Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India, a 44-page document released by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), the apex decision-making body of the community, is a candid admission that Indian Christianity is not immune to caste discrimination. A short piece of statistic given in the document hints at the influence caste wields in the church, particularly in its power structure: While 12 million of 19 million members of the Catholic Church in India are Dalit Christians, only 12 of the 5,000 bishops are Dalits. The report, however, does not restrict itself to mere admission of the obvious, but also provides an action plan to address the issue. The CBCI has asked its 171 dioceses to submit long and short-term plans within a year to end caste discrimination against Dalit Christians.
Baselios Cardinal Cleemis Catholicos, president, CBCI, has described the Church admitting to the prevalence of caste discrimination “as a revolutionary step”. Indeed, it is revolutionary since the Church had refused to agree with the proposition that caste transcends the religious divide. Reports — and internal complaints — about discrimination within the Church were ignored or addressed outside the framework of caste oppression. Though ample anecdotal and experiential evidence has been available about discriminatory practices existing in the Church against Dalit Christians, including segregation in worship places, the clergy, dominated by non-Dalits, preferred to ignore it. The normative view of caste as a Hindu religious institution may have influenced the clergy’s approach to anti-Dalit practices within the Church. Accordingly, caste would cease to be a marker of identity when a Dalit converted to Christianity. The reality, however, is caste is a social institution that pervades all aspect of life, material and spiritual, in India. It is marked by birth and lineage, and not by faith or occupation. Hence, conversion need not necessarily allow a person to escape caste discrimination; a convert continues to be marked by his caste even in the new religion.
The CBCI’s admission of caste in the Church will strengthen the case to extend the benefits of reservations to Dalit Christians. The present state policy provides only OBC status to Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam. The logic that underpins the state policy is that caste has no religious sanction in Christianity and Islam and, hence, ceases to matter post-conversion. Evidence suggests to the contrary. Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam face no less discrimination than their counterparts in Hinduism and the basis of the discrimination is their Dalit origin. The reality about caste discrimination in India is, though not sanctioned in any religion, it exists in every religious community. A wider debate on the state policy of refusing SC/ST status to Dalits among Christians and Muslims is called for.
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