On 29 March, Pope Francis made history by appointing, as a Cardinal, a person from the most depressed and marginalised Indian caste, the Dalits, previously designated as ‘untouchable’.
By admitting Fr. Anthony Poola, the Dalit Archbishop of Hyderabad to the College of Cardinals, the Pope sent a clear message to the Dalits that they too could reach the top echelons of the Catholic church, a privilege they can never dream of in caste-ridden Hindu religious order and the society at large.
This could be a morale booster for the Dalits because, even 75 years after independence, and 72 years after being given 15% reservation in government jobs and government educational institutions, the Dalits (officially designated as Scheduled Castes or SCs) remain at the bottom of the Indian socio-economic structure.
Switching from Hinduism to equalitarian religions like Christianity or Islam, has not helped them because these religious groups are also caste-ridden in India.
And to add to their woes, the Dalit Christians’ persistent attempts to get reservations extended to them, have failed. While reservation was eventually extended to converts from Hinduism to Sikhism and Buddhism, the Indian State has stubbornly refused to accommodate Dalit converts to Islam and Christianity either on the grounds that these religions have no caste or on the grounds that they are of non-Indian origin. But a few States have accommodated them even in the teeth of opposition from the Hindu ‘nationalist’ parties.
Has reservation in government jobs worked in the case of the Dalits? Not really. Reservation is applicable only in the case of permanent government employment. In 2018, such jobs accounted for about 25 lakhs: a mere 3% of the total number of Dalits in the population. And the reserved posts were not even filled.
An article published by the Asian College of Journalism found that by 2001, Scheduled Castes held 11.42% of jobs in Group A and 12.72% in Group B, when they should have occupied at least 15% as per the Constitution.
Discrimination in the Church
Unfortunately, the Catholic and other Christian churches in India themselves discriminate against the Dalits. The Dalits are 70% of the Christian population but there are only 12 Dalit Bishops out of the 239 members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.
There has been a continuous campaign by the Dalit Christians of Tamil Nadu for the appointment of Dalits as Bishops, but these appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Bijay Kumar Minj has been reporting in UCA News about this agitation. In July 2021, Dalit Christians of Tamil Nadu staged a protest ahead of the consecration of Bishop Arulselvam Rayappan in Salem. The protest, organised by the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) in front of the District Collector’s Office, condemned the “untouchability” practised in the country, in Tamil Nadu and the Catholic church. The agitators urged the Governments of Tamil Nadu and India and the Vatican to take action to end discrimination against Dalit Christians.
In Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, only non-Dalit bishops and Archbishops have been appointed during the past 15 years. “There is only one Dalit Bishop in the 18 Catholic dioceses in the region even though Dalits comprise about 75% of the Catholics here, making their representation negligible. This situation has continued for decades,” one of the aggrieved persons said.
The protesters appealed to Pope Francis to intervene to end caste discrimination in the Indian Church. “We have been also constantly making representations to the Vatican. We took to public protests to show our agony and anger, hoping to raise the consciousness of the Church over caste injustice,” an agitator said.
Bishop Sebastianappan Singaroyan of Salem professed ignorance about the agitations. “We came to know through the local newspaper that there was a small group protesting at the district collector’s office but more than that we have no other information.” Father L. Sahayaraj, Deputy Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council, told UCA News that he was not aware of any protest. Regarding the Dalit Christian issue, he said: “I have nothing to say on that subject.”
S. Vincent, Tamil Nadu State Vice-President of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), told UCA News that they had filed a petition in Madras High Court about discrimination against Dalit Christians in the Church as well as in society.
All government commissions on the status the Dalits have said that segregation of Dalits continued even after conversion especially in South India. So all converts should be made eligible for reservation.
Despite discrimination pursuing Dalits even after conversion, many continue to turn to Christianity or Islam. Many of them convert ‘secretly’ and keep their new religious affiliation secret for fear of government censure and loss of the benefits of governmental reservation schemes.
Yaroslav Trofimov wrote about ‘secret Chrisitians’ in the Wall Street Journal on 19 September 2007. The Dalits’ quest had been for freedom and respect from fellowmen, which were not forthcoming in Hindu society.
In Madipalli in Andhra Pradesh, ‘secret’ Dailt male Christians did not go to church for fear of being noticed by officials who could cancel their caste certificates and get them sacked. They could lose their jobs on grounds of misrepresentation. Their women would go to church and pray for them. Zoologist Mukesh Kumar said he was denied a job because he converted to Islam.
However, “much to the dismay of Hindu nationalist groups, the number of India’s secret Christians has climbed in recent years to an estimated 25 million people, about the size of the officially registered Christian population,” Trofimov says.
“The government is forcing us to lie,” said Prasadarao Yadavalli, a 48-year-old Andhra Pradesh official, who rose to his post thanks to the Dalit quotas but was a ‘secret Christian’. Yadavalli says he finally decided to come out as he could no longer maintain this double life. “Whatever the consequences, God will take care of us,” he said.
Christians and Muslims Join Hands
Trofimov further says that Dalit Christians and the Muslims are coming together for getting reservation in government jobs. They are also mixing socially, symbolically eating together from the same plate. The breaking of the physical barrier is of great psychological importance for the Dalits, previously treated as untouchable.
“This is a real physical demonstration against caste discrimination,” said Joseph D’souza, the President of the All-India Christian Council, who had organised many eating together from the same plate ritual.
By P.K. Balachandran