“Dalits are subject to unscrupulous violence.” And although untouchability was formally abolished by India’s Constitution, “it is still practiced and Dalit Christians and Muslims are discriminated the most.” This is why the Indian Catholic Church is pressing for the abolition of a Presidential Decree passed in 1950, which legitimises distinction, denying non-Hindu “outcasts” job reservation rights in the public sector.
On the international UN Human Rights Day declared yesterday, 10 December, the message sent out by India’s bishops focused mainly on equality in dignity rights for religious minorities, tribal and indigenous groups, women and children and could not help but mention the Dalit question. A question which remains an open wound in the Indian nation and Church.
The recent case of two Dalit teens who were raped and then hung in a village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is still on everyone’s lips. Six months after it happened, the five people believed to be responsible for the killings (including two police agents), were released due to a lack of evidence. The crime has gone unpunished and masked as “suicide”. India’s civil society see it as a scandal which brings the impurity stigma to the fore: although formally banned by the Indian Constitution, it remains rooted in popular mentality and practice. Over 165 million Pariahs, those forsaken by God and by the people, are officially marginalised. Relegated to degrading jobs, they are excluded from state schools and deprived of their rights and dignity.
The stigma is also alive in the Catholic Church, which is good at proclaiming its defence of Dalits but not so good at stopping the subtle discrimination shown by bishops, priests and faithful of higher castes toward faithful of lower castes, or even worse, outcasts.
The diocese of Sivagangai in the state of Tamil Nadu, is a “shining” example of this. Acase which remains unresolved. There is still discontent among the Dalit population which says is it being excluded - even from the celebration of the sacraments - out of spite, after it staged an official protest against Church leaders.
Authorities stress that “the controversy that broke out over the insubordination of a Dalit seminarian, who was dismissed from the seminary with the approval of all the region’s bishops, has nothing to do with caste discrimination.” The case is of national importance because Tamil Nadu is the Indian state with the second largest Catholic population (around 1,6% of the total population) and approximately 60% of faithful are outcasts. Only two bishops in the state’s 19 dioceses are Dalits. This scenario is reflected across the nation, with only 6 out158 Catholic bishops coming from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The local bishop, Jebamalai Susaimanickam, and some diocesan priests told Vatican Insider that “none of the churches in Dalit territories are closed but in nine parishes, priests are prevented from ministering because of the threats they receive from violent Dalit groups, spurred on by Hindu Dalits.” This is to the detriment of the entire community.
Furthermore, the institutions have made various attempts to promote dialogue but these have been ignored out of pride. The approach chosen by Dalit groups seems to be that of “unacceptable violence”, coupled with objectionable requests for the re-admission of the seminarian dismissed for disciplinary reasons.
The diocese, they add, promotes useful initiatives for the emancipation of Dalit Christians through a special commission for Dalit rights, which provides assistance to students, offers study grants and organises summer camps and special courses. Not to mention the economic aid the local Caritas provides Dalit families with and the professional training courses it offers to integrate them fully into the social fabric.
But Dalits say “the Udayar caste (one of the higher castes, Ed.) controls the Church, its leadership and religious orders in Tamil Nadu.” They claim that in order to celebrate mass on All Souls day, priests from other dioceses had to come to the Dalit villages. Even the cult of the patron saint Giovanni de Britto, a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit, “is centred more around caste identity than on religious affiliation,” some scholars say. The end to caste discrimination seems a long way off.