Held in Chennai, 21st January 2000

Your Grace Most Rev. Dr. Alan D' Lastic, Archbishop and President of the CBCI, The office bearers, Archbishops and Bishops

Our fraternal greetings on behalf of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM). We are very happy to get this important opportunity to meet the gathering of Bishops from all over India and speak on Dalit Christians problems which, we are sure, has drawn your attention these days. Inviting us to speak to this body shows your new concern about it. We have yet to see the historical moment when casteism and its forms of discrimination against Dalit Christians are eradicated completely in our Indian Church. We indeed hope that our meeting today with the whole Hierarchy of the Indian Church to voice our people's concern will soon pave the way for this.

In the past one decade a lot of concern has been expressed by the CBCI and other quarters in the church on the question of discrimination against Dalit Christians. Though it brings some hope, much remain in words, as declarations, prayerful wishes and as promises. The consciousness about the discriminations within the church was deepened in recent years, thanks to the open struggles of Dalit Christians, which emerged into a movement. We could see concern expressed on various occasions and in different forms by the CBCI, CRI and others. Most notable may be the 10 point programmes announced by the Tamilnadu Bishops Council (TNBC) to bring about equality and development to Dalit Christians. But it may be honestly said that much of these remain vague without force, direction and commitment in implementation and even as a sort of make believe initiative. This is what we are painfully concerned about today.

The changes brought about are very meagre. So we have to address your grace the Archbishops and Bishops to make "the agony, sentiments, views and expectation of our people known. We have to be frank, rather doubly frank, in expressing these because the problem is so severe and urgent.

First of all we wish to emphasise that the oppression and discriminations suffered by Dalit Christians within our Church is as serious and appalling as the persecution of minorities in our country. With this perspectives we have to approach the problem of Dalits in the Church. This has to be a top priority as they are a majority in the Catholics population.

Broadly speaking, we face the problems of untouchability, marginalisation in our institutions (in admissions and appointments), marginalistion in vocation, in of sharing of power and authority in the Church. Each problem needs specific attention, policy changes and action programmes.

The external forms of untouchability and their practice still exist among Christians, within the Church, in the graveyard, in the festivals, in marriage alliances, etc. The most unfortunate thing is that the caste Christians,  practising these inhuman acts are often supported by their own caste-priests and nuns, who even encourage them to attack Dalit Christians. That is the main reason for caste-practice continuing in the Church. Incidents in the past and also in recent years prove that in those areas and villages where large number of priests and nuns have been ordained, (few example: Thatchoor in Madras diocese, Eraiyur in Pondy diocese, Varadarajanpet in Kumbakonam diocese)  the Caste-Christians are more active in oppressing Dalit Christians and resisting vigorously when they demand dignity, equality, and justice. Most of the caste priests, nuns and some in hierarchical positions use their money, authority and institutional power against Dalit Christians at the times of crisis, instead of supporting their just cause. We are saying this from many experience.

The marginalisation of Dalit Christians in our Christian minority institutions (in admissions and appointment) all along the several decades has very severely affected their social and economic mobility and progress. The degree of marginalisation is alarming and appalling since Dalits are a majority in the Catholic Church, but they are only about 6% as students and employees in most institutions. Their exclusion or marginalisation in employments has caused enormous economic loss to the community over decades. If this continues how can poverty be alleviated in the community? The marginalisation in appointments is very severe in our Girls Schools and Women Colleges and needs specific attentions. It will take decades to improve this situation for Dalit Christians even if the institutions now take a policy of reservation for them and sincerely follow up. So, what is needed in a vigorous and strict implementation of reservation.

We have to look at the question of reservation to Dalit Christians in our own institutions a little deeply. It is high time that we realise that only reservation can safeguard the Dalits' interest and opportunities against the caste-politics and caste-domination. Whether the government does it or not for Dalit Christians, the church needs to do it for them because, they are severely marginalised within the Church. It is worse than in society as the minority caste-Christians enjoy the bigger share of the cake and the majority Dalit Christians get too little. So the policy of reservation is all the more needed for Dalit Christian in the church. When we speak of this, eye brows are raised. But it is important to note that the minority right is also a sort of reservation given for different reason. When that does not reach the majority Dalit Christians it is logical to ask for reservation for them within. Reservation is needed to set right the longstanding and historical inequality and backlogs. It is not at all helpful to talk about justice without implementing some concrete rules of distributive justice.

