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On Contradiction of being Dalit Christians

1. Introduction: Context

There is yearning for renewal in the Church and among religious Orders/Congregations through
„seeking the roots‟ and „creative fidelity‟ in order to translate the vision of the founders of the
Church and of the Religious Orders/Congregations through theological, social and pastoral
reflections especially based on the current events in the Church. In this context this is a
reflection, based on study and research especially in Tamil Nadu, which would help the people
concerned, especially the authorities to make discernment for action-oriented faith-life.

In a world of social and moral evolution, Christianity came about as a paradigm shift. The world
is full of contradictions filled with tension and struggle: the rich and the poor, the powerful and
the powerless, the ruler (affluent) and the ruled (downtrodden), the discriminator and the
discriminated, the suppressor and the suppressed, the educated and the uneducated, the literate
and the illiterate, the vociferous and the voiceless etc. The economic development of the world
itself is seen as an uncomfortable coexistence of economic increase and decrease with the
outcome of the mutually exclusive opposites leading to mutual hatred and disharmony. These
contradictions could be internal, on the conceptual or ideological level, leading to external
conflicts. And the internal causes lead to external changes, sometimes violently and sometimes
through alternate power-building, with the outcome as constructive or destructive.

Walking through the faith-lane one faces the contradiction between Christian faith and practice
and one realizes how the Church stands today as an anti-value and anti-witness to Christ and His
teachings, through discrimination and marginalization. And at the same time one is invited to see
the ray of hope of better tomorrow amidst contradictions in reality. When the broken say: „Our
bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely‟ (Ez 37:11) the Lord of the
Universe assures them: „When I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my
people, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil;
then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act‟ (Ez 37:13).

2. Jesus: Fulcrum of Unity

When Jesus proclaimed, „I am the Truth, the Way, the Light, and the Life‟ (Jn 14:6 and Jn 8:12),
He opened up a new meaning of mission and ministry. It was a way different from „eye-for-an-
eye‟ (Mt 5:38) but a way of holistic redemption with human dignity. It was a life different from
„love-your-neighbour-but-hate-your-enemy‟ (Mt 5:43) but it was a sinner-oriented and socially-
discriminated-centred mission. In a nut shell he would tell his followers: „You have heard…‟ (Mt
5:21) but would then add „not so with you‟ (Mt 20:25) or „but I tell you‟ (Mt 5:22). From the
concept of conformity to class-distinction, he brought out a dynamic contradiction where
people mattered and all are equal and the discriminated in the society are more equal. The rich
Joseph of Arimathea (Jn 19:58), the influential Nicodemus (Jn 3:1), the powerful Roman
Centurion (Lk 7:2), the learned Pharisee Simon (Lk 7:36), the sinner Mary of Magdala (Mk
16:9), the blind-person C/O road-side (Lk 18:35), the leper/s at the outskirts of the villages (Mk
1:40, Lk 17:12), the paralyzed of 38 long years (Jn 5:5), the Samaritan woman at the Jacob‟s

well (Jn 4:7), the dog-eats-bread-crump-from-table Canaanite woman (Mt 15:27), workers who
came to work in the vineyard at the eleventh hour and those who came early in the morning (Mt
20:8) etc are all the same for him. But his heart went out for the needy – the two-copper-coin
widow (Lk 21:2) is a model of generosity since „blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is
kingdom of heaven‟ (Mt 5:2); the crying-and-wiping-feet-with-hair sinner (Lk 7:38) is a role
model to be proclaimed all over the globe since „the pure in heart will see God‟ (Mt 5:8); the
ignored Lazarus at the door-step of the Millionaire (Lk 16:20) is the ultimate winner since „the
meek will inherit the earth‟ (Mt 5:5) and the heaven as well. Jesus preached what he believed and
lived out what he preached – That is why he could preach and teach with authority (Mt 7:29). He
eliminated the contradiction between his preaching and his practice.

2.1. Struggle for Justice:

In world of contradictions the Church took roots and spread her wings: It is a universal
phenomenon that largely the poor and the socially discriminated embraced Christianity since it
promised a society with a difference where what you have matters nothing but what you are
matters everything. Even now they very much hesitate to leave the faith for the sake of monetary
benefits. The Church grew out of poverty but she seems to have today distanced herself from the
poor. The foundation stones of the Church were the neglected in the society, namely the poor and
the downtrodden, but today the socially discriminated are sidelined and ignored in the Church.
Jesus did not say in vain: The stone rejected by the builders would become the corner-stone (Mt
12:10). Today we are in the turning point of time where the people, especially the marginalized
and the discriminated, would reject those who proclaim themselves as the builders and stewards
of the Church and they would found a Church anew based on the original model of Jesus, namely
a Church of the poor, by the poor, and for the poor. Then the Church would not mean the
towering buildings and the Shepherd would stand alone without the sheep. And the heart-beat of
the Church, in our Indian context, would be the economically poor, religiously neglected,
socially discriminated, culturally humiliated and politically ignored.

During the recently concluded 12th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in
Rome the Asian delegate Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati said:
"Missionaries have remained creative and kept entering into new areas of work. Their
services in the fields of education and health are greatly esteemed. [...] They are active in
the struggle for justice for oppressed groups; in the work for social change, cultural
promotion, protection of environment, defense of life and family; in advocacy on behalf
of the weak, downtrodden and the marginalized, and giving voice to the voiceless. [...]
Even where the Gospel is resisted most, the evangelical witness of socially relevant
works find welcome." (Cf., Oct 7 „08)
We could reflect on how much the Church in Tamil Nadu has been active „in the struggle for
justice for oppressed groups‟ and how much progress has been so far made „in the work for
social change‟.

