Explainer
Comment
Community
8 min read

Untouchable: experiencing discrimination around the world

In America it’s in the headlines, while in India it continues to influence. Rahil Patel explores caste discrimination and finds out who helped craft constitutional protections for those affected.

Rahil is a former Hindu monk, and author of Found By Love. He is a Tutor and Speaker at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

A group of protesters march behind a banner waving flags.
Supporters of the caste discrimination bill march.
Equality Labs

Cisco is a highly successful California based tech company. It has an annual revenue of $57 billion and boasts of many awards and prizes.  Great Place to Work placed Cisco at number one on its 2023 list. But what has this to do with caste discrimination? Well, 33 per cent  of Cisco’s 84,000 employees are of Indian origin and the company is struggling under a lawsuit currently upheld by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. The widely reported lawsuit is for caste discrimination against a Dalit (Untouchable) employee. The engineer has claimed to be paid less than his peers due to his low caste status.

Is this common? Well, the high caste Brahmin CEO of Google, Sunder Pichai (of Indian origin) has also faced allegations, raised by California based civil rights organisation, Equality Labs, of “caste bigotry” that is “running rampant” within his company. 

“You can take an Indian out of India but you can never take India out of an Indian.” This was the sorrow filled saying I heard amongst well meaning fellow Indians whilst growing up in the United Kingdom. It usually cropped up when my Indian relatives and friends were confused by the appalling attitudes of other fellow Indians and trust me, it was quite common.  

In October 2023, the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom vetoed a Bill to outlaw caste-based discrimination across his state. His decision was met with anger and rage from low caste Indian Dalits and from those who are fighting alongside them to ban discrimination amidst this rigid but ancient Hindu social structure. 

It may surprise us in the west that the city of Seattle in Washington State was the first city in the USA to outlaw caste discrimination followed by Fresno in California.  

But is this just a moral battle against an enemy that doesn’t really exist and a lame excuse to protest away with ‘Dalit Lives Matter?’ Or is there a tiny surreptitious fire carefully kindling away underneath the blinding smoke that mustn’t go unnoticed?  After all, we are in the west…right? Of course we believe in equality…right?  

The Swaminarayan Movement, America’s largest and most influential Hindu tradition saw the FBI raid it's temple compound in Robbinsville, New Jersey in 2021 for illegally importing Indians from India and illegally paying them below the national wage as well as confining them to the temple compound. The FBI raid rescued 200 workers who were largely from Dalit or Tribal castes.  

When I was training in India to be a Hindu monk I remember recognising the harsh reality of the caste system in one single moment. One day, after I had finished a conversation with a friend in the temple compound I turned to head back to my room when I saw a young boy waving to me far away from the temple gates. I waved back and gestured to him to come in and talk but he stayed rooted to the spot. A little confused, I walked over and asked, “why don’t you come inside the compound?”  

“I can’t.” He said,  

“Why?” 

“I’m  a Dalit…I can’t even touch you!”  

Thinking back over that mind numbing moment I can’t help imagine how hard it must have been for the woman in the Bible with the issue of blood who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment within the rigid culture of the time. The difference I guess is that Jesus turned to the broken hearted  woman and healed her and then called her ‘daughter’ and defined her real identity as a result.  

If the Dalit boy on the other hand came into the temple compound that day the security guards would have typically hit him with a long stick to drive him out of the temple gates. If he had touched me in the meantime I would have had to immediately go for a bath with all my clothes on and ensure that I didn’t touch any other human being or even a book or a pot on the way! 

PM Modi’s comment has a pernicious and curious undertone. If Dharma is first then one is obliged to follow the caste system diligently. 

Bhimrao. R Ambedkar was a brilliant economist and lawyer who studied at the London School of Economics. When his genius mind was called upon to draft the new constitution for independent India he was all too aware of how Hinduism was not so compatible with democracy. The idea of equality and dignity was evidently embedded into western institutions to his mind and Ambedkar knew very well that these ideas were founded on Judeo Christian principles, primarily, that all are created in the image of God. In other words, equal. Being a Dalit himself, Bhimrao knew the pitfalls of Hinduism’s caste system and the anarchical society it would create if the institutions left behind by the British were replaced with caste based ideas. As a result he crafted a constitution based upon Christian principles ensuring that all castes were allowed the opportunities and privileges from the state and its institutions by law. Sadly, although the state provided those privileges and protections by law in 1952 when the constitution came into effect, the society in India at large until this day does not. India exports it to the west as well.  

