Plight of Dalit Christians

published on March 18, 2008



Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue(BIRD)

Without going into details of how enlightened Hindus have dealt with the unconscionable practice of untouchability, let us audit the record of the Church in India with regard to the dalits.

The dalits or ‘harijans’ as Gandhiji called them, constitute 15% of the total Indian population and 20% of the Hindu population. As per the 2001 census, there are 24.20 million Christians in India of which the Christians of South India constitute 12.5 million, more than half the total Christian population of India, and those of the North-east, 5.4 million. The total population of Tamil Nadu Christians is 3.8 million, Karnataka one million,Kerala 6 million, Andhra Pradesh 1.2 million and Goa 0.4 million. Dalits constitute 65% of the total South Indian Christian population. Some Christian groups even claim that dalits constitute 70% of the Christians of Tamil Nadu.

But the secular intellectuals of this country and the US StateDepartment, who screech that religious freedom includes the right of Christian missionaries to convert Hindus, have not cared to answer the pertinent question, “what is the attitude of the Church and its Hierarchy to social empowerment of dalit Christians within the community given the high percentage of the dalits and tribals in the total Christian population and the power-sharing equation in the Christian hierarchy between the priests belonging to the upper castes and the dalits?”

As per the data currently available on the Catholic Bishops Conference of
India website:

The CBCI has over 200 members-bishops from the Latin, Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara ecclesial traditions in the country among whom are 155 heads of the dioceses, of whom there are 3 cardinals, 29 Archbishops and 123 bishops. There are 2 co-adjutor bishops (one of whom is a co-adjutor Archbishop), 12 auxiliary bishops and 36 retired bishops.

A squeamish media and dishonest activists taking up the cause of dalits in Durban, in the US State Department and in the European Parliament have never summoned the courage to ask the Catholic Church to make public the number of dalit and tribal bishops, archbishops and cardinals in their fold. Except for Goa and Kerala, in the rest of India, dalits and tribal people constitute the major percentage of Christians and yet the Christians who claim that the dalits are voluntarily converting to the Christian faith to end discrimination and to empower themselves, have not told us how many dalits and tribal people have been elevated to the highest positions of bishops, vicars-general, priests, directors, professors in seminaries, and surgeons and heads of departments in their hospitals and medical colleges.
The Christian community has not told us if their premier educational institutions reserve 30% of their seats for dalit Christian students, if at least 30% reservation is maintained in the recruitment of dalit teachers and professors in St Stephen’s, in New Delhi, in Loyola College in Chennai and in Christian Medical College, Vellore. What is the power-sharing equation of the positions held by upper-caste and dalit Christians in the schools, colleges and hospitals run by the Christian missionaries in this country? How many dalit or tribal Christians have risen to the highest positions in these Christian social, educational and religious organizations? Unasked and unanswered questions, these.

Anti-Hindu activists working for the ‘dalit cause’ have not dared to address themselves to this question just as the US has not dared to address itself to the issue of its flawed democracy. In the US, which prides itself on being the world’s oldest democracy, even after centuries of democracy, no woman and no African-American, Jew, Hindu or Muslim has ever been considered to even participate in the race for the White House. And the US State Department and the USCIRF lecture to the Indian government on human rights of dalits and women!
Notwithstanding American double-standards on equal rights and religious freedom, Nirmala Deshpande, Teesta Setalvad, John Dayal, John Prabhudoss, Cedric Prakash, Kamal Mitra Chenoy and others routinely depose against the Hindu community before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom and the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor!!

Let us see what one of the highest-ranking members of the Vatican Hierarchy has to say in this regard. Archbishop George Zus, apostolic pro-nuncio to India addressed the Catholic Bishops’ Council in December 1991, in Pune. In his inaugural address to the Catholic Bishops, he stated, “The dalit Christians make 65% of the ten million Christians in the South, but less than 4% of the parishes are entrusted to dalit priests. There are no dalits among the 13 Catholic Bishops’ Council of Tamil Nadu or among the Vicars-general and the Rectors of seminaries and Directors of social assistance centres”. (“Dalits in India” by John Massey, Manohar Publications, New-Delhi, 1995, page 82.) John Massey is a Punjabi dalit Christian. The secular intellectual establishment and the Christian community it seems is ignorant about this simmering discontent among the dalits who converted to the Christian faith hoping to be empowered. And yet, the dalits still within the Hindu fold have risen to the highest positions in all walks of life including to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Sadly, little has changed in 2006 for the dalits within the Christian fold.

Much noise is also made about the despicable practice of untouchability which is placed at the door of Hindu dharma even though there is noreligious sanction for it in the religious content of our traditions. Be that as it may but untouchability is not the only form of discrimination faced by the dalits. There are other forms of discrimination too and, as
shown above, these concern their positions in the Christian institutions and also their marriage practices.

What is the percentage of inter-caste marriages among the Christians belonging to the upper-castes and how many of the upper-caste converts to Christianity have married into families of the dalit Christians?

How many upper-caste Christians will accept the holy water from a dalit Christian priest, if any, and in how many churches and cemeteries have walls been erected to separate the upper-caste laity from the dalits, in death as in life?

If dalits are indeed converting to Christianity, not because of force, allurement or coercion, but voluntarily to empower themselves, to end discrimination and to improve the quality of their lives, then it is relevant to ask our editorialists and human rights activists, how many have indeed been so ’empowered’ in Christian institutions and organizations and if social discrimination of the dalits within Christianity has indeed ended.

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