2.2. Towards the Parousia:

We could reflect where we come from and where we are heading to. We revisit the facts that the
missionary spirit has frozen into institutions, the dynamic spirit of seeking for truth has become

static in comfort, and the parousia of Jesus, when he would ask for an account of our life,
mission and ministries, appears to be conveniently sidelined and seems to be a long forgotten
concept (which is perhaps taught in our theologates for academic exams). There is an urgent
need for renewal in the liberative fundamentals of our faith, especially when a lot of
misconceptions and deliberate distortions are let loose opposed to the integral emancipatory
efforts of the Dalits. In the words of Martin Luther King: we are not satisfied, and we will not be
satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos

3. Contradiction of Mission and Ministry:

The mission entrusted by Jesus to his followers was to go all over the nations and proclaim the
good news to the poor and to set free the oppressed (Lk 4:18). This freedom and liberation is
holistic: the economically crippled should be able to walk, the socially timid and dumb should be
able to speak voicing forth their rights and attain their dignity, the eyes of those blinded by
prejudices and hatred should be open, to bombard those who turn a deaf-ear to the cry of the
needy and the suppressed. He insisted that the quality of the tree of mission would be judged by
the fruits of the ministry of liberation. When disciples of John the Baptist came and posed the
question: Are you the one or should we look for someone? Jesus asked them to decipher for
themselves what he was doing for the people, namely curing individual diseases, challenging
social sicknesses, addressing political evils (Lk 7:21) – He said: go and tell John what you have
SEEN and HEARD (Lk 7:22). And he set the „doing‟ and not mere „preaching‟ as the criteria on
the last day (Mt 25:31-46).

Today we need to see around how much we talk and how much we walk the talk. The Church,
especially the hierarchy with the claim as the direct successors of the Apostles of Jesus, should
stand for the poor and the oppressed. Both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament we
see God taking the side of the poor and the exploited and Jesus sharing the lot of the poor and the
discriminated. Yahweh made out of the slaves of Egypt a great and powerful nation – It is for
that he brought them out of slavery „with mighty hand and outstretched arm‟ (Dt 26:8). The
outstretched arm was to protect the Israelites and the raised hand was to smash any obstacles or
threats on the way to the Promised Land. And today we need to reflect on our own mission and
ministry in the Church of Tamil Nadu and see if Tamil Nadu Church has extended this
„outstretched arm and raised hand‟ to all its people and especially the weak. We could, for
example, revisit the recent incidents in Eraiyur in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore.
The Eraiyur incident is not an exception. On the contrary it is the tip of an ice-berg that is found
hidden in the hearts of the Christians of Tamil Nadu in general and the Church authorities and
Religious Superiors in particular. Hence this deserves a theological analysis in itself.

3.1. Eraiyur – Voice against discrimination:

In Eraiyur even in the past the Dalit Catholics have been discriminated: Already there was
tension brewing up in October 2007 which exploded as attack on the Dalit Cathoics in March
2008 (For further study on Eraiyur, Cf. A. Kulandai, Eraiyur Oru Siraiyur, Chennai: Payani Pub.
2008). Even the funeral procession of the Dalits would not be tolerated along the main road
since it was assumed to be polluting the area. Even when the mother of a Dalit priest (of the

Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore) died (in 1999) the funeral Mass could not be celebrated
in the Parish Church. The Canon 1177/1 prescribes that „the funeral of any deceased member of
the faithful should normally be celebrated in the church of that person‟s proper parish‟. And the
Canon 1365 states „one who is guilty of prohibited participation in religious rites is to be
punished with a just penalty‟. (But it has been ignored). The Archbishop, instead of breaking this
social discrimination, seemed to have celebrated Mass in the Dalit cemetery (supposed to be
exclusively for the Dalits) without any „penal sanction‟ for the offence committed (Can 1311). A
group of the so called touchable Christians seemed to have told their Archbishop: “Caste is more
important for us than religion.” Blood of caste seems to be thicker than the waters of
Baptism! The discrimination has reached a culmination when the Dalits made a request for a
Dalit parish. This could be the beginning of a Dalit Church in Tamil Nadu dreamt by Fr Antony
Raj SJ, the founder of Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM). In Eraiyur there were
peaceful demonstrations for many days and the Church authorities remained indifferent. The
tension broke into violence. The Marian grotto in the locality of the Dalits was destroyed and the
statue of our Lady was damaged. The Dalits were so mercilessly manhandled and their houses
destroyed that the police official, who was a Catholic, gave shooting-order since he could not
tolerate Catholics destroying Catholics. Even in the melee the certificates of the educated Dalit
Catholics were hunted and destroyed but the incident has been termed by a hierarchy as
engineered by a group of Dalit priests who have access to foreign money. This sounds the same
when the BJPs and Bajrang Dal Parivar (the self-appointed fundamentalist Hindutva outfits)
accuse the Catholic Church of foreign money for forced conversion. Instead of doing justice the
demands and cry of the Dalits for justice is labeled by the hierarchy as emotional. Even the
bishops of neighbouring dioceses were denied access to visit the area or the victims. Vatican II
would assert that „the cry of the afflicted‟ (Ps 9:12) should find an echo in the lives (ET 18) of
the disciples of Jesus who identified himself with them (Mt 25:35-40). But the reality seems to
be different.