So, the church cannot put the whole burden on the government, because she is owning institutions, properties, financial and material resources, powers and authority of secular nature for helping minorities, but from which Dalit Christian are excluded and alienated. The reservation we ask from the government is a case of constitutional equality irrespective of religion. But reservation for Dalit Catholics in the Church is necessary as there is a clear case of inequality within. Our elegant preaching for equality and liberation to the oppressed only goes to strengthen the plea for reservation to the oppressed. We cannot set right inequality without some norms of distributive justice. We may call it reservation 'option', 'preference' or priority. But the thing is it must be done and done without further delay.

Even though favourable views, concerns and solidarity are expressed, recommendation are declared by the hierarchies, religious heads, priests and nuns, we find that the main or core issues are sidelined. The rights and opportunities are denied to us in the day to day matters. Concrete policies and steps are lacking at every level. Enforcement is important, but that is what lacking very much. With these background and understanding of the reality we fervently appeal for, suggest and demand the following steps and measures.

We appeal to the Bishops to see that the priests, nuns and authorities stop supporting their caste Christians against Dalit Christians and instead they openly oppose any practice of casteism and close down the churches and services in those places. It is not right to think that it is the responsibility of only the Dalits to oppose these.

The number of Dalit Bishops among the Indian Bishops is alarmingly negligible and it is seen as a grave injustice at the higher level itself. It is a matter of conscience for us to see now itself how many among the nearly 140 gathered here are Dalit Bishops. It is doubtful whether it will be even 6%. But the Dalit Catholics are a majority among the Catholics. So, we strongly appeal that special drive is made to see that about 85 Dalit Bishops are appointed in the next 5 to 10 years to bring equality. To enable this, some socially conscious Bishops, committed to Dalits cause may go in for voluntary retirement.

We request that Dalit priests are appointed in bishops vacancies that already exist, especially now in Tamil Nadu. (We may note here with regret that Dalit priests were not considered for the post of Auxiliary Bishops appointed recently in Tamil Nadu). We are not asking for Dalit Bishops with any narrow sense of possessiveness, but for the dignity and credibility of the Church in truly upholding equality in the caste-society. It is also hightime that a Dalit Bishop is appointed as Cardinal. A co-ordination between the CBCI, the Apostolic Nuncio to India and the Vatican can be evolved for the special drive and time-bound steps.

Similarly in the religious congregations, there has to be equitable number of superiors, provincials etc. and heads of Institutions appointed from Dalit priests and nuns. We have appealed to the CRI regarding this and we request the intervention of the CBCI for the same.

We request the CBCI to take steps to constantly follow up the congregations and institutions and see that the dalits are given priority in admissions and appointments. About 60% of the Catholics admitted to courses or appointed to various posts in our institutions have to be Dalit Catholics, which is a fair and just target. Whenever representation is made by the Dalit Christians or their movement, the Bishops can take it with the concerned heads of institutions or congregations and intervene to help. If necessary they could take up the matter with the respective world superiors or Generals to seek remedy. There has be insistence for policy formulations on these lines. We expect CBCI to come up with its own policy statements that are appropriate and adequate so that others can follow the model.

As a special case we request that considerable number of seats are reserved for Dalit Catholics in St. John's Medical College, Bangalore and any other Catholic Medical Colleges. A large number of Doctors (even second generation of doctors) have come up among the other Dalits, thanks to the reservation for them by the government. We could rarely see doctors among Dalit Catholics. Other Catholics have been fully benefiting so far from St. John's Medical College, as only Catholics are admitted. Now it is time that Dalit Catholics get more chances there.

We request that primary (or) basic education is made free for Dalit Catholics in our institutions just as the government does. CBCI may give necessary directions to all our institutions and Religious congregations.

