Dalit Catholics in India have appealed to the Vatican to end the enduring legacy of the caste system on the Indian Church.
During a national online conference held on Saturday, Church leaders from the Dalit communities called for the appointment of more Dalit priests to the episcopacy.
Dalit, a Sanskrit word for “trampled upon”, refers to those formerly considered untouchable who were part of the lowest caste in Hindu society, many of whom consequently left Hinduism and converted to Christianity.
Conference speakers noted that there are currently four Cardinals in India and a further 31 Archbishops, but none are from a Dalit background, despite Dalits making up over 80 per cent of Indian Catholics. Of the over 180 Catholic bishops in India, only 11 are from the former untouchable communities.
The All-India Catholic Union (AICU) said that whilst Dalits are well represented in Sikhism and Buddhism, they have been kept out of leadership positions in the Indian Catholic Church.
Part of the reason for this, they argued, is that Dalit Christians are not protected as castes under the Indian Reservation policy.
This policy abolished untouchability in 1950 and established a system of affirmative action that would ensure Hindu Dalits (“Harijans”) were granted a representative quota of governmental jobs, including seats in Parliament. The policy was expanded to include Sikhism and Buddhism, but Christian Dalits and Muslim Dalits were never granted such access, supposedly on the grounds that these faiths were more egalitarian.
AICU national president Lancy D Cunha said that the exclusion of Dalit Christins has deprived “a large number of people of their political rights, and their children of the opportunities of reservations in professional institutions.”
Franklin Caesar Thomas, coordinator of the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), however, said that the Indian Catholic Church itself needed to overcome its “casteist” tendencies or risk Dalit Christians starting a new Indian Church. Speaking to UCA News, Thomas said: “If the Vatican does not immediately remove the discriminatory process of bishop selection that neglects qualified Dalit priests, we could announce our own Indian Dalit Catholic Church or the Indian Dalit Catholic Rite.”
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