Instead of taking action against the perpetrators of violence and social discrimination the
hierarchy laments that the Tamil Nadu Church is helpless since it has only a spiritual power
(Interestingly the Code of Canon Law states: „The power of governance is divided into
legislative, executive and judicial power‟ – Can 135/1). When the Dalits demonstrated in front of
the Bishop‟s houses the police force could be used to remove them or to press legal actions
against them but when it comes to social atrocities helplessness is cited. During the consecration
of Bishop Gabriel (in Trichy) the demonstrating people, about 700 in number, were rounded up
by the police force and were kept away till the ceremonies were over. Walking down the
corridors of time we could see that the Church authorities resorted to legal force, just to cite two
examples, Pastor Bartholomaeus Zieganbalg in Tranquebar Mission and Archbishop Leonard of
Madurai, but in favour of establishing human rights.

3.2. Assertion for equal Rights:

In Panipulan Vayal of Sivagangai Diocese (in May 2008) the Dalits who had tried to assert their
rights and struggled for independence were suppressed. Everywhere the Dalits are suppressed
since they should not ask for their rights. The background of the violence against Christians in
Orissa, in spite of the Maoists taking up the responsibility of killing of the Hindu Swamy, is not
„conversion‟ as they say but the fact that the Dalits and Tribals are given education which would

empower them in the society and that should be sabotaged. It is with the same attitude that the
Church hierarchy try to suppress the Dalits who try to come up through education and who open
up their eyes to the reality of suppression and discrimination and who begin to raise their voice
for their dignity and equality. The education and development of the Dalits and the Tribals will
make the caste hierarchy crumble and the „dominant castes‟ can not sit at the top of social and
administrative ladder and lord over or master them. Something similar is happening in Tamil
Nadu. Some „dominant caste‟ hierarchy do not want to see the Dalits come up in their education
and take part in the decision making bodies of the Church. So they lament and accuse the Dalits
of so many baseless allegations. They are only afraid that their fort is already crumbling and the
false images that they maintain and propagate among the „pious‟, „innocent‟ and „obedient‟
Christians are fading away. They take all preemptive attempts to prevent the „untouchables‟ to
reach „unreachable‟ heights in social and religious status through empowerment via education
and employment. Dominant-caste Catholics destroying Dalit-Catholics is worse than Bajrang
Dal destroying the Dalit and Tribal Catholics!

4. Anatomy of Humiliation:

In India the caste system, known as Varnashrama Dharma, is based on discrimination. Initially
the fair-skinned invaders from the north drove down to the south the dark-skinned natives of the
land (This is the Varnashrama – Origin of colours and social status) and later when the invaders
became powerful they introduced the caste system and added an appendix: out-of-caste group.

4.1. Caste-system:

The four caste-levels, as per the hierarchy, would be the priestly clan, the warrior group, the
commercial agents, and the working class. The priestly clan, as per the myth, were born of the
head (Brahmins); the rulers and warriors (Kshatriyas) were born of the shoulder; the merchants
(Vaisyas) were born of the thigh; and the working class (Sudras) were born of the feet of Lord
Brahma, the Creator. The „dharma‟ (duties) follows the caste-system: the Brahmins are to learn
and teach, the Kshatriyas are to rule, the Vaisyas are to do business, while the Sudras are down-
to-earth doing all works needed for the other three dominant varnas [Cf. „The Hindu Social
Order and Its Unique Features‟ in: Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vasant
Moon (ed), Mumbai: Education Department, 1987, Vol.3, pp. 116-129]. The unwanted appendix
but necessary for life, namely the out-of-caste, are the untouchables (also known as „Panchama‟,
the fifth category). As Narendra Jadhav would put it:
They were denied human rights and were forced to scrape together a living from
denigrating chores such as carrying human manure and removing the carcasses of cattle.
They were powerless to change their caste-based social status. There was no scope for a
revolt. How could mere mortals challenge a structure ordained by God himself? Social
and religious sanctity had ensured unquestioning perpetration of the age-old system…. A
person belonging to a sweeper caste had to dutifully carry human excrement on his head
with the hope that he could look forward to bettering his lot in the another life (Cf. N.
Jadhav, Untouchables, New York: Scribner, 2005, p.4).
They would work but in work-hierarchy theirs would be below the works of the Sudras, namely
to till the soil, to handle the dead-animals, to clean the human excreta etc. Since they do the
„unclean‟ works they are polluted but the produce of the land, fruit of the labour of the

untouchables etc are not unclean! These are the exploited group without any human dignity –
They do not enjoy human rights nor equality. They are just „commodities‟, like the slaves,
employed as „bonded labourers‟. (At least a slave could be set free but these out-caste-people can
never be freed from untouchability!) They are the Dalits, which literally means „the broken‟ (the
crushed and torn asunder). The caste system is in existence from the Vedic age. Even education
and economic affluence could not break the caste-system. According to this „dharma‟, a Dalit
once born a Dalit would die a Dalit!

The condition of the Dalits could be well described by the concept of „anthropological poverty‟,
proposed by Engelbert Mveng, an African theologian: When persons are deprived not only of
goods and possessions of a material, spiritual, moral, intellectual, cultural, or sociological order,
but of everything that makes up the foundation of their being-in-the-world … they sink into a
kind of poverty which no longer concerns only exterior or interior goods or possessions but
strikes at the very being, essence, and dignity of the human person.

