Tamil Nadu

Acknowledgement of bias raises hope for Dalit Christians

A cross to bear: Despite widespread discrimination, churches in the State have mostly succeeded in curtailing overt rebellion by Dalit Christians barring a few stray incidents. — File Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

A cross to bear: Despite widespread discrimination, churches in the State have mostly succeeded in curtailing overt rebellion by Dalit Christians barring a few stray incidents. — File Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s (CBCI) formal acknowledgement earlier this week that Dalits face discrimination within the Church and the need for formulation of a policy to tackle the issue has raised hopes among Dalit Christians. The CBCI had, in a report titled ‘Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India’, specifically asked its dioceses to submit plans to end discrimination against Dalit Christians.

Fr. Z. Devasagayaraj, secretary of CBCI Office for Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes, told The Hindu that the report is the first pan-India policy framework to comprehensively address discrimination against Dalits within the Catholic Church.

Despite providing comparatively better social mobility for Dalits in its fold than Hinduism, the Church, particularly Catholic, has long been blamed by Dalit rights activists for circumventing the issue of internal discrimination instead of addressing it earnestly.

Rev. Fr. Vincent Manoharan, convenor of National Dalit Christian Watch, said that institutional discrimination within the Church mainly happened at three levels: First, among the congregation on matters such as worship, burial rights and marriages; second, in the diocesan administration; and third, in educational institutions.

Citing the CBCI policy document, Fr. Manoharan said that despite Dalits constituting roughly 65 per cent of the Catholic population in the country, only 12 of around 200 Catholic Bishops in India were Dalits, a meagre six per cent. “In Tamil Nadu, there are only two Dalits among 17 Bishops. The gross under representation is at all levels, right from priests,” he added.

The situation is similar in getting opportunities to study and work, particularly at senior administrative levels, in the Church-run educational institutions. The domination is by the socio-economically powerful Christian communities in the respective regions, like Pillaimars and Udayars in Madurai–Ramanathapuram regions, activists say.

Though casteism is prevalent even in many Protestant churches, Anbuselvam, a Dalit researcher, pointed out that the somewhat decentralised organisational structure there has put Dalits in a relatively better position in claiming their rights.

Despite such widespread discrimination, churches in Tamil Nadu have predominantly succeeded in curtailing overt rebellion by Dalit Christians barring a few incidents in places like Thachur, Eraiyur and recently in Sivaganga, all of which led to violent clashes.

“This is partially due to the institutional resilience of the Church and lack of external political intervention. Since Dalit Christians are technically not Scheduled Castes, their issues do not find much space among political parties representing Dalits,” pointed out J. Balasubramaniam, an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Madurai Kamaraj University.

Stalin Rajangam, a Dalit scholar teaching at The American College, pointed to the hesitation among secular parties to intervene because of apprehensions that criticism of minority religions may end up strengthening Hindu majoritarian politics.

The Catholic Church’s claims of introspection and reforms aside, Mr. Anbuselvam said that its present acknowledgement of the issue has to be viewed in the changing socio-political context.

“While Dalit Christians are increasingly becoming assertive about their rights, the Hindu Right is also flexing its muscles. If Christianity cannot keep its original promise of non-discrimination based on caste, the Hindu Right will try to exploit the disgruntled Dalit Christians,” he contended.

Guarded optimism

Registering disappointment that it took so long for the Catholic Church to formally address the issue, Fr. Manoharan, however, said, “We at least have an official policy document now using which we can question if the implementation falters.” The document not only details interventions needed in removing discrimination and improving opportunities for Dalits, it also asks the bishops to periodically monitor and report the progress made.

J. Amirthalenin, a Dalit activist from Loyola College, Chennai, however, struck a cautious note. “More than 10 years ago, the Tamil Nadu Bishop’s Council came up with a similar document, which even spoke about reservation for Dalits within the Church. But, nothing happened,” he pointed out.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2022 10:45:39 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/acknowledgement-of-bias-raises-hope-for-dalit-christians/article16895188.ece1