BATTERED AND BROKEN: Dalit Christians Cry for Dignity

Irudhaya Jothi Irudhaya Jothi
20 Jun 2022
Dalit Christians experience the same measure of discrimination, violence and exclusion as other Dalits.

The policy on Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church brought out by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) published in 2016 reads: “In the last five hundred years, the rise of the Christian communities in India has been mainly from those who are now recognized as Dalits. For instance, 70% of the rural-based Christians in Tamil Nadu have Dalit origins. The same is true of Karnataka and Andhra as well as in the central and northern states of India where the Christians are very thinly spread.”

The document advises the Dalit leaders in the following lines, “Shouting will not help. What the Dalit groups failed to provide was a programme of action.” The dilemma faced by the Dalit activists, in the face of defeat, is whether they should keep making loud sad noises or they should plunge into strategic action?

The Dalits are a wounded people, battered and broken and have had a break of freedom in embracing Christianity from the suffocating Hindu society. 

The Document accepts that the Dalits, though historically the daughters and sons of the soil, are today alienated from it and they are silenced and robbed of dignity and largely deprived of the basic necessities of life. They are seen and treated as children of a lesser God. However, there is a growing consciousness in the Church to restore the dignity of all and justice to the last and the least.

The document presents the painful realities that Dalit Christians are organically linked to the realities of Dalit Adivasis, minorities, women, children, and other marginalized and excluded communities. However, the experience of untouchability is unique to Dalits, resulting in deprivation. They experience discrimination and exclusion at all levels, from womb to tomb.

Dalit Christians experience the same measure of discrimination, violence and exclusion as other Dalits. But they cannot avail the protection of The Prevention of Atrocities Act. Under the law, they are not deemed to be Dalits.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India declares that Caste discrimination is a grave social sin and commits itself to earnestly carry out the following:

A. Untouchability practised in any form will not be tolerated within the Church. Intensive efforts will be made to abolish discriminatory and exclusionary practices in the Church including any existing within the sub-castes of Dalit Christians. To this end, a scientific survey will be initiated to study the prevailing practices (covert and overt) of untouchability and casteism in the Church at various levels.

B. The CBCI Commission for SC/BC is mandated to take forward the Policy to inspire, motivate and animate the entire Church in the country through the diocesan and regional structures and diocesan commissions.

C. Efforts will be made to appoint competent and enthusiastic Dalit priests as secretaries for the SC/ST/BC commissions at the regional and diocesan levels. A lay Dalit person will also be appointed as Joint Secretary.

D. A socio-economic caste census of Christians in India will be initiated by the CBCI, through the Office of SC/BC which would include data on religious men and women, priests and bishops.

E. Interactive portal/helpline for knowledge dissemination on possibilities, opportunities and resources for Dalits and for effective implementation and monitoring of planned programmes will be set up.

F. The CBCI Office for SC/BC will be helped to set up a few scholarships at the national level to promote Dalit Christians to study abroad.

G. Dedicated funds by Caritas India could be set up for the educational and economic empowerment of Dalit Christians and marginalized students.

H. Advocacy with decision-makers, following up on cases filed in the Supreme Court of India and facilitating the struggle to obtain equal rights for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims will be pursued in collaboration with faith-based and secular organizations.

I. Efforts for the financial stability of the CBCI Office for SC/BC should be undertaken for its effective functioning and for the implementation of this policy.

This 2016 CBCI document has not percolated to every level; the question arises if the document was taken seriously at all. 

According to National Dalit Christian Watch (NDCW), a national forum which monitors and works for Dalit dignity, Dalit Christians make up 14 to 19 million of the 24 million Christians in India. It is acknowledged that there is no clear data on the number as Government of India has not released the census data of religious groups. 

Dalits do not have access to decision-making in education, employment and profession which leads them into socio-economic backwardness and poverty. 

