Dalits want the new Archbishop of Pondicherry-Cuddalore to be one of their own
by Nirmala Carvalho

The Dalit Christian Liberation Movement held public rallies and made appeals to the nuncio. Dalits complain of discrimination because only non-Dalits have been named archbishops, although Dalits represent about 75 per cent of Catholics in the archdiocese.


Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Dalit Catholics in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore, southern India, and Catholics in the dioceses of Tamil Nadu are calling for the appointment of a Dalit bishop.

This comes after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Archbishop Antony Anandarayar on 27 January and appointed Bishop Peter Abir Antonysamy of Sultanpet as Apostolic Administrator of the archdiocese.

Dalit Catholics raised the issue of caste discrimination in a protest on 29 December 2020. Last Saturday they organised another protest in Villupuram (pictured), Tamil Nadu, calling for the appointment of a Dalit archbishop to the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore.

After the rally, the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) presented a memorandum to the Apostolic Nuncio to India.

The document states that it is being presented on behalf of Dalit Christians at the end of their public protest, which they were forced to hold in order to obtain justice within the Catholic Church. The Catholic hierarchy in Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and in India is responsible for this situation.

“In the past three decades, we have repeatedly complained to the Apostolic Nuncio to India about caste discrimination against Dalits within the Catholic Church, and we have appealed for action to eliminate it.

“We wrote several times to the Nuncio: on 10 March 2018, 12 November 2018, 7 June 2019, 6 September 2019, 14 November 2019, 20 May 2020, June 1 2020, 12 November 2020, and most recently, to Mgr Robert D. Murphy, on 13 January 2021.

“In them and others we explain that Dalit Christians are seriously affected by prolonged caste discrimination and marginalisation within our Catholic Church. We have explained enough and justified enough with historical backgrounds, with facts and figures about our legitimate claim for equality and rights within in the catholic Church. 

“What we are saying and asking for are all very well justified and accepted by the CBCI[*] policy itself for Dalits Empowerment in the Catholic Church of 2016 and the Dalit policy of the TNBC[†] several years before. But these have not been implemented so far. When it comes to really doing justice and giving equal rights to Dalit Christians, the Catholic hierarchy in India takes only a hostile stand.

“When we raise our voice against it, they misinterpret, misinform and misguide the Apostolic Nuncio and the Holy See about our claim and legitimate struggle. They sanctimoniously suppress our voice as victims. It is a silent atrocity which is not visible to the outsiders. How long should we be patiently and silently enduring this? It is unfortunate that we have to come to the streets to fight against it, but it has become necessary and inevitable.

“Our demand is to combat the caste inequality suffered by us within the Church. It is in fact against the caste division and domination. The CBCI policy of Dalit Empowerment in Catholic Church itself affirms that ‘the term ‘Dalit’ does not indicate a caste identity.…. It is not only a matter of social and cultural category but a theological category as well.

“In the past 388 years of history of the Archdiocese, Dalits Catholics have suffered caste discrimination and untouchability in all forms and at all levels. Especially now, Dalit Catholics of the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore and our DCLM have taken up public struggles during the past few months with the demand to appoint a Dalit archbishop to fill the present vacancy in the archdiocese. This needs to be done as a historical justice to the Dalit Catholic community. In particular, only non-Dalit archbishops have been appointed so far, even though Dalits have ben the majority since the early days and now comprise about 75 per cent of the Catholics in the archdiocese.

“On 29 December 2021, Dalit Catholics held a mass rally in Pondicherry, the headquarter of the archbishop, and at the end of the rally, a delegation of DCLM leaders met outgoing Archbishop Antony Anandarayar and reiterated the demand to have a Dalit archbishop appointed after him. He categorically assured the people gathered and the DCLM delegation in the very presence of the archdiocesan administrators that only a Dalit archbishop will be appointed to fill the vacancy and said that he had already written to the apostolic Nuncio in India and the Vatican strongly recommending the same. 