4.2. Pro-active response:

Buddhism came into existence as a pro-active response to the caste-ridden Hinduism but
Hinduism saw to it that Buddhism was „expelled‟ from India – Buddhism instead spread to other
countries via Sri Lanka, Japan, China etc. Christianity which claims that „there is nothing
unclean created by God‟ (Acts 10:15) could not make inroad with regard to the first three
category of the caste-system. It is the Sudras and the Dalits (with the Dalits as the majority) who
embraced Christianity with the hope that this religion would free them from the caste oppression
under which they have been suffering for centuries. Even according to the Bishops Conference
of Tamil Nadu, the Dalits make at least 65% of the Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu (Cf. Minutes
of TNBC 1992-meeting). Christianity could not go beyond about 3% of Indian population –
Neither could it break the caste-barrier in India in spite of the fact that about 85% of schools are
run by Christians in India. The Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu, as in India, has produced
efficient clerks and middle-level work-force but did not set eyes on forming political leaders,
business magnates, social or religious reformers. The followers of Christ in India are mostly the
sudras and the untouchable Dalits but now the Church authorities prepare the future generation,
ignoring the Dalits, in the society. This is so because the Church also holds on to the caste-
system. The Church authorities see to it that the mission and the vision of the Tamil Nadu
Church do not go beyond schools and a few colleges. And there is no evolution of farsighted
projects to bring these people, who are the artery of the Catholic Church, into the mainstream of
the nation through employment. They were, instead, made to be dependent on the Church
hierarchy all through their life. (Tamil Nadu Bishops Conference along with the TNPCRI
brought out the 10-point programme and later 8-point programme but not much has taken off!)
The discriminated are more discriminated and the exploited are more exploited. The
proclamation of Jesus in the Synagogue of Nazareth, namely „good news to the poor‟ (Lk 4:18)
still remains a distant echo in India. The echo, namely „integrated liberation and holistic dignity
for the Dalits‟ remains only a talk (and an empty slogan) but the Church in Tamil Nadu is yet to
walk the talk. Vatican II clearly spells out the need and meaning of human dignity:
“We cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people in other than
brotherly fashion, for all men are created in God‟s image. Man‟s relation to God the
Father and man‟s relation to his fellow-men are so dependent on each other that the

Scripture says, “he who does not love, does not know God” (I Jn 4:8). There is no basis,
therefore, either in theory or in practice for any discrimination between individual and
individual, or between people and people arising either from human dignity or from the
rights which flow from it” (NA 5).

4.3. Evolution of Church-structure:

Casteism is very much alive in the Church in Tamil Nadu. Just we could have a glance of the
Church buildings in Tamil Nadu: The caste-mindedness and caste-discrimination were so strong
that the Churches for the dominant caste people and for the Dalits were different – Even Masses
would not be held together for all the faithful, though they shared, according to Paul, one spirit,
one baptism, one faith and one Lord (Eph 4:5). Earlier, the Church in the area of dominant caste
would be the Parish Church and the Presbytery would be adjacent to the Parish Church. The
consciousness (struggle) of the Dalits for equality started taking shape as missionaries with
social-equality thoughts tried their best for bringing the people together. The success-rate was
slow: Attempts were made to have double-decker Church (one floor for the dominant caste and
one for the lower caste) with one common altar. Then the so called „trouser-church‟ came in:
One altar with V-shaped wings (one wing for the caste people and the other for the Dalits) so that
the caste Catholics do not cast their eyes on the Dalits (Cf. Siva Subramanian, Kristhavathil
Jathiayam – for discussion on the Vadakankulam Church). The evolution of human rights started
making its presence felt: The cross-shaped Church came in – The main wing would be for the
caste people while the side wings would be for the Dalits. Then the Dalits were brought in the
main section but with a divider – It is this divider that Archbishop Leonard SJ of Madurai
Archdiocese broke down symbolically breaking down the caste discrimination. (Already in the
time of French Governor Dupleux in Pondicherry the barrier-wall, dividing the dominant caste
and the Dalits, in the Samba church was demolished by the parish priest and the Governor and
his wife supported this bold step – Cf. Pirabanjan, Vanam Vasappadum, Chennai: Poongothai
Pub., 1958) Even until recently the Dalits were not seated together in many a parish Church in
Tamil Nadu. Even though they were able to take part in the common liturgy, Holy Communion
was first distributed to the caste people and only then the Dalits could take part in the banquet of
the Lord. Even the altar boy who helped in Communion distribution would be from the caste
people for the caste people and a Dalit boy for the Dalit Catholics to take part in the
Communion. Even at the Lord‟s banquet there has been discrimination. In the words of Paul
people „come together not for the better, but for the worse‟ (I Cor 11:17)!

4.4. Present-day Casteism:

Even today in many places when the Parish Patron/Patroness feast is celebrated the car-
procession would not go into the area of Dalits lest the patron-saint should become polluted. And
the Corpus Christi Procession would not see the light of the Dalit streets. The Dalits are
discriminated even in death. There are, in most places, separate cemeteries for the caste-dead and
the Dalit-dead and even the vehicle used to take the dead bodies to the cemeteries would be
different: one for the caste Catholics and one for the Dalit Catholics. (Even when the separating
wall in Trichy cemetry was demolished, the local Church came forward to rebuild it). Even death
cannot part with untouchability. We have to wait and see whether there would be a caste-heaven
and a Dalit-heaven! Not only the dead-Dalits are skirted off from others by a wall but the living

as well: In Uthapuram, near Madurai, there is a wall separating the Dalit houses from other
houses. One wonders which side of the wall the Catholic Church and the hierarchy stand. And
the Church hierarchy have not taken any efforts to break-down this social evil since they claim
they are only spiritual power. The hierarchy cannot offer spiritual solution to human rights
violations. In other words, the spiritualistic (superficial) model of the Church has failed. If one is
truly spiritual he/she cannot but play the prophetic role in denouncing whatever is unjust. Jesus
was truly a spiritual person completely immersed in the Abba experience (of the universal father-
/motherhood of God and therefore the universal brother-/sisterhood of the people) since each one
was created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). In the words of Vatican II:
All men are endowed with a rational soul and are created in God‟s image; they have the
same nature and origin and, being redeemed by Christ, they enjoy the same divine calling
and destiny; there is here a basic equality between all men and it must be given ever
greater recognition (GS 29).

