Does ‘Casteism’ among Christians prevent selection of Dalit Bishops?

New Delhi: The Dalit Christian leaders say the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches adopted by Catholic leadership clearly states among other things there is need to uphold equality and dignity among all sections of Christians.

Casteism as a menace has always bothered life in the Hindu social structure. But the ‘invisible untouchability practices’ continue to haunt Christians in India even up to this day. Christians in India and neo-converts were told that advent of the religion in the name of Jesus Christ
would ensure equity but such a utopian situation apparently continues to elude them.

In a rare but significant development, a group of Dalit Christian leaders have appealed to the Catholic Church leadership and Pope Francis, the head of the Catholics at the Vatican City, to help curb the invisible untouchability practices that exist in the selection of bishops.

The Catholic leadership declares categorically that the Church must render social justice and also urges that the Church must offer equal right to all – meaning there should be no discrimination against so called ‘Dalit Christians’.

Around 30 Speakers and 150 participants at a Webinar organised by Dalit Christian organisations recently resolved that urgent steps ought to be taken against the “denial” of Bishopric to Dalit Christians mainly in the Roman Catholic Church despite the availability of “well qualified and meticulously characterised Dalit Priests”.

“We appeal to the whole Indian Catholic Church, Apostolic Nuncio, and the Pope (Francis) to curb the visible or invisible form of the untouchability practices that exist in the Bishops’ selection immediately, for bringing a greater number of Dalit Christian Bishops,” said a spokesman of the National Council of Dalit Christians, F Caesar Thomas.

The organisation has also threatened that if nothing much happens on this score, a nationwide agitation would be launched across India – specially in cities like New Delhi and Bengaluru and in states where there are a significant number of Catholic Christians.

He said concerted efforts would be made to urge the Indian Church and Vatican to follow their own statements “issued time to time” for curbing racism and bringing many Dalit priests at the leadership level.

One Dalit leader told this journalist that Pope Francis in his discourse in 2015 during the Meeting with the Participants in the Pilgrimage of Gypsies had categorically said that the time has come to put an end to age-old prejudices, preconceptions and mutual mistrust that are often at the base of discrimination, racism and xenophobia and that no one must ‘feel isolated’.

Efforts will be made to “expose the practices and attitude” of the Church through local, national and international media. Steps will be also taken for formation of a larger Dalit Christian platform or a Dalit Civil Society Coalition to take this issue with a human rights perspective to approach local Courts and also the United Nations and the European Union.

India has about two crore Catholics. An estimated 80 percent Christians, particularly in northern India, are tribal people and Dalits, who were earlier allegedly treated as ‘untouchables’ for lower caste origins.

Christians are found all across India and with the majority of them in parts of South India, in north-eastern India and in states such as Goa and in the Konkan belt.

In fact, Hindus are in microscopic minority in states such as Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya and have often faced ‘discrimination’ and also targeted for being ‘outsiders’.

According to local ‘non-Naga genuine Indian’ residents, the apprehension of confrontation in Nagaland has often led many Hindu Bengalis and other Hindi speaking people to convert to Christianity. Therefore, there is a sudden emergence of Bengali Baptist Church and Hindi Baptist Church in the state’s commercial hub of Dimapur – which is otherwise famous for its cosmopolitan characteristic for over eight decades and more.

Locals say, the Nagas never mixed religion with socio-political issues even a decade back but now apparently, several non-Nagas feel switchover to Christianity can give them security and no harassment from Inner Line Permit vigilante bodies.

In the meantime, Dalit Christian leaders say that years of protests by the community had not brought any positive changes in the treatment towards them from Catholic leadership in India. It is estimated that about 60 percent of estimated 25 million Christians are of Dalit or tribal origin.

As of 2018-19, India has 174 dioceses of Catholics, of which 132 are Latin, 31 Syro-Malabar and 11 Syro-Malankara.

In 2018, the bishop of Niranam Diocese, Geevarghese Mor Coorilos, said that often ‘meetings’ are organised to “proclaim the artificially cultivated upper-caste identity and lineage” and that he would not like to be part of this tradition.

Mor Coorilos also wrote on his Facebook page: “These people believe that their ancestors were Brahmins converted by St Thomas. They even publish family history books during the get-together. Such baseless upper-caste myths have to be busted”.

Of course, there were strong rebuttals. Archbishop Pappusamy, chairman of Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, had said, “We cannot blame all the churches. The Church is doing its duty and in fact we try our best to give first preference to Dalit Christian children in our education institutes and in other fields.”

Wikipedia says: “Mass conversions of lower caste Hindus to Christianity and Islam took place in order to escape the discrimination. The main Dalit groups that participated in these conversions were the Chuhras of Punjab, Chamars of North India (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh), Vankars of Gujarat and Pulayas of Kerala.”

However, in many cases the ‘converted Christians’ from lower caste background (as in Hinduism) were still referred
to by their Hindu caste names – Pulayans in Kerala, Pariah in Tamil Nadu and Madigas in Andhra Pradesh.

Christians have been advocating for the same rights given to backward or ‘Scheduled Caste’ Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs. Some Christians, however, oppose the proposed labeling of “Christian Scheduled castes”

About the Author:

Nirendra Dev is senior Journalist. He is a longtime northeast watcher and author of books including ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’.