When the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his speech on National Human Rights Day in India a few years ago he emphasised to the nation that Dharma needs to be held first before Human Rights… if Dharma is pursued, he insisted, Human Rights would follow. Dharma simply put, is to pursue one’s duty and righteousness as according to Hindu tradition.  

At a quick glance here one is reminded of what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said during his Harvard Commencement Speech in 1978. He told his audience that it was time that the west upheld human obligation more than human rights. He had a valid point to state in a significantly individualistic culture which still prevails in the west but PM Modi’s comment has a pernicious and curious undertone. If Dharma is first then one is obliged to follow the caste system diligently.  

 

It has taken an incredibly long time to carve away at the negatives of the caste system in India but it is nowhere near the end. 

Krishna who is the most widely revered incarnation of God in the Hindu world told his disciple Arjuna to fight and kill his cousins and teachers on the battlefield of Kurukshetra as it was his Dharma to do so. As a Kshatriya warrior caste Arjuna was not meant to meditate in the forest but fight and kill, as is laid out quite clearly in the beginning chapter of the Bhagvad Gita scripture.  

Although the Gita scripture is quite a complex context to unravel here, in today’s India and in large parts of the west placing Human Rights behind Dharma can be quite dangerous. It somewhat validates the violence towards those of other faiths and endorses a dislike to those of a lower caste.  

The need for  individual freedom from caste based social structures in India was introduced to the British Parliament by William Wilberforce and Charles Grant in 1793. Interestingly, it was the same year that the cobbler-turned missionary William Carey snuck into India against the rules of the British East India Company. The company knew that if missionaries entered the country they would battle against the unfair social order and upset the high caste Brahmins.  And that would hinder their lucrative trade.  

Wilberforce and Grant along with other devout Christians fought in Parliament for 20 years until in 1813 a law was passed to allow missionaries passage into India. These men and women of God began to transform the subcontinent and provide education and health care for all castes. Teaching and training the Indian mind that God created male and female first (in his image) and they then created a social order as per God’s guidance whilst  cautiously deconstructing the idea of God creating a social order first and male and female after. 

It has taken an incredibly long time to carve away at the negatives of the caste system in India but it is nowhere near the end.  

Sadly, the caste hierarchy has infiltrated parts of the Christian faith in India too. Dalit Christians who are made in the image of God cannot enter certain churches.

What fascinates me however, is when a Dalit leaves India, in most cases, a lot of India leaves them! They are quite successful. In a society like India one is made to believe (in large part by the communities) that past life karma has destined the individual to be a Dalit and so one must continue to clean the gutters and carry away dead dogs. But when a Dalit enters into a land like the USA or  the UK where notions of equality and freedom are based upon Christian values the thinking of that individual changes drastically. A Dalit engineer filing a case against his seniors is inconceivable in large parts of the Indian community in India. 

But the issue of caste is not the domain of Hinduism alone. Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar is very much entrenched in a caste based order which is quite an irony as abuse of this social order was one of the main reasons Gautam Buddha established the faith.  

Sadly, the caste hierarchy has infiltrated parts of the Christian faith in India too. Dalit Christians who are made in the image of God cannot enter certain churches and where they can in some parts they are not allowed to sit in the pews but on the floor, at the back.  

Author E.M Forster lovingly did say that India is both a mystery and a muddle.  

The late Christian and author John Stott wrote in his book The Cross that Jesus was facing the most excruciating pain in the garden of Gethsemane not because of the cross and its horrific nails but because Christ was about to be touched by sin. God readily touches us even though we are untouchable.  

The relentless work by William Carey, Wilberforce, Grant and other Indian reformers began to change the Indian mindset primarily by introducing the notion of love and freedom at every level of Indian society. Do we have the will to continue respectfully that fight?  

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.