Jesudas M Athyal

New Challenges for Dalit Theology

Passion of the Christ of the Indian Road
From Permeation to Protest:
The Lost Tribes of Andaman
Conversion Debate in India
Metropolitan Chrysostom's Message
Ethical and Economic Challenges for Education in a Globalized Era
Identity And Mission: Towards A New Ecclesiology
Relevant Patterns Of Christian Witness In Pluralsitic Societies: An Indian Perspective
Religion, Marxism & Humanism In Dialogue
Gospel And Cultures: A Subaltern reading of the history of Christian Mission in India
Come Holy Spirit, Diagnose, Heal And Reconcile: Lingering Questions from Athens
Gospel and Cultures: An Indian Perspective
New Challenges for Dalit Theology
Diaconal Ministry of the Church
Public Mission of the Church
Witnessing Christ in a Pluralistic Society
The Return of the Sacred
Contact Me

The Changing Face of the Indian Society…

And the New Challenges for Dalit Theology


(Presented at the International Consultation on, ‘Dalit Theology and A Theology of the Oppressed’ held at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai,           

November 13-15, 2004)


Dalit Theology has come a long way since April 1981 when Arvind P. Nirmal delivered his Valedictory Address at the Carey Society of the United Theological College, Bangalore on the topic: “Towards a Sudra Theology.” A series of attempts and initiatives began in the early eighties to systematically articulate Christian faith in the context of the newly emerging Dalit aspiration for liberation. Apart from Nirmal, James Massey, M.E. Prabhakar, M. Azariah, K. Wilson, V. Devasahayam and F.J. Balasundaram are some of the prominent people who figure in this theological movement. Considering that theology was perceived by the marginalized people as serving the interests of the elite sections of the society, and in the process sidelining the faith of the ordinary people, Dalit theology manifested itself as a counter-theology movement.


During the last two decades, the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College has played a key role in the promotion and interpretation of Dalit Theology. While paying tribute to Arvind Nirmal, the first Head of the Dalit Theology Department at Gurukul, Russell Chandran remembers that it was during his period at Gurukul that Nirmal contributed most of his creative writings which included several publications on Dalit Theology.[1] The historic role played by Gurukul has been recognised globally. Konrad Raiser, as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, stated:


Gurukul Theological Seminary has made a name for itself in opening up new avenues for theological reflection and action. Inspired by the leadership of Dr. K. Rajaratnam, it has  – as one of the first institutions of theological research and education in Asia – opened up courses for women’s studies, for communication and ecology, in addition to pursuing social analysis and human development from a theological perspective. Most of all, Gurukul, already in 1987, established the Department of Dalit Theology which was the first of its kind and has since then contributed significantly to Christian theological reflection on the Dalit struggle for identity and liberation.[2]



The rich contributions of Dalit Theology during the last two decades to theologising in India have been significant. There has been a growing sensitivity in the theological world on understanding theology from the people’s perspective. Where do we go from here? This paper argues that while Dalit Theology over the last quarter century has provided a virtual paradigm shift in theologising in India, today we can go ahead only by grappling meaningfully with the rapid changes taking place around us and struggling with the need to provide a theological articulation of the challenges they throw to the oppressed communities everywhere, more specifically to the Dalits. What are the challenges around us? The devastating effects of modernisation have left crucial questions for the oppressed and marginalized communities the world over. In India, the forces of communalism and fundamentalism have made serious inroads into the Dalit movement as well. The situation calls for an urgent and radical review of our paradigms of theologising today. And the historic role played by Gurukul in pioneering studies on subaltern topics puts on the institution the task of re-interpreting the challenges in the current period from a contextually relevant theological perspective.


This paper is in four parts. The first part, the theological - Biblical basis of the oppressed and marginalized is outlined within a historical sketch of the last two decades of Dalit Theology. In the second, some of the factors responsible for a paradigm shift in theology are discussed. In the third part, a reference is made to some voices from within, that critically look at the course of Dalit theological movement in relation to direction and focus. In the last section, a few areas are mentioned as the tasks before Dalit Theology today.


This paper is aimed at focussing attention on some of the challenges faced by us today. The discussions at Gurukul during the last two decades, both within the Dalit Theology Department as well as the wider discussions in the College for “a bold theological vision”, are specially reviewed here. It is only in the context of such an ongoing discussion that we come to terms with relevant theologising in India today.




Historical sketch


Dalits who constitute almost 20% of the Indian population (over 200 million), were considered untouchables as a result of the Hindu understanding of "ritual pollution and purity." James Massey captures the wide usage of the term Dalit as follows:


Dalit is thus not a mere descriptive name or title, but an expression of hope for the recovery of their past identity. The struggle of these "outcastes" has given the term dalit a positive meaning. The very realisation of themselves as Dalit, the very acceptance of the state of "dalitness," is the first step on the way towards their transformation into full and liberated human beings.[3]


The term ‘dalit’ thus does not mean the poor or the outcast, it really denotes the state to which a certain section of the people have been reduced through religion and culture and  who now are forced to continue to live in that predicament. They are outcast and poor, because they, according to the architects of the system, are not fit to be included in the fourfold graded caste structure of the traditional Hindu society. On the basis of this status, they were made to bear extreme kinds of disabilities in the form of oppression for centuries, which made them almost lose their humanness and finally they reached the state of being a 'no- people'.[4]


History, and a critical analysis of history, are fundamental to the Dalit theological task. History in this sense is not abstract or illusionary as Christian classical theology or Hindu metaphysical philosophy are. History is fundamental in the sense that realization of Dalits as the "subjects" of history is essential towards recovery and recapture of their lost dignity.


At the outset itself, it should be noted that the emergence of Dalit Christian Theology in India is intrinsically linked to significant developments within the Dalit Movement in India. Historically, Dalit protest and resistance movements went through several phases. Bhakti movements within Hinduism between the 14th and 16th centuries symbolised the low castes’ aspiration for an egalitarian society and religion. These movements were eventually either suppressed or co-opted into the mainstream by the dominant castes or by British colonialism.[5] The first significant attempt at conscientising and mobilising the subaltern sections in the colonial period was the Satyashodak Samaj led by Jotirao Phule (1827-1890), the social reform leader of Maharashtra.


