Dalit Christian conundrum

Dalit Jesus

By chhotebhai

Kanpur, Nov. 21, 2018: The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) jointly organized a Dalit Christian (DC) solidarity Sunday on November 11. I’m not sure if the event was limited to Delhi, because it was certainly not held in my parish on that day. Nevertheless the occasion has spawned some comments in various fora.

Disparate writers have claimed that 60 percent to 80 percent Christians in India are DCs. One writer has spewed venom at the Catholic Church in particular. He alleges that the CBCI/NCCI policies are dictated by the Vatican and Geneva respectively. He claims that only 9 out of 175 bishops, 12/822 Major Superiors and 1130/25000 priests in India are DCs!

I don’t know on what this data is based because I have never come across any specific caste profiling of data collection within the Church.

That writer further alleges that there is no reservation of seats for DCs in our own institutions, no policy for their upliftment, and there is no benefit to them from Christian institutions. He questions seeking reservations for DCs, as a form of abdication of one’s own responsibilities for the same.

Let us try and address these issues as objectively as possible. To begin with, Christians of Scheduled Caste Origin are commonly referred to as DCs. How many Indian Christians are actually DCs? The first wave of Thomas (not Syrian) Christians were reportedly from the upper castes. The second wave through the Portuguese saw all castes being converted in Goa, and caste identities being strongly retained, until very recently. Even now it is not uncommon to see matrimonials seeking Brahmin Catholic spouses in Goa.

In Kerala the Portuguese brought in the fisherfolk, now known as Latin Catholics, again a distinction based on caste. In the colonial British era we saw both Protestant and Catholic missionaries fanning out in the rest of India.

The Belgian Jesuits in Chhotanagpur and the Salesians (mostly Italians) in the North East evangelized the tribals, who are not DCs. Protestant missionaries did convert a good number in Punjab. They are still treated as untouchables in West Punjab, now part of Pakistan.

Being from the lowest strata of society they are exploited and treated with contempt by the powerful Muslim community, and are often the victims of so-called blasphemy cases.

Both Catholic and Protestant missionaries had a major impact in Tamil Nadu and the undivided Andhra Pradesh. In Orissa it is probably a mix of tribals and dalits. In the rest of the country, barring pockets in Karnataka, there are no major Christian communities.

The major demand for reservations for DCs comes from Tamil Nadu and Andhra, and to a lesser extent from Punjab. The 2011 Census of India is very sketchy on religion wise data, so I shall have recourse to the 2001 Census data.

At the time there were 24,080,016 Christians in India. The Christian population of the aforesaid three States was – Tamil Nadu – 3,785,060, Andhra – 1,181,917 and Punjab – 292,800, totalling 21.8 perdent of the Christian population. Assuming, without admitting, that all these are DCs, and allowing for them in other parts as well, at most one may claim that DCs constitute 25 percent of the Christians of India. This is a far cry from the 60-80-percent claim loosely bandied about.

I may here iterate that the Latin Catholics of Kerala are classified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs), according to the Mandal Report. In 13 states of India DCs are classified as OBCs. Recently in Maharashtra the original inhabitants of Vasai and Salsette areas that now constitute Greater Mumbai, who are euphemistically referred to as East Indians, have been accorded OBC status.

If I recall correctly, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Anglo Indians have also been accorded OBC status. The tribal Christians of the North East and central India are not DCs. So I would reaffirm that the claim of 60-80 percent Christians being DCs is way off the mark.

As for reservations for DCs, I feel that the desire of the affected persons should prevail. If they feel the need of it then the rest of the Christian community should support them. Let us not see an Indraesque “foreign hand” from the Vatican or Geneva.

There are claims in some quarters that the BJP is against religion based reservations, and we Christians support the Congress because it is in favor of religion based reservations. These claims are absurd.

Firstly, Christians do not blindly support the Congress party. Recent events in the North East and Goa prove that Christian politicians are not averse to having truck with the BJP, albeit for their own convenience. Two regional satraps that oppose the Congress – Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh and Jagan Reddy in Andhra are Christian. The most high profile Christian parliamentarian, Derek O’Brien belongs to the Trinamool Congress.

I am not aware of any major political party supporting or opposing religious based reservations, though the BJP Chief Minister of Jharkhand has been demanding that Christian tribals be excluded from the reservation list. What is the ground reality?

The Presidential Order of 1950 recognized Hindus only as eligible for SC status. In 1956, when Master Tara Singh went on a hunger strike, Sikhs were also included. In 1990 the V.P. Singh led Janta Dal Govt included neo-Buddhists, later amended to read all Buddhists. The DCs came closest to getting reservations when Singh was the Prime Minister.

On August 17, 1990, Prof Saral Chatterji, because of his physical frailty, requested me, as National President (NP) of the All India Catholic Union (AICU), to lead the 130,000 march for DCs to the Boat Club lawns.

Our delegation then went to meet the Prime Minister in his office in Parliament House during the lunch recess. When I spoke to him in chaste Hindi that we had waited 40 years he smiled and said that he supported our cause, but the BJP would withdraw support to his government if he pushed for it.

Thereafter George Fernandes of the Janata Dal and V. Narayanswamy of the Congress (now Chief Minister of Puducherry) did place Private Members’ bills in Parliament, but to no avail.

This stalemate led to a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, which in turn asked the petitioners to prove that untouchability, not just discrimination, existed in the Christian community.

This is a Catch 22 situation, being damned either way. I would rather that we worked to remove all forms of discrimination within the community, than try to establish its existence to satisfy the Supreme Court. That too would be no guarantee of success.

As national president of the All India Catholic Union in the 1990’s I had commissioned a survey in Tamil Nadu, that seemed the worst affected. It was reported that not only were there separate seats for the DCs in the churches, but even different ciboria for distributing Holy Communion! This was both shocking and disgusting.

