Mumbai: When Father William Premdas Chaudhary, the only Dalit priest in the Delhi archdiocese, began highlighting the plight of his community three years ago, his parish was taken away from him.
“I became a nuisance to the archbishop by raising issues faced by lower castes in churches. So they sidelined me,” he claims.
They converted to Christianity to escape the caste system of Hinduism, but even in the church, Dalits (or lower caste) remain at the bottom of the hierarchy, facing discrimination, unequal access to education, even the persistence of preface: “Dalit Christians”. But hope has stirred, ironically, out of attacks on their own. In an unprecedented move last week, the pope of the Roman Catholic Church issued a statement condemning the Orissa violence that killed dozens in the wake of the unsolved murder of a vocal anti-missionary Hindu leader. Since the Vatican has rarely addressed Indian Christians before, Dalit Christians hope the pope will now look deeper inside the practice of the religion in India—perhaps condemn caste, enforce equality, make conversions more honest and renew their flagging faith.
As churchgoers dwindle in Europe—according to pollster Gallup International, attendance declined from 60-65% in 1980 to 20% in 2000—countries such as India with its enormous potential for conversion have become more important for the Vatican. But an old hierarchical civilization such as India poses unique challenges, explains R.L. Francis, president of the Poor Christian Liberation Movement. Here, “the higher castes of Christianity, Syrians, Mangloreans and Goans from south India dominate churches in the country and treat Dalit converts like second-class citizens,” he says.
Some Dalit Christians also say that the violence in Orissa offers lessons for the church to proceed with caution in its approach to conversions—and first fix relations among existing followers. Pro-Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad say, for example, that conversion should not be linked to basic needs, such as access to health care or school.
The meek shall inherit
“We have known injustice for generations. It’s wonderful when someone tells you, ‘All human beings are the children of god,’” says Francis, whose grandfather had converted from Hinduism to Christianity.
In Orissa, new converts quickly realize that religious change does not mean equality. For instance, among the Panos, who were originally animists, those who converted came to dominate the social order of the state. They own businesses, hold positions of power and also dominate the clergy, while the condition of tribals remains unchanged.
Under attack: The vandalized church at Dalagam village in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. Last week, the pope in a statement condemned the violence in which dozens of Christians were killed following the unsolved murder of a vocal anti-missionary Hindu leader. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The strange hierarchy enters economics and politics in other ways; tribal Christians can avail of Scheduled Tribe status, while Dalit Christians cannot of Scheduled Caste status, although certainly there have been efforts to expand quotas to them. In the district of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, P.B Lomiyo, editor of the magazine, Christian Restoration, says Dalits face similar challenges nationwide. Lomiyo says, “The clergy raise funds for schools for Dalits, but don’t give admission to them. When Dalits demand their rights, they react and encourage the parish to boycott the Dalits.”
One area of great contention has been schools. Father Benjamin Chinnappa, a priest who works in Chicago, runs a school for Dalit children near Puducherry with his US salary.
Even though Dalits need the education and upliftment most, he says, “the school administrators want to keep performance high. They want to compete with other schools and want people who can pay tuition.”
The issue is not entirely new, though. Father Anthony Kurusinkal, editor of The Examiner archdiocesean newspaper for Mumbai, says he had studied the issue of Dalit Christians in 1984 at the request of the Vatican and had made a presentation in the city-state, advocating greater representation from the Dalit community in church leadership. “They wanted to know what the situation is,” he said. “And they decided that no appointments to the post of bishop or archbishop will be made on the basis of caste in India.”
But that was 24 years ago.
Since then, inequality has deepened and become entrenched in the church, says Chinnappa. “The bishops and archbishops will not accept it. But this discrimination against the Dalits is the bitter reality of the Christian church in India.”
The silent church
So far, the Vatican has not addressed the divide, saying it must be resolved by Indian church officials. The pope’s representative in India, Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, declined to comment.
However, the website of Catholic Bishops Conference of India discusses how the government and the Constitution of India have failed Dalits. But it does not list any programmes or policies specifically for them run by the church.
And the Vatican’s directive that bishops should not be chosen on the basis of caste has made no impact on the ground, Kurusinkal says. “There is constant in-fighting going on when a leader is chosen. If it is an area with high caste majority, they will insist that one among them becomes the bishop or priest. If it is a lower caste majority, they want a leader from among them,” he said. Francis alleges that there is no interest in fixing the problem and insists that like all other Dalit Christians, “I am subtly reminded to remember who I am—an untouchable.”
He says letters sent to the Vatican demanding help have met silence. “But we will not be silent. The church leaders in India should stop asking the government to give us the status of the Scheduled Caste. When we embraced Christianity, we came to the Church for a better life,” he says. “Now they cannot go back on it.”
In some cases, the Church’s willingness to look the other way has been in some Indians’ favour, on issues such as birth control and abortion, for example.
Francis says that is because the Vatican has one lone interest in India: conversion. “They have only set up a business enterprise here,” he said, “... solely for promoting conversions, none for Dalit upliftment. We are asking the Vatican to stop all conversion in India for the next 100 years and spend the money on healing those who have already come to the faith.”
Rajdeep Datta Ray contributed to this story from Orissa.
Next: In Orissa, Hindus and Christians alike say some missionaries have used deceitful means to convert villagers.