Closely linked to the history of the Dalit movement in India is a historical appraisal of the missionary movement in this country. Though St. Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus, is believed to have brought the gospel to India as early as the first century AD, Christianity spread to most part of the country due to the work of the missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant. Missionaries were quick to perceive that Indian society is caste based and that its peoples are hierarchically arranged. They had a practical interest in understanding caste and adjusting their mission strategy accordingly, because caste was perceived as a hindrance (and in some cases as an aid) for evangelism. Consequently, the missionaries adopted a mission strategy which was not only in favour of upper caste people but also biased against the low castes and Dalits because it was feared that their entry into the church would lead to ‘baptized heathenism’ and become a deterrent to upper caste people embracing Christian faith.[6]


History however is full of surprises! While the dominant caste sections, which were the primary targets of missionary work, did not enthusiastically welcome the gospel and become Christians in large numbers, Dalits joined the church in hundreds and thousands in mass movements. Devasahayam says:


It was the Dalits (not missionaries) who took the initiative in mass movements and the missionaries were forced to respond to this Dalit initiative. There was a dramatic increase in the membership of the church. Due to mass movements, the nature of Christian church was transformed from a tiny, urban, educated community of mixed social origins to a predominantly poor, rural, illiterate Dalit community. A permanent Dalit stamp was marked on the church and it is this church that has come to stay.[7]


History however has also shown that the “permanent Dalit stamp” on the Church remained largely as a social reality while the power structures in the Church continued to be controlled by the urban educated communities, often from the dominant castes. That also goes to show that though religious conversion often emerged from the urge to escape oppression and enslavement, the result is not always liberation and fuller humanity.[8]


Theological & Biblical basis


What is the rationale for Dalit Theology in the midst of “mainline” Indian Christian theology? Dalit Theology emerges from the conviction that traditional Indian Christian theology was largely based on the Brahminical tradition and consequently did not represent the life situations of the marginalized communities such as the Dalits. This non-representative character of traditional theology raised serious questions about the credibility of the Christian faith when the Indian Church itself became predominantly Dalit in membership. There were non-Brahminic traditions in Indian history such as the pre-Aryan civilizations and, from orthodox systems of philosophy, there were the Lokayata or the Charvaka traditions. Classical Indian Christian theology had ignored this dimension of the Indian heritage.[9] One of the tasks of Dalit Theology, therefore, is to develop an Indian theology that is truly indigenous in nature. “The task of indigenous theology is one of theological creative interpretation of Indian history and of discovering or capturing ‘our story of salvation’.”[10]


While rejecting traditional Indian Christian theology which was largely dependent on the Brahminical tradition, as well as the classical confessional theology which was based on formulated doctrines applicable supposedly for all times, Dalit theology represents a paradigm shift in our understanding of God-human relation. Finality, in this sense, is in the revelation of God and this revelation has a dynamic aspect to it that takes a fresh meaning in each new context. Arvind Nirmal therefore believed that theology always has a heuristic dimension, an enquiry of truth. He wrote, “Although theology is in pursuit of the Transcendent Truth, its conceptual and heuristic tools have to be derived from empiric and imminent realities. All theological discourse is based on models and metaphors drawn from this world.”[11] He further elaborated this point thus:


Whether it is the traditional Indian Christian theology or the more recent third-world theology, our theologians failed to see the struggle of Indian Dalits for liberation, as a subject matter appropriate for doing theology in India. What is amazing is the fact that Indian theologians ignore the reality of the Indian Church. While estimates vary, between 50 and 80 percent of all the Christians in India today are of scheduled caste origin. This is the most important commonality cutting across the various diversities of the Indian Church that would have provided an authentic liberation motif for Indian Christian theology. If our theologians failed to see this in the past, there is all the more reason for our waking up to this reality today and for applying ourselves seriously to the ‘task of doing theology.’ [12]



 Dalit Theology emerged out of the conviction that theology should be rooted in the context and, in the Indian situation, as a conscious reflection of the oppressive situation of the Dalits. In this sense, the Dalit theological movement was a corrective to the institutionalisation of inequality and inaccessibility within the Indian Church.          


One of the major sources when doing Dalit theology is the Dalit experience of suffering and pain. The narration of the story of their pathos and protest has a primary place in this. In their Biblical reflections, the Dalits identify the depth of their suffering with the Cross of Christ. The Cross is central to the Christian faith and practice. The Dalits realized that the traditional interpretations of the Cross need to be revisited in order that they could have a vision of the Cross that can both shatter our caste prejudices and strengthen our resolve to fight them. The Dalits affirm that they need to have a relook at the Cross, recognising Jesus as the representative of the oppressed collective.[13] Under Jesus’ overarching commitment to humanity, the Cross should be understood as a human choice.


Reflections on Dalit theological methods are often offered on the basis of Biblical texts. Devasahayam affirms the centrality of the Bible in the lives of the Dalits:


In most Dalit homes in the villages, the only valuable thing they have is the Bible, which they cherish and value greatly. They are familiar with the narrative sections of the Bible. It has been our experience, that given this devotion to the Bible, theologising through Bible studies will facilitate understanding and acceptance of even new ideas… The Bible, as the point which provides the Christian identity and continuity with our Christian tradition, needs to be brought back to the centre stage of theological reflection.[14]


For the Dalit theologians, God is clearly a Dalit God. The God, who reveals Godself, both through the prophets and through Jesus Christ, is a God of the Dalits. This God, who is revealed in the Old Testament and Jesus, who sided with the Dalits of the world, is the liberative paradigm for the doing of theology. It not only helps the Dalits to come to terms with their historical consciousness, which is submerged in pathos and protest, but it   also helps them to comprehend a God who in Jesus restores ‘humanness’ to the despised and the dispossessed.[15]


The Servant God - a God who identifies with the servant-hood of the Dalits - is central to the Biblical understanding of a Dalit God. A servant God, does not make others do servile work, but does work himself/herself. Servitude is innate in the God of the Dalits. The servant role that the Dalits played in India was indeed a participation in this "servant-God’s ministries." Nirmal thus says: "To speak of a Servant-God, therefore, is to recognise and identify him as a truly Dalit deity. For the Dalit theologians, Jesus is the ultimate Dalit, the servant God whom God reveals. The Gospel writers identified Jesus with the suffering servant Isaiah. Since service of others has been the privilege of the Dalit communities in India, the Christology of a suffering servant is very much relevant in Dalit Christology.”[16]




There were certain theological and historical developments, worldwide and in India, that shaped the course of Dalit Theology. This section seeks to identify some of them in the context of their continuing relevance for theologising in the subaltern context. 