“Similarly, Archbishop Antony Pappusamy of Madurai who is the President of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) also assured the same to Dalit Christian leaders in the national level virtual meeting with them on 6th October 2020 and promised to write to the Apostolic Nuncio in India recommending it. But in spite of their assurance and our appeal for historic justice to our Dalit Christians, Bishop Peter Abir Antonysamy of the Diocese of Sultanpet in Kerala was appointed as Apostolic Administrator to the archdiocese on 27 January 2021. 

“This has gravely disappointed and frustrated Dalit Catholics not only in the archdiocese but also in other dioceses in Tamil Nadu and they have serious apprehension about it. 

“Bishop Peter Abir has been a junior bishop for only seven years and belongs to the Kerala Bishops’ Council. Tamil Nadu’s very senior Dalit bishop, who has 18 behind him, was overlooked. Our apprehension is all the greater since Bishop Peter Abir belongs to the same caste as that of the Archbishop Antony Anandarayar and Archbishop Antony Pappusamy, the TNBC  president, who will make the main recommendations for the new archbishop to Pondicherry-Cuddalore. Their caste affinity is well known to us. 

“Today’s demonstration by Dalit Christians is to express our apprehension about the appointment of Bishop Peter Abir as the Apostolic Administrator and who is behind it , whether there is the usual attempt to prevent the appointment of a Dalit archbishop. It has been our experience all along that the Indian Catholic hierarchy and prelates accept the truth and reality of caste discrimination against our Dalit Christians and the justice of our demands. But when it comes to doing justice and giving rights to Dalits, they go back on the assurance and only try to prevent it .

For this reason, “a delegation of the DCLM met with the Apostolic Administrator Peter Abir on 7 February to know what steps he has taken for the appointment of a Dalit archbishop as indicated by the outgoing archbishop as well as by the TNBC president. We pleaded with him to take responsibility now to fulfill the pledge given by them and follow up the recommendation of Archbishop Anthony Anandarayar to the Apostolic Nuncio to appoint a Dalit archbishop, as he told us. We also appealed to him and other non-Dalit bishops not to accept the position of archbishop here if it is offered, but instead recommend a Dalit archbishop and show their solidarity to Dalit quest for justice and equality within the Church.

“The Apostolic Administrator Peter Abir Antonysamy was evasive on the question of a Dalit archbishop and seemed unwilling to positively recommend one to the Apostolic Nuncio in India and the Vatican while explaining the reality of caste discrimination. This is very disappointing and we are very apprehensive about a caste conspiracy to prevent the appointment of a Dalit archbishop.

“We Dalit Catholics are frustrated and distressed by the long-lasting injustice and by our exclusion until now. We feel let down and disowned by the caste-dominated Catholic hierarchy. We have completely lost hope in the bishops as we find them not to be trustworthy. So, if a Dalit archbishop is again not appointed in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore this time, the people are determined to take other measures such as the following:

- To take up the issue of untouchability and caste discrimination and deprivation of Dalits within the Catholic Church with the Government of India for its intervention.

- To raise these issues appropriately in the High Courts and Supreme Court of India, since they are very much against the Constitution of India.

- To challenge the relevance and propriety of the Apostolic Nunciature in India since it is protecting and promoting caste domination within the Catholic Church and practising discrimination against Dalits in the appointments of bishops, archbishops and cardinals in India.

- To organise hunger strikes at the State and national levels to draw the attention of the Pope and publicly appeal to him to intervene to end caste discrimination against Dalits within the Indian Catholic Church.

“The Indian Catholic hierarchy is squarely responsible for this situation and the victim Dalit Catholics are not to be blamed.

“Still we wish to believe that the Apostolic Nuncio will seriously take notice of the situation and see that justice is done at least at this juncture. We fervently and humbly appeal to your Excellency and, through your good office, to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of People in the Vatican and to the Holy See to appoint a Dalit archbishop in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore.

“It is only appropriate and urgently necessary for us to explain these to your Excellency in person. So we fraternally request you to give an appointment to our delegation to meet you in Delhi or elsewhere as soon as possible.”


[*] Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

[†] Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council.

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