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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
5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?