Exclusive! Church stands still on Dalit empowerment

By Sandhya Jain | 16 Jan 2017 11:40 AM
After decades of denying rampant discrimination against poor and lower caste converts, the Catholic Church has officially concluded that the only way to ameliorate the social and economic disabilities of the latter is by demanding Reservation benefits for Scheduled Castes converts to Christianity. This, notwithstanding the fact that the Church is one of the richest institutions in the country and had promised an end to caste-based disabilities while winning converts.

The Standing Committee of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India debated the need to uplift converts it designates as Dalits (the word means broken) and approved a 44-page document, An Ethical Imperative to Build Inclusive Communities, at Bengaluru in April 2016. This was publicly released in December 2016. While reluctantly admitting church failure to raise the lot of lower caste brethren, it unsubtly blames the Hindu community for their maltreatment within the Catholic Church and puts the onus of amelioration upon the State.

The document asserts that while Indian sages envisaged a common human family and saw divinity in all human beings, casteism and untouchability are social evils that have persisted despite attempts at social reform. The Indian Constitution abolished “untouchability’ and made it a punishable offence, but the practice persists.

It berates the Government of India for not extending benefits of reservations to converts to Christianity, at par with those professing Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths. Throughout the document, the Church refused to acknowledge that while caste is an intrinsic part of the native tradition in India, it does not exist in Christian theology and hence upper caste converts to Christianity have no right to discriminate against lower caste converts whom they wooed on the promise of equality and end to caste discrimination and disabilities. The church needs to explain why upper caste Christians dominate the religious, social, economic and cultural hierarchy of the faith and refuse to share power and honours with the former lower castes.

Forced by growing demands for Dalit empowerment, the CBCI has used the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in 2016 to admit caste discrimination within its ranks. But that is as far as it goes, though it states that Pope John Paul II had emphasized that any semblance of caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians is “a serious hindrance to the Church’s mission of evangelization”.

Admitting that caste discrimination and untouchability are against the fundamental tenets of Christianity and violate Christian theology, the CBCI blames the Government for “depriving Dalit Christians their means to livelihood such as economic benefits, job opportunities, denying political representation, shunning them legal protection given under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989)”.

The CBCI asserts that Dalit Christians experience the same measure of discrimination, violence and exclusion as other Dalits. It fails to admit that this discrimination is experienced within the Church and at the hands of fellow Christians. It does not explain why the Church hierarchy fails to address and rectify the abuse, but laments that Dalit Christians are denied recourse to The Prevention of Atrocities Act, as under the law they are not deemed to be Scheduled Castes.

Antony Raj in Discrimination against Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu (IDEAS, Madurai, 1992) identified several discriminatory practices in the Church. A 2001 survey found that the number of Scheduled Caste students in Church-run colleges was low. Given the sheer number of educational institutions owned by the Church, including some of the country’s most prestigious, the reasons for poor Dalit student ratios in higher education bodies owned by the church must clearly be found within that body. One reason could be absence of scholarships / financial support, though the CBCI avoids this issue.

Dalit Christians comprise the majority (12 out of 19 million) in the Catholic Church, but are given little participation in leadership positions in the diocesan administration and religious orders. The first bishop from the Dalit community was appointed only in 1977; in 2016 there were only 12 bishops from the Dalit community.

Daily, newer forms of discrimination come into being. Dalits are deprived access to social, economic and educational benefits, especially in courses which are job-oriented or in demand. There is little opportunity for students of the first generation. At times, there is outright denial of admission alleging incapacity and unsuitability. This militates against the core belief of Christianity, and while the term caste Hindu may be justified, caste Christian is self-contradictory, to say the least.

Scheduled Caste Christians have always been treated unequally within the Church. Way back in 1844 [RPT 1844], the Synod of Pondicherry was organized to foster harmony between the upper and lower caste Christians. In January 1925, the Scheduled Caste Christian Welfare Association sent a memorandum to the Vicar Apostolic to India, Bishop Alexius Maria Henry Lapier, to look into discriminatory practices adopted by the “dominant castes” in the Church.

But it was only in 1978 that the National Biblical Catechetical and Liturgical Centre, under the joint auspices of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, National Council of Churches in India and All India Catholic Union, organised the first national convention to understand and address the plight of Christians of Scheduled Caste Origin (CSCO), who suffered double discrimination on account of religion and caste. The convention urged church leaders to ensure that resources such as schools, colleges, technical institutes, hospitals and dispensaries, etc. are used on priority basis for the integral development of Christians of Scheduled Caste origin. Similar attention was to be paid for Scheduled Tribe converts.

It was all in vain. In 1989, at a meeting in Shillong, the CBCI blamed the Government of India for denying rights bestowed on Scheduled Castes in native traditions to Christian SCs. In 1998, at its general body meeting in Varanasi, the CBCI again lamented caste-based discrimination in the Church, but could not reform its upper caste members, which is what the crisis boils down to. The same positions were reiterated in 2000 at Chennai, 2002 at Jalandhar, on so on.

Increasingly, the Church is shifting responsibility for upliftment of poor and marginalised converts to the Government and is networking with political parties to extend SC reservations and benefits to SC Christians. It even went to the Supreme Court in 2004.

The document makes some recommendations that have failed to satisfy the vast body of SC Christians, some of whom dubbed it an attempt to pour “old wine in new bottles”. The CBCI has directed every Diocese to prepare short-term and long-term plans of action within one year of the promulgation of this policy to the Regional Bishops’ Council so that the Church move forward on the subject of abolishing untouchability, discrimination, and exclusion, especially in places of worship and burial grounds. For the first time, it has urged that the Church authorities take stringent measures in case discriminative practices persist. It has suggested proportionate representation to Dalit Christians in Parish Councils, Diocesan Councils and all Church bodies and measures for their upliftment. It remains to be seen how far the church will actually do to empower its most marginalised sections.

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