1. The Church of the Poor


At the outset itself, there is the need to ask the right questions about the direction and priorities of the church. K. Rajaratnam asks some pertinent questions: “Where then is the church? Before we answer that question, we should ask who and what is the Church? What is the agenda of such churches? Indeed what is the place of the Gospel, of the Good News to the poor in that church or those churches? What is the understanding or theology of such churches? Are history and tradition our only strength? Do we listen to the Holy Spirit? Is there such a spiritual force in the life of the Church? What is the strength of such churches? What are the priorities required in response to the constantly changing challenges – macro challenges and micro challenges in the society – local, national and global?”[17] It is in the context of addressing such questions with regard to the church that we discern the contemporary role of the Church.


Historically speaking, it can be argued that the church in India is shaped greatly by a Euro-centric perspective that we imbibed from our colonial masters and Western missionaries. Our theologies, liturgies, hymns and church structures thus originated in contexts far removed from our own. Indigenous forms of ministry, mostly in the form of inculturation and contextualisation, were attempted in the past, by both Western as well as Indian theologians; however such attempts at indigenisation sought to shape the Indian church in tune with the hegemonic forms of Indian culture and tradition.


It was in the 1960s that a paradigm shift was attempted when Pope John XXIII, addressing the Second Vatican Council, spoke of the ‘Church of the poor.’ In his inaugural address to the Council, he said: “(The Council) ought to contribute to the diffusion of the social and communitarian content which is inherent in authentic Christianity in its entirety: only in this manner can the Church present herself as the Church of all peoples (universal) and above all, as the Church of the Poor.”[18] Liberation Theology, as the formulated faith of the Church of the Poor, has swept Latin America, and several parts of  the third world, since the 60s.


When Gustavo Gutierrez spoke of the ‘irruption of the poor’, he was speaking of the people becoming subjects of their own history; however, in a country like India  where Christianity has the public image of a rich institution located in a poor society, how can the church in effect become the church of the poor? While the majority of the members of the Indian church are poor Dalits, the church itself is a rich institution endowed with power and prestige.  What should be the mission of the church in the Indian context?


Deenabandhu Manchala, in his doctoral study, Re-visioning Ecclesia in the light of the Dalit Experience, argues that it is precisely the ‘dalitness’ of the Indian church that should give it a missiological direction. The Church should not only be a community that provides a sense of warmth in interpersonal relations, and a sense of belonging but also one that motivates constructive action, keeps public conscience and presents itself as an alternative community. The Dalit identity therefore should be the liberating identity for the Indian Church. As Deenabandhu puts it:


By opting for the Dalit identity… the Church has the opportunity to be an ally of the victims of injustice who through their struggles and yearning are trying to give birth to a new Indian society… However… such an option involves entering into the Dalit predicament – a presence with a despised social identity, and a vulnerable existence. It implies giving up all the privileges and powers, which the Indian Church has enjoyed through its institutional presence, and repatterning the Church’s internal life by removing from within all practices and structures of exclusion, domination and depravation. It points to a Church without institutional power, rigid organisational procedures and denominational identity but in the form of a community of the excluded and with the force of a movement.[19]



Dalit theology is an essential part of the ‘irruption of the poor’ within the Indian Church.  The Church of the Poor demands not merely an economic and political change, but also a perspectival one. Those who seek to make the Church fully Indian, fully relevant and fully missional, should be prepared to struggle against the forces that perpetuate the Christendom model of the Church. Those who join this struggle must be also ready to pay the ultimate price.  


2. The Relevance of Ambedkar for theologising


Following B. R. Ambedkar’s birth centenary in 1991, there was a renewed interest in the relevance of this champion of the downtrodden people for theologising in India. Gurukul itself organised a seminar in which it was affirmed that ‘any version of Christian Dalit Theology has to come to grips with his (Ambedkar’s) thinking and face its challenges and appropriate its insights.’[20] In a brilliant exposition of the significance of Ambedkar for theologising in India, P. Arockiadoss outlined, at the Gurukul Summer Institute in 1996, the relevance of Ambedkar’s words and deeds in doing Christian theology in India today.[21] It was affirmed that from Ambedkar we learn that it is imperative to adopt the Dalit perspective and reject the elite perspective in order to do theology in India. Ambedkar has given concrete as well as valid principles required to make a liberating religion which should be “earthy, historical and political to make the earth resemble the heaven in which we believe.” Through his mission and message, Ambedkar’s life project became one with God’s own historical project. God’s liberating actions became present in Ambedkar’s liberative praxis. Therefore, “though Ambedkar has not spoken about theology or engaged himself in glorious euologisation on God”, his life and mission are more than mere source materials for theologising; they in themselves have a deep theological significance.[22]


Arockiadoss’s affirmation that Ambedkar’s life project became “one with God’s own historical project” is likely to generate a serious debate in the theological circles on the validity of Ambedkar’s method for theologising. Samuel Thambusamy, while agreeing that Ambedkar has great significance for theologising in India - particularly theologising from a dalit perspective - feels that liberation alone does not warrant the task of theologising. Using the Tillichian criterion for theological system[23], he contests Arockiadoss’s position that Ambedkar’s life and message are more than source material for theologising in India. According to Thambusamy,


A serious limitation of this (Arockiadoss’s) view is that it is tilted towards speaking to the ‘context’ and does not relate it to the Gospel ‘message’. It is true that Ambedkar’s  theoanthropic praxis cannot be ignored, and his concerns and agenda are valid for the theological task in India. But, this needs to be unified with the ‘eternal truth’ of the gospel in order to balance the two poles. Fr. Arockiadoss’s contention seems untenable if we apply Tillich’s criteria for a theological system.[24]


Whether as source material for theologising or as the base for a new theological methodology itself, it is undisputed that Ambedkar cannot be ignored in the faith-reflection of Indian Christians.