Educational Scholarships and fee concessions for rural Dalit Catholics is very necessary to make any considerable progress. Without this their entry in the educational field, especially higher courses, will be very slow and they end up at the fringe of our institutions. Many of our institutions are well established and rich with buildings and facilities. But the Dalit Catholics cannot have access to or benefit from these without supplementary financial assistance to them. We request that in our hostels and orphanages 50% concession is given for poor Dalits.

We wish to recommend to the kind consideration of all the bishops and superiors that hereafter only technical institutes are started, keeping in mind the interest and scope of the rural Dalits. Mere academic courses may be given less priority.

Power sharing with Dalit Catholics is a crucial issue today and no reason will be accepted by them for their continued exclusion in this respect. They can no more depend on the charity, generosity or benevolent action of others. What is relevant is empowerment of Dalits which essentially means sharing power for them at all levels. The marginalisation in vocations to priesthood and religious, in the hierarchical posts of Bishops and diocesan officials/administrators, heads of institutions, in the national organisations such as NBCLC, in vital or strategic organizational positions, etc. is a matter of serious concern today. In particular, in the diocesan social service societies, organisations such as IGSSS, CARITAS India which are dealing with funds, in the management of local and foreign funds, the representation of Dalit priests, nuns and Dalit lay people is almost nil. The general complaint is that resources have not reached the Dalits proportionately. These must be quickly attended to. At least 50% representation to Dalits will be a just situation. How long can the majority Dalit Catholics remain marginalised, suffer and be at the loosing end? Why should they alone suffer forever? Power Sharing with Dalits is a vital step for long-term changes and for sustaining the change process.

Enforcing and reinforcing are important but, that is what is lacking in the matters regarding Dalit Christians. The line of communication, authority and mechanisms to enforce must be clearly known.

We request the CBCI to constitute an apex body representing CBCI and CRI officials, Dalit leaders, Dalit priests and nuns, which can take up the issues of Dalit Christians, follow up and resolve them. It can have regional bodies to deal with representation of local issues. These bodies should have mandatory power to take action or impose some sanctions wherever needed. These bodies, the line of communications, action and enforcement of decisions have to be transparent, with due representation of Dalits, so that solving problems will be possible. The whole difficulty in finding solutions and making progress is that each Bishop, diocese, congregation, institution and authority functions as separate kingdom with each one's own interpretation of Dalit Christians issues and the solutions. Our greatest frustration is running from pillar to post with no one responsible to us. So we have to make this important practical suggestion.

There has to be a more concerted effort by the whole church to get the constitutional reservation for Dalit Christians. We appeal to the CBCI for the same. It can take steps to demand from the State Governments M.B.C. status for Dalit Christians till they are included in the SC list by the Central Government.

We expect that this body announces a clear agenda, as a special gesture of Jubilee 2000, which will really help to establish a just Church for Dalits.

In Conclusion, we have to state with all respect and reverence, that the CBCI and the Regional Bishops Councils have not made judicious use of their authority, administrative capacity, institutional power and the minority right to solve the problems of Dalit Christians. Also in terms of time, energy, human and material resources, very little is used which is not even in the least proportion to the serious sectoral problem of Dalits who form a big majority in the Catholic Church.

We are glad that the CBCI is concerned with the task of nation building and the role of the Christian minorities. We wish to respectfully remind that empowering the oppressed Dalit community is a prime task of our nation building and only together with the empowered Dalit Christians the church can make a substantial contribution for nation building and play a leading role in the task.

It is with pain we have to say that our Indian Catholic Church has not so far taken steps to attend to the problems of Dalit Christian in the normal course of things, and we see the caste-culture as the basic reason. Now it is called to make special effort as the affected people have become articulate. We in fact think that we need not say more as we believe that all the Bishops know these very well. But why things are not done? That is where our struggle comes in. We have to solve things peacefully, but peaceful solution consists of sincere, serious and speedy steps to solve all the problems and that has to come from the authorities, the dominant and the powerful. So, the question is whether you as the Apex Hierarchy want to do and avoid our struggle or you don't want to do and leave us to struggle even more. Hope this august Body will decide.

(Prof. Dr. M. Mary John)

President, DCLM and The Executive Members.