country, including Good Shepherd /Operation Mobilisation (GS/OM) India Ministries, founded by George Verwer over five decades ago and with an extensive, longstanding presence in India.
OM’s North India leader, Moses Parmar, is at the forefront of this response, spearheading an epic movement of social and religious transformation amongst the Dalits.
He leads 2000 people engaged in humanitarian and charitable work across the country’s north, in addition to overseeing 1500 churches, 50 schools serving oppressed Dalit children, initiatives to inform women of their legal rights and dozens of micro-enterprise schemes.
A Dalit himself, Moses’ experiences resulted in him speaking before the Task Force for International Religious Freedom, of the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus. In 2008, he hosted a round-table of non-government organisations for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief’, during her visit to India.
Moses has also testified on modern day slavery and the Dalits’ plight before the British Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission, as well as to members of the European Parliament.
At the end of April, Moses visited the UK to meet with prayer partners and donors. ‘In the past, GS/OM India Ministries was only involved in caring for the spiritual condition of a person’, he begins, in answer to a question about the organisation’s work.
‘But we realised that the gospel is about more than saving souls and the forgiveness of sins. It gives a person a new family, a new relationship with God and a new identity based around dignity.
‘One other Dalit leader told me that, when you preach the gospel, not to start from Matthew Chapter One but Genesis Chapter One, because people who hear about the God who has sent his Son into the world need to know that he has also created them…
‘Grasping the concept that they have brothers and sisters in Christ, that nobody is higher than them and that nobody is lower than them brings mental empowerment and confidence. The gospel brings them into a family and a community that will love and care for them and comfort them in a time of crisis. Thus, our work has become more holistic’.
Through the prayers of Christians in the UK and the work of people like Moses, all over India, tens of thousands of Dalits are finding freedom as they discover Jesus’ message of ‘good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18). One Dalit leader wept for joy when he read the creation story and discovered he was not only loved by God, but made in his image.
Indeed, the first graduates of the Dalit Education Centres, run by the GS/OM India Ministries partner organisation ‘Operation Mercy India Foundation’, expressed their desire to become lawyers and doctors, to enable them to serve God with their new skills by assisting their fellow outcastes.
Thousands of Good Shepherd community churches have been planted for Dalits who find new hope in Christ. Initiatives are in place to meet the welcome but worthwhile challenge of training and equipping leaders for these congregations.
At the same time, vocational training courses, healthcare seminars, women’s empowerment workshops and more are making a massive impact in the lives of India’s untouchables. As Moses can testify, taken together, these developments ensure that the outlook for India’s Dalits really is ‘shining and incredible’!