3. Religious Conversion: A Dalit Perspective


A discussion of Ambedkar’s relevance would invariably include the question of religious conversion as a tool for liberation of the Dalits. In Modern India, religious conversion has been a weapon of the oppressed communities. Even before Ambedkar came on the scene, at mass conversion programmes, Dalits in large numbers joined Christianity. Ambedkar’s life-long study of the inseparable link between Brahminical Hinduism and casteism led him to make the famous statement: “Even though I was born as a Hindu I will not die as a Hindu.” And his last political act was the embracing of Neo-Buddhism along with six hundred and fifty thousand Dalits in 1956, just weeks before he passed away. Conversion continues to be an attractive option for the oppressed sections of India.[25]


What, however, is the continuing relevance of conversion, especially in the present Indian context in which religious fundamentalism and Communalism, with their professed hostility towards conversion to the minority communities, are playing a centre-stage role in public life? In a significant debate between Swami Agnivesh and M. M. Thomas on the question of inter-religious conversion in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, V. Devasahayam forcefully argued for a “Dalit perspective on Conversion.”[26] According to Devasahayam, the whole discussion on conversion, or the attempt to understand conversion, has been taking place from the perspective of the elite or the so-called upper caste, who were trying to dominate, rather than see it from the perspective of the subjects of conversion. “For the Dalits, conversion was not child’s play as Ambedkar would say, but it is concerned with how to make humans, how to make life, purposeful. It was a search for human dignity, and self-affirmation. It meant a new religion which also meant a new community and a new identity for the Dalits.”[27]


Not only on the question of conversion, but also on baptism, the visible sign of the new identity of the converts, the Dalit perspective is different from the ecclesiastical as well as theological thinking. The church’s mainline doctrine of the indispensbiblity of baptism has been questioned in modern times by nationalist and ecuemical theologians. M. M. Thomas, in his article, ‘The Church – the Fellowship of the Baptised and the Unbaptised?’[28] states that in India baptism often amounts to the cutting off of one’s ties with one community and the embracing of another community, a fact which has kept several Hindus who have accepted Christ as Lord and Saviour from being baptised. In view of the ambiguity of the meaning of baptism in the Indian inter-religious and political context and in reference to the positions taken by several leading theologians[29], Thomas states that the question of giving to the unbaptised Christ-bhaktas in other religious communities, a sense of full belonging to the spiritual fellowship of the Church including participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, needs exploration.[30]


 Dalit theologians too agree with others that a society divided on narrow communal and sectarian lines, and Christianity, cannot go together, but they prefer to describe the Indian society as primarily ‘casteist.’ The question therefore is whether we can meaningfully talk of participating in the castiest society which is anti-Christian. “The sin of the church is not that it has isolated itself from the social and cultural community but more precisely that it has failed to isolate itself to come out of this cultural and social community and it has failed to evolve a new social order.”[31] Ram Manohar Lohia and others have pointed out that the struggle against caste and patriarchal structures should go alongside the efforts to build up tolerance towards Muslims and other minorities. In other words, challenging the demonic forces of caste is essential for the protection of the secular fabric of the Indian society as well.




It is undisputed that over the past two decades Dalit Theology has emerged perhaps as systematically the most developed form of subaltern theologies in India. Dalit Theology has enriched substantially a contextual understanding of Indian Christian theology. Questions however remain as to the direction Dalit Theology should take, especially in the context of religious fundamentalism and communalism in India, a force that has made deep inroads into all sections of the society including the Dalits. What is the meaning of Dalit Theology in India today? Is it an Indian version of liberation theology? A growing interest in Dalit theology, within India as well as outside in recent years, has raised a number of related issues. The question is often being asked: Is not Christian theology common for all Christians irrespective of caste, colour, and the different historical contexts in which Christians find themselves? Are we not in danger of creating divisions and encouraging polarizations, thereby endangering Christian unity by speaking about Dalit theology? In the context of Dalits giving shape to Dalit Theology, would we encourage Non- Dalits to develop a Non-Dalit theology?[32]


Questions about the future and continuing relevance are also being raised. The point has been made that over the last two decades of Dalit Theology, the marginalized communities have gained critical space to realize their virtual absence from that which was being projected in the name of Indian theology. This counter-theology has also given the dominated communities creative space to inquire into what their religious resources are which would represent their subjectivity; expressions of their own particular theological collective experience. There is therefore a justification now for a shift from the dialectical method that has characterised Indian liberation thinking, primarily through the emergence of Dalit Theology, to a more dialogical theological approach. This shift is essential for movement forward, as ‘the dialectical method adopted by Dalit theology had its roots in a quasi-Marxian western philosophical orientation.’[33]


It is of course debatable whether the marginalized sections of the society have gained the critical space to participate fully in the life of the society and the church or even whether the dominant communities have been given the creative space to contribute meaningfully to this process. These assumptions need to be probed into further. The criticism about the Marxism – Liberation Theology – Dalit Theology relationship has however been raised by others too. Samuel Jayakumar argues that the Dalit consciousness that has emerged from the articulation of Dalit liberation theologians is not primarily the consciousness of Indian people who are poor and oppressed. “It is a construct consisting of components from ideologies such as Black theologies, Ambedkarism, Marxism and liberation theology, rather than drawing from the historical experiences of the poor and the oppressed Dalit Christians.”[34] Jayakumar also seeks to “analyse the missionary contribution to the formation of Dalit consciousness and uplift of Dalit Christian communities, and then to critique Dalit liberation theology in the light of historical evidence.”[35]


These criticisms raise a number of issues that necessitate continued discussion within the Dalit Theology movement as well as at the larger theological – ideological levels. Two issues that emerge here, however, need to be probed into a little further at this juncture: 1. What has been the response of Indian Marxists to issues such as caste, patriarchy and liberation theology? 2. What has been the approach of Dalit Theologians to Marxism and liberation theology?


1. The ideological level at which the Marxists interact with the Christians. Kerala is perhaps the only place in India where the Marxists and the Christians share a common social platform. What has been the relation between the two.


