MUMBAI, India – Christians in India are marking Dalit Liberation Sunday on Nov. 12, in an effort to highlight the need for Christians to “be the voice of the voiceless” in society.
Dalits – formerly known as “untouchables” and also known as members of “scheduled castes” – are at the bottom of Hinduism’s rigid caste system.
India has instituted several public programs – similar to affirmative action in the United States – to help the Dalit population, which make up between 15 and 20 percent of the country’s population, but widespread discrimination and marginalization continue.
In India, Christians are approximately 2.3 percent of the population, of which around 60 percent are Dalits.
“Even in this modern world the atrocities against Dalits have not decreased rather it is on the increase,” said Father Z. Devasagaya Raj, the secretary of the Office of Scheduled Castes-Backward Classes of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
For this reason, the Catholic bishops joined with the National Council of Churches in India to institute Dalit Liberation Sunday every second Sunday of November.
This year’s theme is “Religious Freedom of the Dalits.”
Dalits suffer discrimination even when they are Hindus, but members of scheduled castes who are Christians suffer additional discrimination based on their faith, as well as losing eligibility for government assistance programs available to other Dalits.
The first president of India, Rajendra Prasad, signed a presidential order in 1950 stating that no one belonging to “a religion different from the Hindu religion shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste.” Sikhs (since 1956) and Buddhists (since 1990) have since been allowed to benefit also from laws applying to Dalits.
Raj told Crux members of scheduled castes are denied their religious freedom to choose any religion they want, which he points out “is enshrined in the constitution.”
The priest said the special day of observance reminds Christians of their “call and responsibility … to show solidarity and love towards these Dalits who are the victims of the caste system.”
Bishop Anthonisamy Neethinathan, the chairperson of the Office of Scheduled Castes-Backward Classes, said Dalits are not only economically poor, but also politically powerless and socially outcastes.
“The man-made caste system which remains a social stigma throughout generations has divided us, so that we are not able to experience the real presence of God in our lives,” he said in a statement.
“God the Father created us to be His loving children and to become Christ like. But in reality, we remain strangers to God by discriminating against our own fellow members of the mystical body of Christ. The Dalit Christians not only experience discrimination within the Church but also by the state and the society,” the bishop said.
Neethinathan also lamented the fact Dalit Christians often suffer discrimination from fellow Christians, who still observe many of the societal prejudices of the predominant caste system.
“The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India continues to take necessary steps to eradicate the caste-based discrimination that exists in the Church. In this regard a policy for empowering Dalits was released in December 2016 which declares that caste discrimination is a grave social sin,” he said.
Jesuit Father A. X. J. Bosco is the coordinator of the United Front for Dalit Christian Rights and also serves as an advisor for the National Council for Dalit Christians.
He told Crux the entire caste system is antithetical to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, calling it a “unique and terrible” form of discrimination which pushes Dalits to the margins of society.
“Fear, inferiority and guilt have been injected into them for centuries, so that many Dalits accept their miserable state as fate or a situation ordained by God himself,” Bosco said.
“Caste is in the blood of every Indian; even the ministers at the altar are caste minded and exhibit discrimination to their flock. Instead of preaching liberation, they advocate poverty, patience, obedience and humility to those who are already poor, suffering, obedient and humiliated by the rest of the society,” the Jesuit continued.
Bosco said words and prayers are not enough, and Christians must work to seek justice for the oppressed scheduled castes in India.
He said those who exist above the Dalits in the caste system have enjoyed their higher status by exploiting those below them – “dominating them, extracting free and cheap labor, feeling superior to the Dalits and treated them with contempt, raping and molesting Dalit women.”
Bosco said people must be awakened to the injustice, and fight the powerful interests who do not want change.
“They take to violence; perpetuate atrocities on them and continue to subjugate them; they crush the already crushed people; they are ready to kill them to keep the status quo. Liberation of Dalit is a continuous process. God is a God of liberation; he takes the side of the poor,” Bosco said.
Neethinathan said this coming Sunday “is an opportunity to give hope, to empower and uplift” members of scheduled castes in India.
“The celebration of Dalit Liberation Sunday is a clarion call to the whole Christian community to renew our faith, to be the voice of the voiceless and to stand by those who are made vulnerable in the society,” the bishop said.