Fairmont man helping India's 'untouchables'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last year, in the Sitapur district of the Uttar Pradesh state of India, five men burned a girl alive after she resisted rape, New Delhi Television reported.
The girl, a "Dalit," or member of the "untouchable" class, was at home getting ready for school when the men came in and tried to rape her. When she resisted, they poured kerosene on her and set her on fire, the Indian television station reported.
For India's Dalits, instances like these are far too common. Though legally, the caste system was abolished in 1950, India's untouchables are still discriminated against and suffer immense poverty.
Today, they make up about a quarter of India's 1.2 billion people. The majority of human trafficking victims come from the Dalit people, according to the Dalit Freedom Network, a non-government organization aimed at helping the untouchables.
Jyothi Raju Gaddapati, an Indian native who now resides in Fairmont, aims to help the Dalits -- specifically Christian Dalits -- by spreading the word in the United States about their plight.
When the Indian government abolished the caste system, it also guaranteed certain constitutional rights and benefits to the Dalit people, Gaddapati explained. Those benefits include free basic medical service, education, help with buying food and homes and special laws for protections.
But soon after the law change, it was amended so that Dalit people who wish to receive their rights must follow the Hindu religion, he said.
The law has been amended twice to allow Buddhists and Sikh Dalits their freedoms. So far, the same treatment has not been allowed to Christian and Muslim Dalits.
"Our pleas to the government of India is to add Christianity to the list so that Christians will have the same rights, like Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs," he said.
Without the provisions and constitutional rights, education is one of the things that are difficult to come by for Dalit Christians, he said.
"Just to give you an example, if you're an untouchable Hindu, you can go to college and finish your degree with $20 or so because you have the scholarship because you're an untouchable," Gaddapati said. "But if you're a Christian untouchable you have to pay around $800 for the same degree at the same college."
The Dalits have been particularly open to Christianity because of its message of love and acceptance and because of the many Christian missionaries that have worked there.
"[The missionaries] went straight into these untouchable villages and they sat with them, they drank with them, they touched them," he said. "And they said, 'You're created in the image of God.' Up until that point all they had heard was the curse of God."
In referencing untouchables, Hindu scriptures actually have said it would be better if these people "had never been born," Gaddapati said.
Even today, 80 percent of converts to Christianity come from the Dalit people, he said. Some outwardly choose Hinduism to get their rights, but inwardly they're Christians, he said.
"Today the Christianity percentage [in India] is around 2.5," he said. "But in reality there are more than that. What they're doing is they're just hiding their Christian identity. There are more underground Christians in India than in any other country in the world today. Because they're untouchables, they just register themselves as Hindus, even though they're Christians in their heart."
Gaddapati is a spokesman for the All India Christian Federation, which was founded by his brother, Vijaya. The organization seeks to empower Dalits and other Indian minorities, regardless of religious affiliation.
He has been meeting with U.S. government officials and recently members of the United Nations, in the hopes that U.S. support will go a long way toward making India change the law.
Still, he knows that won't be easy. The government probably does not want to ruin its relationship with India, he said.
"If they really want human rights, if they really want freedom and all that, [the United States] will speak out and stand up," Gaddapati said. "But this is such a sensitive issue that this could jeopardize the relationship with the country itself."
Reach Lori Kersey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1240.