By Irudaya Jothi SJ
Kolkata: On the 10th anniversary of the violence against Christians in Odisha Kandhamal District, the Church in India celebrates Dalit Liberation Sunday on November 11.
The celebration of Dalit Liberation Sunday is a clarion call to the whole Christian community to renew our faith, and to awaken our consciousness to be the voice of the voiceless and to stand with the vulnerable Dalits in society, says Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak, Chairperson Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Office for SC/BC in his introductory note for the days’ celebration.
A meaningful liturgy was prepared and circulated in collaboration with CBCI and National Council of Churches in India (NCCI).
While praying for the Dalit people all over India in general and Dalit Christians in particular it suits to reflect on this people.
The term ‘Dalit’ has roots in Sanskrit where the root ‘dal’ means ‘to split, crack, open’.
And hence, ‘Dalit’ has come to mean things or persons who are cut, split, broken or torn asunder, scattered or crushed and destroyed.
The present usage of the term Dalit goes back to the nineteenth century, when a Marathi social reformer and revolutionary, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule (1826-1890), used it to describe the Outcastes and Untouchables as the oppressed and the broken victims of our caste-ridden society.
In his book, ‘The Annihilation of Caste’, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the father of Indian Constitution, has used the words ‘Dalits’ and ‘Depressed Classes’, interchangeably.
Dalits proudly identify themselves under this chosen name and celebrate through songs, music and symbols.
The 2011 census confirm that there are more than 200 million Scheduled Castes (the official term for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits) in India.
There are 15-20 million Christian Dalits in India, while the number of Muslim Dalits may be as high as 100 million or more.
Were these figures to be confirmed, the number of Dalits in India could exceed 300 million – or a quarter of the country’s population of 1.2 billion people.
There are claim that around 60% of the 2.3% of the Indian Christians are from this ‘Depressed caste’!
What is the present condition and treatment of Dalits in India?
After the killing of a person during the violence on the 200th anniversary celebrations of the battle of Bhima-Koregaon, violence against Dalits in India is again under the spotlight.
One wonders why Rohit Vemula happened, why Una happened, and why Bhima-Koregaon happened in the second decade of the 21st Century.
Centuries of oppression put the Dalit in a much-disadvantaged position in education, politics, religion and social exchanges.
By oppressing and exploiting the Dalits some caste people find their ‘upper’ identity.
Society in general is not yet ready for collaboration, suggestion and advice on equal footing from the Dalits.
There are resenting voices; some are powerful through writings, lectures, analysis of budgets, cinema and many political active participation.
Yet, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which gathers data about different crimes in the country, shows that the rate of crimes against Dalits has risen in the last few years. The conviction rate for such crimes has also declined substantially.
In 2016, an estimated 214 incidents of crimes against Scheduled Castes (SCs) were reported per million SC population, up from 207 the previous year, according to the NCRB data.
In all of India, 40,801 atrocities against Dalits were reported in 2016, up from 38,670 in 2015.
Economically fewer than 5% of SC and ST households have a main earner who makes more than Rs 10,000($ 157.70) per month, as opposed to twice as many in other households as per 2011 census.
On paper, there are plethora of laws and related notification of government which list the practices against Dalits and try to prevent and punish the offenders. But too often, it doesn’t quite work in the ground.
There are people who continue oppressing Dalits because it suits their social Status, the Dalit and tribals who try to break this oppressive social orders and a third category a passive urban upper caste who generally not disturbed but occasionally Ambedkar and reservations.
In reality atrocities against Dalits on the increase forcing them to leave their house, villages or place of residence or at times burning them down.
They are denied form using common properties such as burial and cremation grounds and common water tanks.
The more inhuman practices still today prevalent are prevention of Dalits from riding bicycles, wearing footwear, wearing moustache buying new clothes, taking out a wedding procession.
CBCI in its policy for empowering Dalits released in December 2016 declares, ‘Caste discrimination is a grave social sin.’
Dalit Liberation Sunday is an opportunity to give hope; to empower and to uplift the lives of our Dalit brethren reads the note from CBCI.
The CBCI rightly challenges the validity of constitutional (Schedule Caste) order 1950 in the Apex court which excludes Christians and Muslims of SC origin from the list of Scheduled Castes and thus denying of freedom of religion.
Some concerned Christians raise a few questions occasionally on the need for a leadership role of Dalits in the church at different forums.
In one of the discussions the Dalit Catholic leaders sight that out of 127 Catholic Bishops in India only a dozen are Dalits, when apparently 60% of the population are Dalits.
The question being ‘has the church given due importance in preparing the Dalit for the leadership role?’ or is there a scuttle promotion and demotion strategies used to keep them away?
Questions also rose if the church in India is ready to face some tough questions from these oppressed castes while demanding the SC status from the Government. .
Dalit Empowerment Policy reads, ‘That every Diocese submits its short-term and long-term plans of action within one year of the promulgation of this Policy to the Regional Bishops’ Council so that we as a Church may move forward collectively and systematically in realizing the Gospel values’.
When will this be a reality in most of the dioceses of India?