Till the first half of the twentieth century, it can safely be argued that it was an antagonistic relationship that they had, with the church and Marxism playing a confrontationalist role with regard to each other’s beliefs and values. Since the 1960s, however, a vocal section of the church (led by the Catholics) were attracted to Liberation Theology and starting using Marxian tools to analyse oppressive structures such as caste, patriarchy and capitalist growth. There were sections within the Left that were sympathetic to the efforts of liberation theologians and others to raise issues of caste and patriarchy; there was also some amount of dialogue in the 1980s between the ‘Neo-Marxists’ and the Liberal-Liberation theologians on identifying a common ground for action and reflection. However, the official stream of the Party was wary of admitting any factors other than ‘class contradictions’, as the basis for social analysis.  The official position of the Party was, and continues to be, that with the resolution of class contradiction, the other ‘contradictions’ will ‘wither away.’ Therefore, it is not necessary to specifically focus on these issues.


There were a few discussions, in the 1980s, between the Marxists and the Christians in Kerala, but they could not be sustained. The unofficial nature of the dialogues and the dominant sentiment within both the camps being suspicion and hostility to each other, however, made any sustainable relationship rather difficult. The present ideological tension within the Kerala unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), between the “dogmatic Marxists” and the “neo-Marxists”, is indicative of the difficulties that will exist  in any viable Christian – Marxist relations in the future.


2. The criticism that the ideological moorings of Dalit Theology are Marxian stem perhaps from the rather blurred lines that divide Dalit Theology, Liberation Theology and Marxism. In the sense that both Dalit Theology and Liberation Theology represent the spiritual quest of the oppressed and the marginalized sections of the society for their fuller humanity and liberation, they share several common aspects of faith and ideology. It can further be argued that Marxism, as the ideological framework for the struggles of the oppressed in an exploitative world, provides valuable tools for the social analysis of such subaltern theologies. The pioneers of Dalit Theology however, while acknowledging these parallels, affirmed that the path of Dalit Theology is different from both Liberation theology and Marxism. A statement Arvind Nirmal made in A Reader in Dalit Theology, the first publication of the Dalit Theology Department of Gurukul, needs to be repeated at this stage, with due apologies for this rather long quote:


It was in the seventies that Indian theologians began to take the questions of socio-economic justice more seriously. The Indian theological scene thus changed considerably and there emerged what is known as ‘Third world theology’. The advocates of the Third World Theology were held together by their allegiance to ‘Liberation Theology’. It was yet another imported theology. Its chief attraction was the liberation motif, which seemed entirely relevant in the Indian situation, where the majority of the Indian people face the problem of poverty. But somehow I felt that liberation motifs in India were of a different nature, the Indian situation was different and that we had to search for liberation motifs that were authentically Indian. The Latin American Liberation Theology in its early stages at least used Marxist analysis of socio-economic realities – the haves and the have-nots. The socio-economic realities in India however are of a different nature and the traditional doctrinaire Marxist analysis of these realities is inadequate in India. It neglects the caste factor  which adds to the complexity of Indian socio-economic realities.[36]


The position of Nirmal has been echoed by several other leading Dalit Theologians of India. The Latin American Liberation Theology, according to Franklyn J. Balasundaram, is ‘an imported theology. Marxian tools of analysis are used to make this theology and the liberation that it seeks, primarily, economic liberation. In other words, its traditional doctrinaire Marxist analysis is inadequate in the context of the socio-economic realities of India’[37] The efforts of the Dalit Theologians of India, over the past two decades, was to search for ‘liberation motifs that were authentically Indian.’ Apart from the caste factor, they also recognised that the multi-religious and multi-cultural context of India is vastly different from Latin America and therefore calls for a theological system that takes seriously the complexities of the Indian situation.  In the context of the shift taking place in Latin America from Liberation Theology to Pentecostalism and other charismatic movements, Richard Blise asks the pertinent question: “In Latin America, for example, many Roman Catholics have declared their solidarity for the poor for over forty years in order to bring about social change. But now the poor are declaring their solidarity with the renewal movements. Why?”[38] The ideological and theological insights of Liberation Theology have provided significant insights and methodology for the struggles of the oppressed communities of Latin America, India and elsewhere. Globally too, Liberation Theology has also played the crucial role of the networking of the people’s theologies and movements.


At the local levels, however, liberation movements should take seriously the complexities of each context and, in their struggles, depend heavily on the spiritual and cultural resources of the region. Abraham Ayrookhuziel was never tired of emphasising the need to undertake the study of Dalit religious heritage, both in its folk form and in its historical form, for the 200 million Dalit community in Indian to regain their religious status.[39] Parattai J. Theophilus Appavoo recently extended the scope of Dalit struggles to the need to explore relevant forms of technology as well.  Unlike the present day Material Developing Technology (“MDTech”) which ‘deskilled’ the people, he maintained that the indigenous communities in most part of the world, including the Dalits and the Sudras in India, went for Human Developing Technology (“HDTech”). The logic and rationale of MDTech is unsustainable whereas HDTech, while yet under-developed, can be developed for the benefit of oppressed groups such as Dalits.[40]


In response to Samuel Jayakumar’s criticisms that Dalit Theology does not reflect the consciousness of the poor and the oppressed in India but is a construct consisting of components from various ideologies and that the missionary contribution to the formation of Dalit consciousness and uplift of Dalit Christian communities should be taken more seriously, John Webster asks: “Is not discontinuity with the missionary era as important a historical reality as continuity? Is not a conflict model of both empirical churches and Indian society in general more realistic (especially for Dalits) than the equilibrium or organic model used by Jayakumar?”[41] The question remains; can one ignore the role of identity and power within the church and outside.




In conclusion, three areas that need further study, as possible future directions for the Dalit theological movement, will be discussed briefly. These are: A call to repentance on the part of the Church as well as the Dalit Christian communities, the continuing relevance (or irrelevance) of religious conversion in the present day and the need for our theological discourse to take seriously the changing social context of the Dalits. Several more issues can be added to this list and therefore, this part of the discussion is only an attempt to focus attention on some of the challenges facing us today. 