4.5. Vocation Promotion:

Regarding vocation promotion, under the pretext that the candidate should hail from „good
families‟, Dalits were turned out. The fifth Provincial Council of Goa (1606) stated:
„For the dignity of the priesthood and the respect due to ecclesiastical persons, low castes
should not be admitted to orders. Only sons of higher castes, for example Brahmins,
Prabhus, should be ordained. The Synod instructs Rectors of Seminaries not to teach
Latin to non-Brahmins. But all Thomas Christians, being Christians of long and noble
standing, may be admitted to all sacred studies and to Latin‟ (Accao Terceira, Decreto 40,
December 4 - See J. Saldanha, „An Historical Note: Christians of Scheduled Caste
Origin‟, in Indian Missiological Review (September, 1996, p. 55).
Taking in Dalits into seminaries and into many religious congregations is a recent phenomenon.
Even when a few were admitted into the seminary, they are counted as: i. intellectually inferior;
ii. emotionally reactionaries; and iii. morally weak. They were easily shown the door as early as
possible. Most of the Dalits were sent away (by the caste conscious vocation promoters and
formators) saying they did not have vocation while boys and girls from dominant castes were
retained saying they had vocations as they hailed from „good families‟. A study of when Dalits
were taken into diocesan seminaries and how many were allowed to survive the seminary
formation would be revealing to assert whether the Dalits were called by God to serve His people
or not. A simple survey of why so many Dalit Catholics from Tamil Nadu have volunteered to
opt for working in northern India would be an eye-opener to say that Dalits were not accepted
here in Tamil Nadu. The fact that a few Congregations, especially women congregations, were
founded mainly for the Dalits is an indication that they were not even tolerated in other
Congregations. This raises the question whether the ministry of the Word is exclusively for the
caste Catholics. But they want the Congregations to minister from the Dalit community in big
number. It is to show numbers to the financial resources abroad, both religious and secular, and
thus to increase the economic benefits at the expense of denial of human dignity and equality to
the Dalits. A theological question comes in: When a Dalit priest pronounces the words of
consecration, during the Mass, will there come down a Dalit Christ transforming the wheat-bread
into his Body? Why then many caste Catholics feel uneasy to receive communion from a Dalit
priest? Even the religious resist Dalit leadership in their Congregations. What has the Tamil

Nadu Church done about this so far? Instead of fighting against this internalized social evil,
attempts were made to bifurcate dioceses on caste-lines and the Dalits have been neglected.

Even after surviving all these ordeals if someone comes up either academically or
administratively the comments would be: After all he/she is a Dalit or he/she became an
administrator/leader because he/she is a Dalit (meaning Dalits cannot have any merit in
themselves). Even if they are successful in administration their names would be smeared by
negative criticism, misinformation, non-cooperation, and character assassination. All attempts
would be made to discredit the person. Not only they would not be appreciated but rather their
mistakes would be blown up. A Dalit has to work 200% percent in order to get perhaps 10%
recognition or approval or appreciation. But for others it is the other way about. There are many
a Dalit priest and religious who exhibited fine leadership but suffered humiliation. And a few
became broken within – They were the Dalits (meaning broken) both in and out.

Gutierrez would tell the rich, who accuse the poor to be immoral and therefore they have no right
to demand their equal rights, that „the poor are not saints but they are loved by God because they
are exploited and discriminated by humans.‟ The Church hierarchy needs this basic theological

4.6. Sharing the lot with the Marginalized:

The fast changing social consciousness is able to affect the secular Governments, both in the
Centre and State, and even the public sectors but not the Catholic Church. There is more and
more awareness as well as demand for affirmative action in public and private sectors but the
Church is busy blocking or twisting the affirmative action for the socially marginalized.
Universally there are efforts of „Affirmative Action‟ to atone for centuries of discrimination. In
India the Government has reservation for the BC, SC/ST as the Dalits fall in one of the
categories but the Church of Tamil Nadu has not come up with a clear policy with regard to
admission as well as appointment in Church run institutions. Even the attempts made by some
Religious Groups, namely affirmative action for the Dalits, are not appreciated. For example, the
Corporate Policy of the Jesuits in Tamil Nadu, that all Dalit Catholics applying to the Jesuit
educational institutions would be admitted making sure of financial assistance and 50% of the
appointments in their schools and colleges would be ensured for the Dalits, has been criticized by
the hierarchy as rocking the boat. Even when the people‟s movement is strengthened, educating
them in social consciousness, training them in human rights, and organizing them to fight for
their dignity, it is decried by the hierarchy as dividing the people (as if the Church otherwise
stands so united). When people-movements question the temporal administration of the Church
authority it is branded as interference in the administration of successors of the Apostles: It is to
be ascertained that there is to be „finance committee‟ in each diocese with „at least three of the
faithful‟ as members (Can 492/1) and every parish has to constitute „pastoral council‟ (Can
536/1) and „a finance committee‟ (Can 537) to facilitate the temporal administration. This would
give the faithful, especially the suppressed, participation in decision-making. Unfortunately, in
actual practice, the Catholic Church is far from these democratic expectations. Much has to be
done in this respect.

