By Santosh Digal
Te Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) will jointly celebrate Dalit Liberation Sunday on November 11.
Santosh Digal of Matters India talked to Father Devasagayaraj M Zackarias, Secretary to CBCI Office for Dalits and Backward Classes to find more about it. Excerpts:
Matters India: Please introduce yourself
Father Devasagayaraj M Zackarias: I am the secretary to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), Office for Dalits and Backward Classes. Our office works for the abolition of untouchable practices in the Church and society of Dalits, and works for their empowerment.
Who are Dalits?
Dalits are the so called Untouchables in the Indian society. They are discriminated by the following criteria 1. Concept of purity and pollution, 2. No inter-caste marriage, 3 Forced occupation and 4. segregation. Stigma of untouchability is what discriminates them from the rest of the Indian society. Centuries of discrimination and denial of right to property and education make them poor, illiterate and powerless.
The Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) jointly instituted Dalit Liberation Sunday to mark every second Sunday of November. What is its importance?
The Dalits are the indigenous people of India. They have rich culture and history. They have the value system and the Dalit Christians are faithful to Christ. Dalit Liberation Sunday is an occasion to appreciative and celebrates these positive values of Dalits. It is an ecumenical effort, since all the churches have Dalits in big number. Both in the Catholic Church and in the protestant churches, the Dalits are the majority. The CBCI has declared that ‘Caste Discrimination is a great social sin’ and the National Council of Churches has declared that ‘Caste and Christ cannot go together’.
You chose this year’s theme is: “As for Me and My Household, We will serve the Lord” marking the 10th anniversary of the anti-Christian pogrom in Kandhamal in Odisha state. Why?
When the Israelites faced difficulties and hardships they wanted to deny Yahweh and wanted to worship other gods. But Joshua stood firm in his faith and told all the Israelites that even if all of them go away from Yahweh he and his household would serve the Lord. The Dalit Christians in Kandhamal were allured and threatened to deny their faith. But they stood for their faith and gave even their lives for their faith. Same thing happens to other Dalit Christians in India. Though they are denied their affirmative action programs from the Government which is given to other Dalits, the Dalit Christians are the people who always are firm in their faith in spite of all their denial of their right to affirmative action programs.
Dalits in India are not only economically poor but politically powerless and socially outcasts and discrimination that they face is abominable. What should government do about it?
The Government of India has different programs to develop the condition of the Dalits. The affirmative action programs include reservation in higher education and jobs, Educational Scholarships, Special Component Plan for the economic development. But these programs are not properly executed. Because of the privatization of the public sectors the existing job opportunities are sinking. Hence the Government should also extend the reservation in private sectors.
Civil society groups, including churches, and others have been promoting affirmative action for Dalits. What are their impacts/results?
The Churches played a great role in giving education to the Dalits at the primary level. The Civil Society groups played a great role in educating the Dalits about their dignity and human rights. At present, Dalits assert their rights which is a great impact of the works done by the civil societies and the churches.
They are victims of the man-made caste system which remains a social stigma throughout generations. Is there any to fully abolish it?
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar would say that caste is a state of mind. It is basically that the mindset should change. Dr. Ambedkar proposes inter-caste marriage. Inter-dining, communities coming together, organizing common community events are some of the proposals for the way forward. M. Gandhi wanted the abolition of untouchability where as Dr. Ambedkar wanted abolition of Caste. There should be strict measures to abolish caste system. It should be taught from childhood. Young people should be educated on this. In Christianity it should be taught in the catechism classes and preached in homilies.
The successive Indian governments have continued to deny the status of “Scheduled Caste” to Dalit Christians and Muslims, thereby denying them the affirmative action given to other Dalits. Is there any hope for it?
The present Government denies affirmative action program to Dalit Christians saying that it will lead to mass conversion. This presumption is not correct. It is belittling the freedom of choice of the Dalits. But we have a great hope in the Supreme Court because of the merit of the Caste. Many commissions appointed by the Government have positively suggested including Dalit Christians in the affirmative program list.
So there is hardly any progress with regard to the case by the CBCI Office for SC/BC in the Supreme Court of India, challenging the validity of Presidential Order of 1950 that excludes Christians and Muslims of Scheduled Caste origin from the Scheduled Caste list thus denying freedom of religion. How do you look at this?
The Congress Government followed the delay tactics by not filing reply to the Supreme Court of India. The present Government is also not filing its reply. The Court has the power to go ahead with the case even if the Government does not give its reply. The recent judgements of the Supreme Court of India upholding the rights of the marginalized give us a hope that the Supreme Court will render justice to Dalit Christians. The case was filed as the Public Interest Litigation in 2004. The CBCI and NCCI pleaded in the case. Dalit Christians still wait for justice.
Dalit Christians are discriminated by the caste Hindus, caste Christians, Hindu Dalits, and by the Government. Thus they face multiple discrimination. It is only through solidarity and support of the people of good will they can regain their dignity and their rights.