1. A Call to Repentance


The practice of exploitation and discrimination of the Dalits has been officially proclaimed as illegal in free India, but everyday we hear reports of atrocities directed at them, from several parts of the country. Fifty years of Independence and five hundred years of Christianity among the marginalized sections have not built up a just and inclusive community in this country.  Though the Indian Church is proud of its tradition and heritage, the Church has been preoccupied with its institutional image and is reluctant to make radical changes towards the Dalitisation of the Church even in a situation where the Dalits constitute the majority of the membership of the Church. In the words of M. E. Prabhakar,


The emergence of the Christian Dalit Movement and its commitment to fight against casteism within churches and society, and to promote along with the churches, the Christian Dalit Struggles for civil economic rights, are not fully recognised or appreciated by the Church. Indian Christianity has not yet accepted the emergence of Dalit Theology which can initiate a counter-culture within the Church.[42]


The primary task of the church in such a context is to admit its mistakes of the past, repent and resolve to side with truth and justice. In the face of continuing violence and oppression on the Dalits and the church’s reluctance to rise to its prophetic mission, the church is called upon to renew and radically redefine its mission.


There is another aspect to repentance – a self-critical appraisal of the course Dalit Theology has taken. Introspection is also part of reflection. While focussing on a faith-affirmation of the marginalized and the dispossessed, has Dalit Theology sidelined or marginalized certain areas? In this context, two areas that call for renewed attention can be mentioned briefly. Dalit women speak of the ‘twice-alientated’ or the ‘Dalits among the Dalits’ – the condition emerging from their ostracism from the general society because they are Dalits and their powerlessness within the Dalit community itself because they are women.  For them, the past was not only conditioned by the Hindu caste structure but also by the patriarchal system.[43] The women often bear the brunt of caste atrocities. If the course of Dalit Theology over the past two decades has not been sufficiently receptive to a womanist reading of the Dalit movement, there is room for introspection and repentance there.


Secondly, what is the message of Dalit Theology for the Dalit Christians? The question would sound rather preposterous, as the primary task of Dalit Theology is to provide hope and strength to the victims of centuries of oppression and exploitation. It is however necessary to ask if there is room for self-criticism and correction among the Dalit Christians too. Ambedkar, when he decided to leave Hinduism, considered Christianity too as a possible faith to embrace with his followers. A study of the Dalits who had embraced the Christian faith, however, led him to raise several harsh criticisms, especially about their “selfishness and self-centredness” and their general apathy towards the other outcasts. In Ambedkar’s own words: “They don’t care a snap of their finger what becomes of their former caste associates so long as they and their families, or they and the little group who have become Christians, get ahead. Indeed their chief concern with reference to their old caste associates is to hide the fact that they were in the same community. I don’t want to add to the number of such Christians.”[44] Harsh words indeed – and a reflection of not only the “selfishness and self-centredness” of the Dalit Christians alone but observations that raise basic questions on the relationship of the Church to the other Dalit communities. In the context of the sustained demand of Indian churches to include Dalit Christians too in the government’s category of reservation and the continued opposition of the non-Christian Dalit movements to such a move, the need to re-define our theological task as one of building bridges, cutting across the religious divide, among the oppressed communities, becomes imperative.


2. A Re-look at Conversion


The Dalits’ conversion to Christianity led to not only a numerical increase in the membership of the church, but to an inner transformation of the oppressed communities as well. Dalit mass movements have come to be seen as liberation movements in which the power of the dispossessed to challenge the Hindu social order was affirmed. Later Ambedkar used religious conversion as a means of social liberation from the caste system.[45]  As was pointed out earlier, the unfortunate part of conversion was that although Christianity is an egalitarian religion, the caste system found its way into it in India. Dalit Christians within the church were discriminated against and were denied powers within the ecclesiastical structure. Although Dalit Christians constituted approximately 70% of the Indian Christian population, they were marginalized and ignored until recently.


The Dalits who joined the Indian church in large numbers bitterly realized that the caste system is not only a reality within Hinduism but is practised in the church as well. In the context of this realization, there is the need to take a fresh look at the continuing relevance of the missionary strategy of conversion in India. Russell Chandran states that Arvind Nirmal had a radically relevant approach to conversion:


Nirmal’s theology does challenge us to abandon the traditional missionary policy and call upon people of all faiths to believe in Jesus Christ and become disciples of Jesus, telling them that when they believe in Christ they are not required to renounce their religious beliefs and practices unless they are contrary to the mind of Christ, such as idolatry, superstitions, caste discrimination, corrupt practices etc. Christ came to fulfil, not to destroy; to enrich, not to impoverish. We certainly have the responsibility of helping the people of other faiths to know Jesus Christ and become his disciples and to discern which practices are against Christ.[46]


The need to raise questions about the Indian churches’ – especially the evangelical movement’s – continuing focus on conversion raises several issues of importance. On the one hand, the messages presented at evangelistic campaigns and “crusades”, though often directed at the poor and the marginalized sections of the society, gloss over their socio-economic situations and instead present the gospel as a means to salvation – in effect, an escape from the miseries of this world. While the Christian message always has a transcendental dimension, that transcendence is integrally related to the process of humanisation in history and therefore, presenting salvation as a route to bypass the existential miseries of this life, is lop-sided missiology.


A related development is the efforts of some Hindutva revival/reform movements to try to absorb Dalits into a monolithic Hindu fundamentalist culture. Their systematic propaganda concentrates on the message that Dalits had been truly a part of the ‘Hindu’ religio-cultural structures. Several Hindu organizations are involved in re-conversion efforts to drive home this ideology. Although it is a clear historical distortion, Dalits are caught up in a dilemma whether to declare their solidarity with Hindus or with Dalits. In fact Dalits are caught between Hinduisation and Dalitisation.[47]


Can it therefore be argued that aggressive attempts at proselytisation in a pluralistic context like India often meets with a backlash? It would be simplistic to reduce all forms of religious fundamentalism and communalism in India to being the Hindu backlash of Christian missionary work. The growth of Hindu fundamentalism and Communalism in India in recent years is a matter that should be confronted as an onslaught on the secular character of the Indian society, but it also calls for an introspection within the churches as to whether the evangelistic patterns of some Christian groups have contributed to the present situation.