Even when our Church leaders go abroad, as we hear from the funding agencies and Church
organizations, they speak only about poverty of the Dalits in particular but they deny the
existence of casteism and caste-discrimination in Tamil Nadu. Even the funds raised abroad in
the name of the Dalits have not been spent for their upliftment: As per the Foreign Contribution
Regulation 2005-06 accounts the Church has spent only 0.12% and 0.32% for SC and ST welfare
respectively (Cf. The Hindustan Times, November 4, 2006). Fortunately, Jesus did not belong to
the caste system here. Otherwise only his caste people would have followed him with conviction.
Jesus, who not only broke himself for the unity of his Church, remains broken into pieces of
caste-groups in Tamil Nadu. The One, Catholic, Apostolic Church is fragmented into multi-,
casteistic-, broken-Church. As V.R. Krishna Iyer wrote:
The Kingdom of God that Jesus held up was the forerunner to social justice: The
movement of Jesus was from the people and „This rare man of Nazareth resisted Jewish
ecclesiastical domination, opposed discrimination among brothers and demanded, in
God‟s name, socio-economic justice‟… „He outraged the hypocrites who did their
commerce inside the temples and the shrines. He drove them out with rare daring. Now,
right before our eyes, our temples and churches are again centres of big business‟
(Remembering a glorious Rebel, The Hindu Dec 24 2008).
If Jesus were to come to Tamil Nadu Church today he would take up again the whip of assertion
to fight for human rights as well as human dignity and equality since as Martin Luther King
would put it our „churches are again centres of big business‟. And of course, Jesus would be
excommunicated and crucified again for taking the side of the discriminated.

5. Multiple Discrimination of Dalit Christians:

Kushwant Singh, former editor of Illustrated Weekly of India, writing in the Hindustan Times
(dated Oct 03rd 08) indicates, in the context of recent incidents of violence and vandalism against
Christians and their Churches in Orissa and elsewhere, that in India the „largest number of
converts come from communities discriminated against‟. He cites the examples of Dr Ambedkar
„who led his Mahar community to embrace Buddhism because they were discriminated against
by dominant caste Hindus‟ and „Indian Muslims whose ancestors being lower caste embraced
Islam which gave them equal status‟. This is true also with regard to Catholic Church. Most of
the Catholics in India are of lower castes and of Dalits. But the Dalits are today multiply
discriminated. The International Conference held in the Hague in Nov 2006 also discussed the
discrimination of the Dalits, especially of women. The Dalits are socially discriminated,
religiously neglected, and politically ignored – As a consequence they are mostly economically
poor. One can change one‟s nationality, one can change his/her religion, and one can climb the
ladder of economic affluence but one cannot change one‟s caste. Once someone is born a Dalit
even the Ganges waters cannot wash him/her off his/her untouchability and even the baptismal
water has not removed the stigma of one‟s Dalitness though it could wash one off original sin.
Dalitness is much stronger than the original sin! It looks as though Christ redeemed people from
all sins except the sin of being born a Dalit! And it seems that we could even „renounce‟ satan in
baptism but we are not able to „renounce‟ the evil of casteism and untouchability in the Catholic

Just because one is born in a society as a Dalit he/she continues to be a Dalit. And the social
discrimination continues with full force. Thinking that the Word of God would make them

partakers of the one and the same Jesus they embraced Christianity. But they still remain
untouchables though at times untouchability becomes a kind of social isolation – They are
treated in the Church just as they are treated in the society outside. They cannot think of taking
part in the eternal and royal priesthood of Jesus. Not only are they considered as untouchables
but they lose the benefits that the Government extends to their fellow Dalits who were smart
enough not to become Christians. And even if the Dalit Christians convert back to their former
religion they would not get back the social benefits. So socially they remain, Christians or not,
Dalits – Embracing Christianity has not offered anything better to them. Instead, they lose all
benefits offered by the Government for their non-Christian fellow Dalits. They are thus triply
discriminated. All these reduce them to remain in the lowest rung of the economic ladder.
Instead of fighting and mobilizing all possible energy and sources, as a unified force, to get the
constitutional amendment or Supreme Court verdict in favour of the Dalit Christians (to be
included in the SC list), the long struggle of the Dalit Christians have been sidelined, silenced
and forgotten. Is there any unity among the leaders of the Church or are they really interested in
the empowerment of the Dalits?

5.1. Dalit – indelible Stigma:

Even when some Dalits rise against the current of discrimination, their „Dalitness‟ becomes an
indelible stigma. They are not respected for their talents and capabilities but they are branded as
„Dalits‟ meaning Dalits cannot and should not become leaders of the society. Just to cite one or
two examples, when R. K. Narayan became the President of India he was not appreciated for his
decades of statesmanship and diplomatic services in many countries but he was just introduced,
in the media especially in the dailies, as the Dalit President. When the present Chief Justice of
India assumed office there was no singing of his praise, as done for others, but simply it was
noted that the Chief Justice of India is a Dalit (none of his credentials would matter). If this is
how the President of India and the Chief Justice of India could be treated, what about other
leaders? One could imagine how the Dalit-people of God would be considered and treated. When
a caste person assumes office his/her glory and merit are highly praised but when a Dalit
assumes office his/her only „merit‟ seems to be that he/she is a Dalit!