I had also visited the infamous cemetery in Trichy (TN) that has a wall separating the graves of the DCs from the others. I was told that the sitting Congress Lok Sabha member had declared that he would have his left hand cut off by Christmas if the wall was not demolished before that.

Last heard the wall still stands, and the venerable member celebrated Christmas that year with both hands intact. Before me another AICU national president had gallantly stated that he wished to be buried along with the DCs in Trichy. He died and hopefully ascended into heaven, but his mortal remains did not descend to Trichy!

So the hypocrisy is not limited to the hierarchical Church. Nevertheless, glancing at the Catholic Directory of India 2013 (the last so published) I find that the holy Catholic Church has 10,715 parishes and stations, 22,451 priests, 96,617 religious, 14,148 educational institutions, 6,603 social welfare institutions and 2,692 healthcare institutions.

If despite this array of human and other resources we cannot uplift our DCs, then even if the Son of Man were to come again, we would not be able to do so.

We would also have no right to call ourselves followers of the carpenter of Nazareth who, according to the Mandal Report, would have been classified as an OBC. So the Dalit Christian conundrum remains unresolved.

(The writer is a recipient of the Dr Ambedkar Fellowship by the Bharati Dalit Sahitya Akadami.)

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3 thoughts on “Dalit Christian conundrum

  1. “Mr Chhotebhai has touched upon an important and a very sensitive issue.
    However,I guess,Mr Chhotebhai may not be a Dalit Christian.If my guess is correct, then it is understandable that Mr Chhotebhai is less likely to have a first hand experience of what it is to be a Dalit and that too a Dalit Christian (DC),who received the same Baptism to be reborn in Jesus Christ. Reborn in the same Holy Spirit to be one among the God’s own children, where discrimination of any form is totally devoid of all logic.
    But I am one among the unfortunate Dalit Christians (DCs) in the Catholic Church in India.I felt the pain of being a DC in the Church of Jesus, who desired that “That they all may be one,as You, Father,are in me and I in You; that they also may be one in us, that the World may believe that You sent me”(Jn 17 :21) . There are other similar references in the Bible, especially in St Paul’s letters, advising first communities of believers to meticulously desist from any discrimination in sharing resources, etc., as they are One in Jesus Christ due to the Baptism they received in His name.
    Hence the standard expected from the believers in Jesus is set very high in order to be witnessing Him and to be His true followers.
    By practicing Caste discrimination of various forms in Christian communities, we negate our credentials as followers of Christ. In other words, we negate our Christian faith in our day to day practice beacause of our hardened hearts and selfish mindsets. The bloody blot of Caste system of Hindus which being Devil’s work to classify humans based on birth, and thereby denying human dignity and opportunity to lead a dignified life by a large number of baptised Christians is surely not acceptable to Christ.This is my conviction.
    Therefore, Caste discrimination of any hidden or explicit form has to be rejected by one and all Christians and show adherence only to values of true & unselfish love, mercy, justice, peace and forgiveness taught by Jesus as our Code of conduct of daily life in order to be His people. This is indeed a challenge before all of us. Simply you can’t be a Christian and at the same time a Caste Hindu in practice. Such dual identity is simply not tenable. To be a practicing Christian , we all have to give up all selfish motives and selfish goals.
    I don’t know why Mr. Chhotebhai is putting up a logic of 25% Dalit Christians.His motive , to say the least, is questionable.Further , his data base is most truncated and unconvincing. All I know is that the DCs are seen in a significantly larger number every where and more so in the Southern States. Even in Maharashtra, they are in good numbers; so much so that certain dioceses like Nashik Diocese are almost exclusively formed of the DCs.
    Mr Chhotebhai is an influential and respectful person. He is also an ex- President of the AICU and can use his good offices to influence appropriate authorities to conduct a detailed in-house Census/ survey in all dioceses in India to build up a reliable data base on the DCs and their needs , so that through well meaning actions , the Church is strengthened by improving the lot of the DCs.
    Now one good thing has happened already. The CBCI has brought out a comprehensive policy for empowerment of Dalits, known as ” Policy of Dalit Empowerment in Catholic Church in India”. This Policy is expected to be implemented by each Diocese in India in true letter and spirit. Under it the CBCI has declared that ‘ Caste discrimination is a grave social sin’ and caste discrimination in any form will not be tolerated within the Church. It needs a faithful implementation by the Catholic Church hierarchy at all levels of delivery system of the Church and its institutions and also unselfish and enthusiastic cooperation and support of the entire Christian lay community.
    We all need to rise above our selfish instincts and be true witnesses of The Risen Jesus in our actions of true love, justice and fellowship to gain true peace here and later after we say good bye to all our loved ones, for whom we toil. Dr Patole”

    With respectful regards,
    Dr Patole,Ph.D.

  2. I am happy Mr.Chhotebhai has come out with some basic questions though I may not agree with his data analysis…!
    It is not an uphill task for the church both CBCI and NCCI collectively conduct a study to find out who are her members on caste categories.
    Every one understands the caste issue and where one belongs…! One also feels certain amount of affinity to one’s own caste group..! and certainly one also tries to promote one’s own caste in whatever possible ways knowingly or unknowingly..!
    The Dalits find themselves at the receiving end in all these caste promotions. The dalits express that there is an innate rejection of dalits’ growth by the other castes..!
    The dalits are branded easily and this is accepted as natural..!
    The dalits are not entertained on the equal status and kept away from decision makings..!
    Let the Church sympathetically conduct a study on the caste issue and find out who the leaders are..!
    Demographic analysis afresh certainly would certainly solve a lot of puzzles and claims.

  3. I am happy and appreciating the writer for bringing the current status which affected to my Dalit Christians. Hats off to you.

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