We need to evolve a new understanding of Christian witness. Drawing on the scriptural insights of love for the orphans, widows and strangers ((Deut. 10:17-19) because “ you were strangers” (Exodus 23: 9), K. C. Abraham points out that a stranger is the one whom we tend to ignore. “We need to discover Christianity as a religion of otherness; embracing the stranger who could be the marginal, economically also those of other faiths.  Narrow exclusivism is sin.  The best name for God is compassion.  This opens up a new way to understand our relationship with other faiths.  It is unfortunate that the issue of conversion has become a political issue in the narrow sense of politics.  The real issue is not conversion.  Every human being has the right to convert.  The real issue is our attitude to the other, the stranger in our midst.”[48]


3. New Challenges


One serious criticism often levelled against Dalit Theology is that it still operates largely within the traditional caste framework of India and consequently, does not take sufficiently seriously the rapid changes happening around one. There is no doubt that rural India is the heartland of casteism and the primary context of the dehumanisation that Dalits experience. This continues to be the situation and Dalit Theology has rightly been shaped around the caste atrocities in the rural areas. However, today there is also the need to take seriously the rapid changes affecting all sections of the society and especially the Dalits. The traditional social location of the Dalits was the religion-tradition governed social structure set primarily in rural India. The ‘outcast’ social and economic functions of the Dalits such as menial and “unclean” work, though considered as polluting, was essential for the society to function. Not only the ideology and theology of the oppressive structures but even subaltern currents like Dalit theology operate within this framework.


While the process of modernisation set in motion by the architects of independent India initiated the de-villagisation of India, it was only during the last two decades that rapid urbanisation has taken place in India. This has thrown enormous challenges before the subaltern movements of the country. The traditional paradigms of oppression and exploitation are breaking down, partly as a result of the socio-economic and political policies of modern India but more so because of the great exodus that has begun from the villages to the towns and cities.  According to U.N. Population studies, by 2030, two thirds of the Indians will be living in the urban areas.[49] Yet another factor is the process of liberalisation and privatisation initiated by the Indian government during the last two decades and the challenges they pose to the Dalits and other marginalized sections, both in urban and rural areas. Due to the new economic policy of liberalisation and privatisation, there has been a renewed increase of mass poverty. In the villages, the traditional agricultural patterns are being rapidly replaced by monoculture plantations, aqua culture and floriculture, production not for the consumption of the local community but for export. Land alienation, loss of jobs, rising prices and decreasing government funding for basic amenities in heath and education are all factors contributing to a rise of mass poverty once more.[50] While the new economic policies pose serious challenges for most sections of  the population, it is undoubtedly the Dalits who are most affected. It has been shown that most Dalits feel that they have much to lose by liberalisation. According to a study done recently in the Economic and Political Weekly, “states like Andhra Pradesh have experienced what is known as the ‘casteisation’ of liberalisation…”[51]



What are the implications of these rapidly changing developments for the Dalits and other subaltern communities? The location changes but the realities remain the same, with little variation. As the Dalits move from the rural to the urban areas, they are able to overcome, to a certain extent, the shackles that bound them in a seemingly immutable and eternally caste-based social structure. That is a welcome development. The new situation however gives rise to new challenges. The migrating Dalits adding to the number of the urban poor located in the slums and pavements of the metropolis, the polarisation of slum dwellers in major cities on caste-region-language lines, the lack of employment opportunities for Dalits due to their inadequate educational background and the resultant new forms of exploitation and exclusion, are all factors yet to be explored fully by  social scientists and theologians.


In the ultimate analysis, the task of Dalit Theology, in the rural or urban contexts, can be defined as the need to keep hope alive. Dwight Hopkins recently affirmed that the task of subaltern movements such as Black Theology and Dalit Theology is the need to heed the “Minority Report” (Numbers: 13: 25-33) – the little traditions that tell the dominant powers: “We beg to differ.” According to him, the fear of moving forward is real, but it is the courage, conviction and persistence of the “minorities” to follow through till the end that prods them forward.[52] That is the hope, faith and agenda of Dalit Theology – the conviction that “Another World is Possible.”


[1] J. Russell Chandran, Rev. A. P. Nirmal: A Tribute (NCCI Review, January 1997), p. 27

[2] Konrad Raiser, Liberation of the Oppressed: A Christian Perspective (Address at the International Consultation on Contemporary Reflection on Global Oppressed Communities), Gurukul Theological College, Chennai, India, 24 February 2003

[3] James Massey, Down Trodden: The Struggle of India’s Dalits for Identity, Solidarity and Liberation, Geneva: WCC, 1997, p. 3

[4] K. P. Kuruvilla, Dalit Theology: An Indian Christian Attempt to Give Voice to the Voiceless (Unpublished Paper)

[5] George Oommen, The Emerging Dalit Theology: A Historical Appraisal (Indian Church History Review, Vol. XXXIV, Number 1, June 2000), p. 19

[6] V. Devasahayam, Outside the Camp: Bible Studies in Dalit Perspective (Madras: Gurukul, 1992) p. 37

[7] Ibid., p. 38

[8] A critical appraisal of religious conversion is done in the concluding section of the paper.

[9] Chandran, op.cit., p. 30

[10] Arvind P. Nirmal, Heuristic Explorations (Madras: CLS, 1990), pp. 172-173

[11] Ibid., p. 7 (Emphasis as in the original)

[12] Arvind P. Nirmal, Toward a Christian Dalit Theology, R.S. Sugirtharajah (ed.), Frontiers in Asian Christian Theology: Emerging Trends. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1994, p 30

[13] Ibid., p. 54

[14] V. Devasahayam, Doing Dalit Theology in Biblical Key (Delhi: ISPCK/Gurukul, 1997), p. 4

[15] Emerging Dalit Theology, p. 20

[16] An Indian Christian Attempt…

[17] K. Rajaratnam, Sent Into the World! (Keynote Address delivered at the Assembly of the Kerala Council of Churches, Kottayam, 25 May 2004)

[18] Desmond de Sousa, What Happened to the Church of the Poor? (Unpublished Paper)

[19] Deenabandhu Manchala, Re-visioning Ecclesia in the light of the Dalit Experience (Unpublished doctoral thesis)

[20] Arvind P. Nirmal & V. Devasahayam (Ed.), Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: a Centenary Tribute (Madras: Gurukul, 1991), p. i