5.2. Atrocities against the Dalits:

According to 2001 statistics 20% of Tamil Nadu population are Dalits and according to the
Tamil Nadu Bishops Conference the Tamil Nadu Catholic Church comprises of 65% Dalits. 82%
of Dalits and 87% of tribals are agricultural labourers. The average income is less than Rs
2,000/- per month and 80% of them do not have any savings and in addition, about 72% are in
debt. Due to the utter economic poverty the school drop-out (from high school) is about 80%.
State Adidravida Welfare Department (2001) has indicated that every hour two Dalits are
attacked, every day three Dalit women are raped, every day two Dalits are killed, every day at
least 2 huts of Dalits are burnt. Every year hundreds of cases of atrocities against Dalits and
untouchability are filed. Even now in many villages there is the two-tumbler system in some
rural tea-shops: caste people use glass-tumbler for tea/coffee whereas the Dalits use either
aluminum-tumbler or coconut-shell (and they themselves have to wash it after use). In Tamil
Nadu in about 100 parishes the practice of untouchability, in one form or other, is still there.
Everywhere as Dr Ambedkar would say: There is ascending order of reverence and descending

order of contempt. This is because the Dalits are considered to be children of a lesser god! But
the future of the Church would be a Dalit-Church. In the Catholic Church when there is „Syro-
Malabar Church‟, „Syro-Malankara Church‟ why cannot be there the „Dalit Church‟ in
communion with the Roman Catholic Church?

The recent atrocities and violence against Christians in Orissa, Jharkhand, Karnataka etc are not
primarily against teaching and practice of Christianity. It is against the „liberation to the poor‟. It
is to be noted that the Sangparivars did not attack the big and reputed institutions, educational
institutions of higher learning. Instead they pillaged orphanages and schools in the villages. That
means that they do not want the Christians to educate the poor and the downtrodden. Educating
the dominant caste and class would be very much welcome. The allegation used by the
fundamentalists to justify their attacks is that „Christians force conversion of Hindus‟ but
according to the Indian Episcopal Conference it is “merely a strategy developed by vested
interests in order to prevent Christian services of health, education, poverty alleviation and
development on behalf of deprived communities” (Cf., Sep 30th 08). Once the
discriminated communities are empowered they would become the leaders in the society which
would not be acceptable to the caste people. The same attitude is unfortunately found within the
Church as well. If the Dalits in the Catholic Church are educated and effectively employed,
through affirmative action, they would become empowered. They, who have been the
untouchables, should never touch the reign of power and leadership in the Church and society
since it is not acceptable for the dominant caste leaders and hierarchy. One is born a Dalit and
hence he/she is „untouchable‟ for ever. Therefore, nib in the bud of empowerment process, is the
attitude of caste leaders. They feel: Keep the Dalits where they are and let them suffocate in their
Dalitness and die of humiliation. Even in death they would be buried away from the caste-
people. It is still to be established that the Dalit dead-bodies would be eaten away by Dalit-
worms! Or perhaps a Dalit Messiah has to still come in to set things right for the Dalits.

Even higher learning from international universities and ecclesiastical institutions have not
changed the feeling about caste-discrimination among the dominant caste people and even the
holy oil of consecration flowing on the head of some of the hierarchy could not remove the
caste-consciousness. Jesus was crucified once but the Dalits are crucified so often on the cross of
discrimination and the foot of the cross is still wet with their blood-shed. If the Church is not
able to address the untouchability and bring in effective measures, then the Church has failed in
her mission here on earth. That is the reason why there is much exodus from the Catholic Church
to other forms of Churches. Even the 10-point programme which the Tamil Nadu Bishops
Conference undertook on itself to do is left undone.

6. Contradiction of Word and Worship:

Jesus was born „Immanuel‟ – to be with us and he stayed on with his people in the form of the
Eucharist. He incarnated as Word of God and he became the healing „Word‟ of God and this
„Word‟ of service was broken on the Cross. Today the Cross is our model and inspiration since it
was there that the Word became our Way of Life. The Cross is a unifying force and Jesus prayed
for unity – The unity he wanted was not less than the unity between his Father and Himself. But
today the ONE, Catholic and Apostolic Church is fragmented in India and divided on caste-lines.
Jesus promoted the „Servant Leadership‟ to spend oneself in the service of others. But today we

see more and more promotion of „Self-Oriented Leadership‟ based on ego and fear – Fear that
the Dalits might over-take others through empowerment is on the increase. Hence there is every
move to suppress the Dalits and every strategy to divide the Dalits saying there is „casteism‟
among the sub-castes of the Dalits. When the Dalits are outside the caste-system, how do they
practice caste-system? The demands of the Dalits are labeled as „emotional‟ problems. When
Dalit political leaders raise any question about discrimination in the Church, then it is viewed as
intrusion and violation of Church‟s sovereignty but when people and priests of dominant caste
affiliate themselves with the political leaders, it is not a problem for the hierarchy. Again this is
the divide and rule policy on the part of the hierarchy. It is the same philosophy with the BJP and
others who are now busy dividing the Dalits and the Tribals and setting one against the others.

We are called to worship the Lord but the Lord is broken – We no longer worship the „Word
became flesh‟ but we worship our own flesh of power and position. On the day of Ordination the
Bishop admonishes the Deacon: Read the Word of God, believe what you read, practice what
you believe, and preach what you practice. But we preach what we read but we practice what we
want. The Word of God and our practices seem to be oil and water – Word of God to be read in
the Liturgy but our practice could be anything – aggression, suppression, discrimination. We say
that we are born in an unequal society but we should take upon ourselves the mission to leave the
society of equality. We have to reflect on the impact of the Word of God in the Bible in our life
of mission and ministry.

