It has been more than six decades and they form 60 per cent of the population, but still Dalit Christians of Church of South India (CSI) Madurai-Ramnad Diocese are unable to support and elect a member of their caste as Bishop.
Dalit Christians of the Diocese are fuming that caste prejudices still exist and one’s caste identity trumps the Christian faith. Elections held to choose the sixth Bishop of the diocese on December 20, 2012 saw a Dalit, Rt. Rev. Baninga Washburn, emerge winner in the first two rounds in which 13 candidates contested, and Rt. Rev. Joseph (member of intermediate caste) came second.
However, it has been five months since the elections were held and Rev. Washburn has not been officially announced as the winner by the Moderator of the Diocese. Previous elections show that the winner of the first two rounds was announced as winners, said a member of the Diocese who wanted to maintain anonymity.
The CSI Madurai Ramnad Diocese was established in the year 1947 and has six districts of Madurai, Dindigul, Virudhunagar, Theni, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram within its diocese. In its current strength, 60 per cent of Dalits form the congregation and serve as Pastors.
The first Bishop, Leslie Newbigin (1947-59), was from England, while others who held the post since then were from intermediate castes. Rev. Baninga Washburn’s victory in December was well received by the congregation; his win would fulfil the 66-year-old dream of Dalit Christians. However, Dalit Christians who had been silent about the prevailing prejudices have finally come out to publicise this issue and take the struggle forward.
Anbuselvam, writer, researcher on Theology and member, Intellectual Circle for Dalit Actions, Puducherry, told The Hindu that caste is an existing reality in Christian society and a principal social problem in Churches today in the State. Dalits form the majority in the Diocese but still the power politics exists, making it impossible for them to assert against the dominant castes.
Professor David Mosse of School of Oriental and African Studies who has worked on Christians in Tamil Nadu says that for Dalit castes in Tamil society, the Church was important to a new social mobility not only because of the educational and employment opportunities it provided, but along with economic change. Christianity did provide idioms for the expression of autonomy and detachment for caste oppression.
N. J. Gnaniah, a Missiologist, in his paper titled Caste, Christianity, and Cross-Cultural Evangelism Revisted, says that caste is still an undeniable part of Christian society here.