[21] Fr. Arockiadoss lists ten areas where Dr. Ambedkar’s life and message are relevant for theologising in India today: 1. Ambedkar’s Life Project is a Theological Project, 2. From Ambedkar we learn the Right Perspective for Theologising, 3.Ambedkar provides us with the Right Option for Theology, 4. He Provides a Paradigm for Identifying and Interpreting the Signs of the times, 5. Ambedkar helps us to Identify the Messianic People of India, 6. From Ambedkar we learn that the Dalits, and their Likes, are the Real Subjects of Theologising in India, 7. From him we also learn that the Language of Dalit Theology will be Angry and Conflictual, 8. Ambedkar Gives the Basic Norms for Critiquing Religions and Entering into Inter-Religious Dialogue, 9. Ambedkar Provides the Right Yardstick to Evaluate the Church in India and its Various Missionary Efforts, 10. He also supplies a Critique for Judging the Erstwhile Indian Theologies and Inculturations. (Refer: V. Devasahayam (Ed.), Frontiers of Dalit Theology (Delhi: ISPCK & Gurukul, 1997), pp. 290-313

[22] Ibid, p. 291

[23] “According to Paul Tillich, any theological system must satisfy two basic needs: the statement of the truth of the Christian message and the interpretation of this truth for every generation” (Source: Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p.3) Quoted: Samuel Thambusamy, The Significance of Ambedkar for Theologising in India (Unpublished Paper)


[24] Samuel Thambusamy, The Significance of Ambedkar for Theologising in India (Unpublished Paper)

[25] The Hindu (October 15, 2004; Chennai Edition) reported that hundreds of Dalits from the southern States had, on October 14, 2004, embraced Buddhism in the presence of monks from the Nagpur Monastery, in Perambalur district. “Renouncing” Hinduism and Hindu Gods were among the oaths administered at the ceremony, organised by the Dr. Ambedkar Youth Front and the International Buddhist Youth Organisation (IBYO).

[26] Broadly speaking, the debate was between the positions: “I personally refuse to be converted” (Swami Agnivesh), “I believe in conversion… there is a necessity for decommunalising conversion” (M. M. Thomas) and, “We need to have a new perspective, and a new viewpoint which should be the perspective of the oppressed Dalits and the backward class” (V. Devasahayam). For details see, J. John & Jesudas Athyal (ed.), Religion, State and Communalism: A Post-Ayodhya Reflection (Hong Kong: CCA, 1995), pp. 95-131

[27] Ibid., p. 110-111

[28] Prasanna Kumari (Ed.), Liberating Witness (Dr. K. Rajaratnam’s Platinum Jubilee

Commemoration Volume I, Published by Gurukul Theological College, Madras, 1995), pp. 8-16

[29] In this context, Dr. M. M. Thomas refers to several studies. Two of them are: 1. The NCCI Consultation in the 1960s on ‘Renewal in Mission’ where it was argued that “in the perspective of the Bible, conversion is turning from idols to serve a living and true God’ and not moving from one culture to another and from one community to another as it is understood in the communal sense in India today” and further that so long as baptism remains a transference of cultural and communal allegiance, “we cannot judge those who while confessing faith in Jesus are unwilling to be baptized” (Renewal in Mission, NCCI, p. 220).  2. the studies of the Gurukul College in this area – notably, the survey conducted in the city of Chennai where it was revealed that many persons in the city who had accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour had chosen to continue in their own religious cultural and caste communities without conversion to the Christian community. Refer also to the Gurukul publication, The Debate on Mission – Issues from the Indian context (Edited by Herbert E. Hoefer, 1979)

[30] Liberating Witness, pp. 13-14

[31] Religion, State & Communalism, p. 112

[32] An Indian Christian Attempt…

[33] Sathianathan Clarke, Theory of Attunment: An Indian Cross-Cultural Theology of the Cross (Unpublished Paper presented at the CTI-UTC Study Project on ‘Interrogating Mission’), UTC, Bangalore, January 16-19, 2003

[34] Samuel Jayakumar, Dalit Consciousness and Christian Conversion: Historical Resources for A Contemporary Debate (Oxford: Regnum International & Delhi: ISPCK, 1999), p. 46

[35] Ibid., p. xix

[36] Arvind P. Nirmal (Ed), A Reader in Dalit Theology (Madras: Gurukul) p. 56

[37] V. Devasahayam (Ed), Frontiers of Dalit Theology (Delhi: ISPCK/ Gurukul, 1997) p. 255

[38] Richard H. Blise, The New Missiology: A Call to Freedom (Paper presented at the Consultation on Contemporary Reflections on Global Oppressed Communities: A Multi-Faith Approach, Gurukul, Chennai, February 23-26, 2003)

[39] Gnana Robinson (Ed.), Religions of the Marginalised: Towards a Phenomenology and the Methodology of Study (UTC, Bangalore & ISPCK, Delhi, 1998), p.17

[40] Parattai J. Theophilus Appavoo, A Dalit’s Reflection on Technology (Address delivered at the Sixteenth Convocation of the Academy of Ecumenical Indian Theology and Church Administration, Chennai, 20 August 2004. Unpublished)

[41] John C. B. Webster, Book Review (Dalit Consciousness…, Dharma Deepika (January 2000), p. 76

[42] Arvind P. Nirmal & V. Devasahayam (Ed.), Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: a Centenary Tribute (Madras: Gurukul, 1991) p. 91


[43] Aruna Gnanadason in A Reader in Dalit Theology, p. 133

[44] T. S. Wilkinson & M. M. Thomas (Ed.), Ambedkar and the Neo-Buddhist Movement (Madras: CLS, 1972), pp. 60-61

[45] Outside the Camp, p. 41

[46] Chandran, op. cit., 33

[47] Emerging Dalit Theology

[48] Address delivered by Dr. K. C. Abraham at the Platinum Jubilee meeting of Gurukul, 25th November, 2002

[49] The Hindu (Chennai Edition), 9th November, 2004

[50] Gabriele Dietrich & Bas Wielenga, Towards Understanding Indian Society (Tiruvalla: Christava Sahitya Samithi, 1998) p. 113

[51] Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Affirmation without Reservation (Economic and Political Weekly, July 3, 2004),    p. 2951

[52] Sermon delivered by Prof. Dwight L. Hopkins (University of Chicago Divinity School) at the Reformation Sunday Worship Service, Gurukul, Chennai on 31st October, 2004.