Caste-Aways: Hinduism and Social Discrimination
Hindus have historically separated the eternal and spiritual from the temporal and social, and so there is another category of ancient texts that deal with social, civil, and criminal law codes. Hindu tradition holds them to be bound by time, space, and circumstance. While it is unclear whether any of these texts were actually adopted as law codes for broad swathes of early Indian society, several problematic references to a hierarchical, birth-based caste system can be found in them.
We have already seen that the mobility of the original caste system was lost over time. The reason for intense criticism directed by many critics at brahmins (as interpreters of Hindu texts and advisors to the king) in the context of the caste system lies in their inability to prevent the ossification of caste into a birth-based feature as well as in their failure to oppose and eliminate untouchability, which has no basis in Hindu texts. But all of Hindu society must share the blame because actual enforcement of the caste system remained the purview of the dominant local caste and the king.
In any case, the real question here is why caste continued to survive not so much in the millennia past but over the last 200 years or so as science and democracy re-ordered society everywhere. The answer is that caste has not survived in its older form but has enormously changed. First, that caste is a social force is illustrated by the fact that it is practiced by people of all religions living in South Asia, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. Second, 750 years of Islamic rule and especially 200 years of British colonial rule profoundly altered the social structure by freezing and institutionalizing caste identity, altering socio-economic equations in India and contributing to the complexity and persistence of caste. And finally, the persistence of caste in modern India has much to do with politics and economic exploitation of the lowest castes.
The HAF report accuses Christian missionaries of exploiting and perpetuating caste. Can you explain the problem, and what, exactly, you're asking Christian organizations to do?
The movement to help the erstwhile "untouchables" has been joined in the last few decades by many Christian organizations, with financing from Western nations. HAF commends those that are solely providing material assistance to the needy, but finds unethical, fraudulent, and morally reprehensible the motives of those that provide humanitarian aid as a means to the end of religious conversion. While HAF insists that addressing caste-based discrimination is the urgent collective responsibility of Hindus and the Indian Government, it is in no way meant to condone Christian missionaries who falsely claim that such discrimination is inseparable from Hinduism and propound that argument as a pretext to "harvesting souls." Tellingly, despite conversions to Christianity, "untouchables" continue to suffer discrimination at the hands of "forward" caste Christians. In remote areas, concerted conversion efforts have led to inter-religious strife because such efforts are usually accompanied by the open denigration of Hinduism and its religious practices.
Missionaries have also supported attempts to pass resolutions and legislation on caste-based discrimination in international forums, including the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. These efforts should be firmly rejected as they are often lobbied for by the same organizations that seek to carry out aggressive conversion campaigns. These efforts are also misguided as they equate caste-based discrimination with South Africa's racial apartheid. Not only have modern genetic studies shown conclusively that caste is not the same as race, but caste-based discrimination is certainly not the policy of the GoI as racial discrimination was in apartheid South Africa. Indeed, the GoI, an avowedly secular institution comprised predominantly of Hindus, has instituted one of the most extensive and far-reaching systems of affirmative action quotas anywhere in the world. Interference by any external agency in the internal affairs of the sovereign state of India, a vibrant democracy, is unacceptable and unwarranted.