Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Friday, 12 June 2009 16:54 UK

Bigotry alive for Christian Dalits

By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Eraiyur

Main church, Lady of the Rosary Parish, Eraiyur, southern India
The village came up around the parish church, Lady of the Rosary Parish

Centuries ago, as their forefathers faced social and economic deprivation, many low-caste Hindus embraced Christianity.

But in one corner of southern India, their hopes for equality remain unfulfilled hundreds of years on. Called "pariahs", hundreds of Dalit Christians continue to face discrimination - not from Hindus but fellow Christians.

More than 200km (124 miles) from Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is the village of Eraiyur.

Home to about 3,000 Dalit Christians, mostly farm labourers and migrant workers, the area witnessed violence last year when Dalits demanded equal treatment.

The village is dominated by Vanniyar Christians numbering 15,000, who own most of the land and businesses.

They imposed restrictions on Dalits even though they had also converted to Christianity.

Restricted life

A 17th Century church building, Lady of the Rosary Parish, stands tall above the Eraiyur settlement. The village came up around the parish church, with Vanniyar houses closest to it. The Dalits were forced to build their small huts on the fringe of the village.

It did not take long for the divisions within the Hindu social system to be reflected among the new Christians.

The dominant Vanniyars created rules which restricted the movement of the Dalits.

Peraiyamakar, farm labourer
We were told not to touch any upper caste person, not to get too close to them, not to talk to them
Mrs Peraiyamakar

When they visited the parish church they were not allowed to walk on the main street leading to the building. Instead they had to use a side street that led to the church gate.

When Dalits died they were not allowed to be buried in the cemetery. Their burial ground is beyond the village and can only be accessed through a broken path.

In addition, the funeral cart parked inside the church building can be used only by Vanniyars.

"We were told not to touch any upper caste person, not to get too close to them, not to talk to them," says Mrs Peraiyamaka, 60, a farm labourer who has been visiting the parish church since childhood.

"It is no different now."

Mr Thomas, a 60-year-old labourer says there is also a fear of violence as young Dalits refuse to be submitted to such humiliation.

He says this fear prompted the Dalits to build an alternative church.

A single-room, white-washed brick structure with an iron grill for the entrance is set in a small open ground.

Called Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Dalit church has a coloured icon of Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus in her arms. She is flanked by plastic flowers and incense sticks burn on the sides.

The Dalits' demands of recognition for their church were rejected by local Catholic priests on the ground that a village can have only one parish church.

There is no big change after we came to Christianity. We have very good Christian names, we read Bible and got to Church instead of temples.
Mr Mathew, Dalit activist

Mr Mathew is a Dalit activist who graduated from Madras University.

Having faced prejudice as a schoolboy, he has now decided to fight for the rights of Dalits.

His efforts to seek justice have created tension in his village, forcing him to move to elsewhere.

He is angry that although the constitution has banned "untouchability" it continues to be practised in different ways.

"My family may get some minimum help or guidance from Christianity. That's all. There is no big change after we came to Christianity," says Mr Mathew.

Vanniyars disgruntled

Dalit church
Dalits are demanding that their church be recognised

As we walked out of the Dalit quarters towards the well laid-out area where Vanniyar Christians live under the shadow of the whitewashed parish church, we were greeted by a few angry women.

They did not want us to take pictures and asked us to leave.

A few angry residents of Vanniyar quarters gathered around us. They agreed to answer our questions. Emily, 25, was eager to give their version of the story.

"We have allowed them to use the road. They are creating trouble," she says.

We asked her how in a free country one group could dictate to others on the use of a public road.

"I don't know. It's been like this… but we have now allowed them," Emily replied.

Similar responses came from other Vanniyars we spoke to.

Mr Arukadas, a retired government teacher lives next to the parish church and he shared his unhappiness with the Dalit Christians.

Asked about using a common funeral van and a graveyard where all Christians irrespective of their past Hindu caste identity can be buried, he retorted: "It will take a long time for a common graveyard."

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