MUMBAI, India – Catholic activists in India are upset that a non-Dalit has been appointed to be bishop of Salem in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Pope Francis appointed Father Arulselvam Rayappan to the post on May 31.
However, the priest is not a Dalit, formerly known as the “Untouchables”, who occupy the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system. The vast majority of Catholics in Tamil Nadu have Dalit backgrounds, and have been calling for a Dalit bishop to be appointed in the state.
Father Devasagaya Raj, former national secretary of the Commission for Scheduled Castes at the Indian bishops’ conference, noted that out of 17 bishops in the state, only one is from the Dalit community.
“How many years it will take for the crying voices of the Dalits to reach Vatican?” he asked. “Dalits who are marginalized and majority in Tamil Nadu have been pleading to the Vatican to appoint Dalit Bishops in 6 vacant dioceses. The first appointment after the arrival of the new nuncio to India disappoints the Dalits.”
Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli was appointed to the post of apostolic nuncio, the papal representative, in March and wouldn’t have been in a position to influence the appointment of Rayappan.
M. Mary John, the president of the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) and the National Council of Dalit Christians (NCDC), said the appointment of a non-Dalit to Salem was a “grave disappointment and regret.”
He noted Dalit Catholics have been “taking up public struggles” to get an equitable number of Dalit bishops in the Catholic hierarchy.
“Dalit Catholics Comprise about 70 percent of the Catholics in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, but there is only one Dalit bishop now among the 18 dioceses in this region. This almost exclusion of Dalit Catholics from the Catholic hierarchy is continuing traditionally. Dalit Christians were indeed hopeful that at least now the Tamil Nadu Bishops’ Council (TNBC) would take Dalit Christian voices and demands seriously and follow up with sincere steps to change this situation,” he told Crux.
“Dalit Christians now sense a conspiracy by the hierarchy only to scuttle the appointment of Dalit bishops and archbishops. It is a breach of trust by them. It is really caste atrocity going on silently in the Catholic Church, that too with the blessing of the Holy See,” he added.
Rayappan comes from Pondicherry, a small enclave surrounded by Tamil Nadu. Pondicherry is a former French colony that was taken over by India in 1954. The archdiocese has long been the center of accusations of caste-discrimination among the clergy.
“There are already three bishops and an archbishop from the same Vanniar community which comprise only about 15 percent of the Catholics in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry region. We are not against any community, but we demand equitable representation to Dalit Catholics who are comprising the majority – 70 percent – of the Catholics,” John said.
“We are convinced that there is cunning and calculated moves to prevent the appointment of Dalit bishops and we condemn it as most unworthy of the archbishops and bishops. So, we are already worried about what is going to happen to the appointments in the remaining vacancies. This development justifies the agony and anger shown by Dalit Christians protests in recent months and it is provoking them to further intensify their public protest,” he said.
“We see absolute lack of sensitivity and sensibility in the Indian catholic hierarchy on the question of justice and equality to Dalit Christians. This is nothing new, though we expected some change in them now,” he continued.
Jesuit Father A. X. J. Bosco, a Dalit human rights activist, said it was a “blatant injustice” for a non-Dalit to be appointed to the Diocese of Salem.
“Though the Church is a very undemocratic institution, with the rigid hierarchical system, yet, since it is from Jesus Christ, the Liberator and it proclaims the gospel of love and service, we expect at least a minimal listening to the voice of the oppressed, the downtrodden and powerless,” he told Crux.
“Though the Catholic Bishops Conference of India Dalit Empowerment Policy says that caste is a sin, it is a scandal that the leaders of the Church continue to cherish the caste system and do not seem to see that the caste goes against the very basic tenets of Christianity,” the priest added.
“The thousands of people who agitated for Dalit Bishops must be going through bitter disappointment and distrust in the leadership of the Church,” Bosco said.
John said Dalit Catholics feel abandoned.
“All our reverential, prayerful, peaceful and democratic representations and appeals for decades have totally failed. The caste hegemonic hierarchy of Catholic Church in India continues its act of disowning and betrayal of the Dalits within. The apostolic nuncio and the Holy See remain abysmally unconcerned about this,” John said.