MUMBAI – Some 1,500 Christians recently rallied in the southeastern Indian city of Kadapa after the kidnapping and beating of a Catholic bishop by three of his own priests, in an incident protesters see as reflective of caste prejudice within India’s Catholic Church.
In late April, Bishop Prasad Gallela of Cuddapah, located in the state of Andhra Pradesh, was abducted and beaten. Police later charged 14 people in the assault, including three of Gallela’s own priests, who were reportedly upset over personnel appointments they had sought that the bishop denied.
In the course of the kidnapping, Gallela was shoved down on the floor of a car, kicked and beaten brutally with insults hurled at him. The kidnappers videotaped the entire ordeal.
The May 16 rally in the city of Kadapa, also located in Andhra Pradesh, was staged to protest what organizers see as a weak response to the Gallela case from Catholic leaders in India, which they suspect is likely related to the fact that Gallela is a Dalit, meaning an “untouchable” under the ancient caste system, while the arrested priests are upper-caste.
Although discrimination based on the centuries-old caste system is now prohibited by India’s constitution, and the country has enacted a variety of affirmative action programs to empower members of the traditionally lower castes, observers say prejudices associated with caste status still run deep in Indian society.
According to the organizers of the May 16 protest, ten priests and eight religious sisters turned out, with the rest of the participants being laity.
Father A.X.J. Bosco, a Jesuit and adviser to the “Citizens Forum for Justice,” the group that organized the rally, released an open letter to Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, voicing those concerns.
“The sad and criminal event has been published in the media, [but] no significant response [from Church leadership] condemning the culprit priests or supporting Gallela has been in the national media,” Bosco wrote.
He goes on to ask the obvious question, “Why not?”
“Are all the prayers, statements, promises and assurances of the hierarchy and Church leaders only in words? Is the Church leadership afraid of their caste communities; or do they not care about the Dalits even if they happen to be bishops?”
“You can very well imagine what the people, especially the Dalit Catholics, would think and feel about the significant silence on the part of the official Church,” Bosco wrote.
“We know that there is caste discrimination in the Church, and it is a great challenge to the Christian Community in India,” he said. “The question to ask is – If Jesus were here, what he would have done?”
Bosco goes on to demand a “concrete plan of action,” including possibly the transfer of bishops who are unwilling to see Dalits within their flocks as equals to different dioceses.
An Indian member of the Capuchin Franciscans named Father Nithiya Sagayam told Crux that “the silence of the official Church is criminal” on matters of caste prejudice.
“It is a great shock and, we are unable to believe what is happening in the country, Sagayam said.
“Our socially discriminatory society is vigorously condemned by secular leaders who work for social justice,” he said. “But it is shocking that the Catholic Church and its official organizations have not responded effectively to end this evil, in spite of clear indications of caste discrimination within the Church leadership.”
“It is an utter shame, [and] it threatens our very trust in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church,” Sagayam said.