The Dalit Christians experience three-fold discrimination: By the State, by the Society at large, and within Christianity itself. Firstly, non-recognition of identity as “Scheduled Castes” by the Indian State; secondly, in the community they live they are still considered untouchables and lower castes; and thirdly, within the Church, where they are discriminated with regard to allotting special seats in educational institutions for students and job reservations. 

The practice of separate cemeteries for Dalits still exists in many Dioceses and Parishes in Tamil Nadu. Many instances of the composition of the Parish Council manifest hard-core caste feelings. There are allegations that the Dalit Christians are not included in the decision-making process of parishes, especially during the parochial feasts. 

There has been a demand for the inclusion of Dalit Christians in the Scheduled Caste category so that they can avail opportunities in government jobs and reservations at par with other Dalits practising Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution provides freedom of religion to its citizens. We can freely profess, practice, propagate any religion and manage religious affairs according to our choice. But the Scheduled Caste Order of 1950 discriminates against practising the freedom of religion and other rights and protection given by the Constitution. 

The Presidential order of 1950 Paragraph 3 states, “no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled caste” but later the Presential order was amended to include Sikhs in 1956 and Buddhists in 1990.  This order certainly goes against Article 25 of the Constitution. 

Over the centuries, a few depressed caste community members exercised their choice of freedom of religion and belief as guaranteed by the Indian Constitution primarily, to have dignity and experience equal treatment in their newfound belief system. For some, it was Islam, others Christianity or Buddhism. 

The Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission strongly recommended in 2007: “Para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) order 1950 – which originally restricted the scheduled caste to Hindus and later opened it to Sikhs and Buddhists, this still excluding from its purview the Muslims and Christians, Jains and Parsis, etc. should be wholly deleted by appropriate action so as to completely delink the scheduled caste status from religion and make the Scheduled Castes neutral like that of Scheduled Tribes”. 

The unending litigation in the court is hoped to have a positive verdict in the near future and the misery of the Dalit Christians would be reduced considerably and legally.

Dalit Christians have been attacked for changing their religion. There are several incidents which show that law and order machinery largely remained inactive in taking action against the culprits. The Hindutva groups attacked their houses and were involved in physical violence, as Dalit Christians struggled for their rights and entitlements in all spheres of life and tried opposing suppression and exclusion and all forms of violence against them.

There is an increase in violence against Dalit Christians by fundamentalist forces. The nature of violence includes murder, physical assault, damage to church properties, false conversion charges, harassment, disruption of worship, rape, and public humiliation. 

Recent Data by United Christian Forum (UCF) reveals increased cases over the years: 127 (2014), 142 (2015), 226 (2016), 248 (2017), 292 (2018) and 328 (2019). There had been 486 incidents of violence against Christians in 2021, up by 75% since 2020, with 4 states -- Uttar Pradesh (102), Chhattisgarh (90), Jharkhand (44) Madhya Pradesh (38) -- recording 274 incidents (56 per cent). In 2021, of 505 cases only 34 FIRs could be registered. The year 2022 (Jan-Feb) recorded 53 incidents.

The synodal process gives us an opportunity to listen attentively and interact, as Jesus would, with the intention of transforming the feeble, exploited and even resenting voices from the Dalit Christian community. 

Elevating a Bishop from a Dalit background as a Cardinal is certainly in the right direction. But it should not remain as a benevolent gesture of the mother Church towards the Dalits. Accompanying the battered daughters and sons of Dalit origin at every level is a holy responsibility of every Christian in India.

(Irudhaya Jothi SJ is a Dalit and Adivasi Rights worker and a Right To Food Activist) 

Dalit Empowerment Catholic Church Dalit Christians Hindu Society Dalit Adivasis Untouchability Caritas India Minority Rights National Dalit Christian Watch (NDCW) Census data Scheduled Castes Article 25 Hindutva United Christian Forum (UCF) Issue 26 2022 Indian Currents Indian Currrents Magazine

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