By Vatican News staff writer
Christians in India observed Dalit Liberation Sunday in solidarity and closeness with Christians of Dalit origin or former untouchables, who continue to face discrimination and injustice. Since 2007, the Office for Scheduled Castes-Backward Classes of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), which comprises Protestant and Orthodox Churches, come together to mark the day on the second Sunday of November.
The “broken” people
The word “Dalit”, derived from Sanskrit, meaning “broken” or “downtrodden”, and refers to former “untouchables,” who are so low in social status that they are considered outcasts or outside the rigid 4-tier caste system of Hindu society. As a result, through centuries, Dalits have been subjected to extreme exploitation, inhuman treatment, atrocities and poverty.
Government data shows 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this socially deprived community. Some 60 percent of India’s 25 million Christians are of Dalit or indigenous origin. Most of the Dalit Christians are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Focus on Dalit Women
The theme of the November 8 observance was “Challenging Caste: Affirming the Dignity of Dalit Women.”
“This land, where female deities are worshipped as power, knowledge and wealth, has become the most unsafe place for women. Facts show that Dalit women suffer the horrors more than Dalit men,” Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur, chairman of the CBCI Office for SC/BC, said in his message.
He said that in recent months, many Dalit women have been targeted, attacked and brutally killed. “We bewail the fact that justice often eludes the Dalit survivors, while the perpetrators, backed by their political patrons, manipulate the law and move around scot-free.”
Change of mentality and heart
Violence against Dalits, Bishop Nayak pointed out, is often based on caste prejudice. The perpetrators consider Dalit women as mere objects to be used and thrown away. Unless there is a change in mentality in the heart, discrimination and crimes against the marginalized will continue. A change is possible only when “every family consciously and practically promotes at home the equal dignity and right of every child,” said the 63-year old bishop from the eastern state of Odisha.
He lamented that in India, intellectuals, human rights activists, civil society members and the unprejudiced media are “strategically silenced, while others become the mouthpiece of the power of the day and slaves of the privileged class”.
Dalit Liberation Sunday is an occasion for the whole Christian community to renew its responsibility toward sisters and brothers of Dalit origin, especially Christians.
1950 Presidential Order
To help the socio-economic uplift of Dalits, the Indian Constitution reserves for them special privileges and benefits such as quota in government jobs and educational institutions. However, the Constitution (Scheduled Caste) Order (Paragraph 3) that India’s first President Rajendra Prasad signed on August 10, 1950, initially stated that “…no person who professes a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.”
When Sikhs demanded these privileges, the Order was modified in 1956 to include them. Buddhists, too, were granted the benefits in 1990. But Muslims and Christians of low caste origin continue to be excluded despite their demands.
Dalit Christians and Muslims continue to demand the status of scheduled castes and observe the “Black Day” protest on August 10 each year against the Presidential Order of August 10, 1950. Christians separately observe Dalit Liberation Sunday Day on the second Sunday of November, demanding justice and the rights and dignity of Dalit Christians.
According to the CBCI Office for SC/BC, Dalit Christians are thrice discriminated, namely within the Church, within society and by the State. It notes that Dalits embraced Christianity seeking a better life with dignity, but unchristian and discriminatory practices continue within the Church.
The NCCI has for decades announced zero tolerance for caste discrimination in any form. “No one can serve Christ and caste — the practice of caste is a sin and untouchability a crime,” said a November 8 statement by the NCCI. “Practice of caste in its many manifestations despite it being rendered illegal is a blot on Indian social life and polity.” It denounced the practice, either tacitly or openly, in social institutions, including in Churches and in politics. (Source: UCANEWS)