MUMBAI, India – Bishops in India have been told the Church must “move away from being content with doling out some schemes and programs” for Dalits – those at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste system formerly known as “untouchables” – and work to develop “a deeper understanding of the causes and manifestations of deprivation, discrimination and exclusion of Dalit Christians within the Church, by the larger society and by the State.”

Jesuit Father A. Maria Arul Raja, a professor of Religious Studies at the Jesuit Theology Centre in Chennai, spoke about the Church and Dalits at the biennial meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India taking place this week in Bangalore.

India has instituted several public programs – similar to affirmative action in the United States –  to help the Dalit population, which makes 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.

On Dec. 13, 2016, the Indian bishops issued a “Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India” which Raja said made “Dalits, both from within and outside the Church, feel that they have been abundantly blessed with the Kairos moment.”

However, the Jesuit priest said the Church needs to do more to work for justice for the Dalit community.

“Even with the power of the Gospel of compassionate justice and righteous egalitarianism as breathed out by the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, we the Church seem to have fallen under the violent burden of caste culture of fragmentation with the simple defeatist excuse that ‘caste cannot be eliminated’ or with a pessimistic outlook that ‘caste cannot be immediately defeated’,” Raja said. “At this moment of history let us have the examination of conscience.”

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 on August 10, 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.

For this reason, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India has designated August 10 to be observed as a “black day,” and called for meetings, rallies, candle-light vigils, and other forms of demonstrations to be organized to show support and solidarity to those Christians and Muslims belonging to scheduled castes who are suffering the injustice of having their legal rights denied.

The Catholic bishops have also joined with the National Council of Churches in India to institute Dalit Liberation Sunday every second Sunday of November. On this day, Dalits also march for the rights in cities across the country.

“The emergence of Dalit movements and Dalit Christian movements and assertion of Dalit rights from the human rights perspective have contributed enormously in this journey,” Raja said.

There has been some progress on the issue. In the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, state benefits for Dalits are given to Christian Dalits as well; but many officials in those states ignore the law, and Dalit Christians still face discrimination and are denied their rights.

A civil petition asking for the deletion of the paragraph of the 1950 presidential order denying Dalit status to Christians and Muslims has been languishing in the courts for over a decade and is currently pending before India’s Supreme court.

The petitioners are arguing that the constitutional rights of Christian and Muslim Dalits have been denied for nearly seven decades because of their religion.

Raja said Indian Dalits, and especially Dalit Christians, “are really consoled to see the entire body of the Church and the CBCI to walk with them with creative pastoral commitment.”

The priest praised several actions by the bishops’ conference in support of Dalits: Filing a writ petition in the Supreme Court in support of Dalit Christians and Muslims; urging Catholic educational institutions to create spaces for disadvantaged students; and leading initiatives such as conferences and seminars aimed at promoting the rights and development of Dalits.

“The God of Holiness rejoices in the act of community building from all sectors of people irrespective of their creed, code, cult, color, culture, or caste,” Raja said. “All those who indulge in community-dividing in the name of tradition, religion, culture, and caste cannot find favor with the God of Justice.”

The priest called on the bishops’ conference to remove every trace of discrimination based upon caste.

“Let us make a solemn pledge as disciples of Christ to create a new society free from casteism,” he said.