Dalit Christians Hope for Papal Endorsement of their Cause

The Hindustan Times
New Delhi, November 2, 1999

Udayan Namboodiri

When Pope John Paul II releases the Roman Catholic Church’s much awaited document, the Ecclesia Asia, which is expected to spell out the Vatican’s vision for the next millennium, many interest groups in India will be going through it with a magnifying glass. The most anxious among them are the Dalit Christians, who constitute 60 per cent of the country’s 24 million Christian population.

They want the Pontiff to recognise their five-decade struggle for socio-economic rights and will be very disappointed if the policy statement overlooks them in the crowd of Asian issues, ranging from abortion in the Philippines to the hierarchy in China, that beg the Pope’s address.

The Asian Synod, or the first ever conference on a continental scale for Bishops, which Pope John Paul II conveyed at the Vatican between April 19 and May 14 this year, deliberated upon all the important issues and challenges before the Roman Catholic Church in Asia. The problem of the Dalits and the need for recognition of what many believe is the Indian version of the Liberation Theology, was represented at the Synod by the Jesuit Bishop of Patna, Reverend Benedict Osta.

The Dalit Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, are denied inclusion in the list of Scheduled Castes simply because Christianity theoretically denies the existence of a caste system. However, similar concessions have been made for Sikhs and Buddhists on the premise that their conversion to those religions has not made a difference in their day-to-day humiliation or larger socio-economic standing.

Though it is 17 years since the famous Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) first analysed the problem of casteism among Christians in India, the government has not admitted the phenomenon. Despite assurances on the floor of parliament by three Prime Ministers — P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral — Dalit Christians continue to be deprived of the right to avail of reservations and other facilities given to backward castes.

Father S. Lourdu Swamy, the executive secretary of the CBCI Commission for SC, ST and Backward Castes, says: “Nobody knows if the final document will carry a mention, but we will be disappointed if the continued discrimination of Dalit Christians does not figure in it.” Several memorandums have been sent in the last few months to the Vatican urging papal attention to this most stark Christian issue in the sub-continent.

Father Walter Fernandes of the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, agrees there is broad expectation that the Pope will touch upon this burning question. Its inclusion in the document, it is hoped, will suitably impress upon the Indian State the urgent need to bring a big block of hitherto marginalised humanity within its drive to erase centuries of deprivation and marginalisation.

In the early eighties, the same Pope had shocked millions of Latin Americans by squashing the original Liberation Theology. In Africa, he continues to maintain the orthodox hard line against the use of contraception in the prevention of AIDS and frustrate the local Church and laity. Will his visit to India leave a similar vacancy in the hearts of the faithful?