New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) has approved a plan to improve the conditions of Dalits within the Catholic Church in India.
The lengthy document – the work of many priests and lay men and women of goodwill at the diocesan and local levels – seeks to end the centuries-old traditional caste discrimination against Dalits (untouchables). The issue deeply touches the Church in India as well. Most of its members are Dalit: 12 out of 19 million.
For the bishops, the starting point is the fact that “the term ‘Dalit’ does not indicate a negative connotation or a caste identity. It rather seeks to restore an affirmative, humanizing and empowering identity which is a demand of our faith.”
For the prelates, “Dalit Christians keep alive the vision of God’s reign for justice and love. They boldly call upon the Church to place justice and love, the core values of the Bible, at the heart of its mission.”
The bishops’ historic plan was adopted at an meeting at the CBCI Centre, New Delhi, in the presence of CBCI President Card Baselios Cleemis, and Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
In the forward to the document, Card Baselios Cleemis writes, “India is a cradle of many civilizations and religions. Great sages envisaged a common human family and recognized the ray of the Divine in all human beings. Unfortunately, there are also blots in the Indian society such as casteism and untouchability.”
“In the context of the State’s social and transitional justice paradigm,” the bishops believe in “the ethical imperative to devise [a] vision-inspired roadmap in building the kingdom of God”. This stems from the existence of many forms of discrimination that Dalits suffer in India, especially Christian Dalits.
In the paper’s acknowledgment, Mgr Anthonisamy Neethinathan, chairman of the CBCI Office for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, explains that whilst Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist Dalits benefit from Dalit-specific advantages and policies, Christian Dalits are deprived of “means to livelihood such as economic benefits, job opportunities, denying political representation, shunning them legal protection given under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989).
The latter is based on Presidential Order, 1950, in para 3, which stipulates that “no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste”.
Even though the Indian Constitution outlaws the caste system, the latter still underlies a widespread feeling of social superiority linked to origin. This is evinced by widespread anti-Dalit violence, like rape and murder.
Every 18 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit. Every day, 3 Dalit women are raped, 11 are beaten, and 2 Dalit houses are burnt. Overall, 37 per cent of Dalits live below the poverty line; 54 per cent of their children are malnourished; 83 per thousand children born in Dalit community die before the first birthday; and 45 per cent of Dalits are illiterate.
When Dalits are admitted to higher educational institutions of repute, and this is hard to do, they commit suicide at a high rate.
Christian Dalits experience the same discrimination. Something far worse, the bishops acknowledge, is the discrimination that occurs even within the Church, especially at the level of the religious and lay leadership.
For the prelates, untouchability has remained widespread ever since the first Jesuit missionaries arrived. For the latter, “Caste was considered to be a social factor to be tolerated in the effort for evangelization.” Now however, “there is need to address these issues urgently”.
Changes must be made in education, access to economic resources, and jobs. This can be done through Caritas India, which can promote and finance works and projects.
What is more, the Church must be more welcoming to Dalits, and support the rising number of vocations and give them greater room in its higher echelons.
All this has to be done within one year of the promulgation of this policy, a deadline the bishops set for each diocese with respect to the plan’s application.
As part of this, the prelates suggest, local priests and believers ought to take advantage of the contribution of people and organisations "of goodwill", acknowledging the value of Dalit cultural heritage through a process of inculturation (including liturgical ceremonies).
The final goal, they stress, is to start a “process of metanoia (repentance) and experience the Easter joy, radically transforming our minds and hearts individually, collectively and structurally.”