7. Contradiction of Power:

Lord Jesus founded His Church upon the least in the society – The poor and illiterate and
downtrodden and socially looked-down were his close circles of friends and disciples. It was to a
social sinner, at the well of Jacob, he revealed for the first time that He was the messiah (Jn 4:26)
and revealed the highest form of prayer, namely „God, who is a spirit, can be worshipped in spirit
and truth‟ (Jn 4:24). It was the socially discriminated and looked-down Samaritan who was cited
as the example of selfless service to one‟s neighbor (Lk 10:34). Jesus said: do like-wise (Lk
10:37). He empowered the discarded in the society – The socially rejected „stones‟ became the
„corner‟ stone of His Church. And today where does one find the power of the Church? -
Definitely not on the side of the downtrodden people. It is time that the people are empowered.

7.1. Lay Collaboration:

Lay collaboration is the crying need discussed everywhere – The Religious Congregations
explore the possibility of sharing powers with the lay collaborators in their institutions. So far
they have been working for the laity and now they are coming to reconcile with the fact that they
have to work with the laity and they are scared of the future when they would have to work
under the laity. The same trend is picking up momentum in the Church - We see, especially in a
few dioceses, that the Anbiyams (Basic Christian Community) and Parish Councils are becoming
decision-making bodies. There is coming in a paradigm shift in the power-grid of the Church –
People of God are more and more becoming aware of their rights and their collective power. The
French revolution broke out since too much power was concentrated on the authorities, both
secular and religious. There is silent revolution going on, starting with the exodus from Catholic
Church and soon the people of God would begin to assert their rights. The people‟s movement is

the need of the hour to rebuild the Church founded by Jesus on the foundation stone of the lay

7.2. Affirmative Action:

It is high time for the hierarchy to realize that affirmative action is the need of the hour. Even the
secular Governments and profit-making corporate bodies are more and more becoming aware of
the importance of affirmative action. But the Church of God needs to learn from the children of
the world. Helping the poor and the marginalized to get educated, especially from the rural
areas, should be the priority of the Church authorities (Cf. All India Catholic Education Policy,
2007, especially Chapter Three). Once effective and employable education is given, the
marginalized and the discriminated would go up the economic ladder and consequently they
would become empowered. Then the fangs of untouchability would not be deadly on them.

8. Contradiction of Concepts:

The whole world is fast changing. The scientific and technological changes that have taken place
within the last 20 years are more than the changes in the last 20 centuries. But the sociological
changes, especially with regard to casteism, seem to be on a snail-speed. We need to rethink
about our Church, our concepts and our practices. The contradiction between our faith and our
life should be ever narrowed down.

8.1. Empowerment of the Powerless:

We need to rethink whether the Church is only a spiritual power which dispenses only with the
sacraments or whether it is the transforming yeast (Mt 13:33), as Jesus would expect it, to bring
about social change of unity starting with union of hearts and minds. There is need for critical
thinking about the existing Church model of hierarchy: The shift should tilt towards the
empowerment of the people – Jesus came not to the socially affluent but the socially
discriminated and neglected. He was surrounded by the socially discarded people and even in the
beginning of the Church it was the poor and the socially discriminated (eg. Hebrew widows
versus Greek widows – Acts 6:1) that were given the priority and importance. Down the
centuries and all over the globe it is the socially downtrodden who embraced Christianity. And
now, among the caste people there is discrimination about the casteless. If the Church does not
address, or does not know to address, or is not willing to address then the present model is a
fiasco. There would be socio-religious revolution within the Church which would bring about
equality on social level and the religious factor would be discarded. The Dalits by becoming
Christians lose the benefits which they would have enjoyed otherwise and they might rethink
whether it is worth losing them any more.

While dealing with the Dalit issues the impact of „Dalitness‟ should be addressed. Even if a Dalit
would scale Mt Everest or land on the Mars he/she would not be suitably recognized since he/she
is a Dalit. The Dalits should be given priority in authority-sharing and their merits and talents
should be recognized without any social or religious bias.

9. Towards Annihilation of Contradictions:

There is need for soul-searching in the Church of Tamil Nadu. We have to examine our
conscience how Dalits are treated at all levels: Their role in the Parish Councils, their
empowered participation in Diocesan commissions, the power-sharing for the Dalit priests and
religious in dioceses and religious congregations etc should be consciously and without prejudice
reflected. There should be a grievance committee in every parish and diocese to address the
social and religious discrimination and marginalization and every form of untouchability. And a
road-map for the Church of Tamil Nadu for the holistic liberation of the people, especially the
broken, should be worked out and executed with time-bound programmes assisted by effective

9.1. Capacity Building:

Capacity building for the Dalit youth should be taken care of. Due to economic inability and
social discrimination the drop-out rate among the Dalits is nearly 80% and they should be given
adequate assistance to continue with their studies. Dioceses and Religious Congregations are
running hundreds of English medium schools – It would be an eye-opener to see what would be
the percentage of Dalits admitted in these schools and the percentage of Dalit teachers (while
65% of the Tamil Nadu Church is of Dalits). It would be interesting to study when onwards
Dalits were admitted into the seminaries and how many were allowed upto Ordination; how
many professors and administrators are there in the seminaries and how many Dalit priests are
chosen to go abroad for higher studies. It would be very informative, to see the reality, to find
out how many Rectors and Novice Masters/Mistresses are Dalits and how many Social Work
Directors in the Dioceses are Dalits. And how many Major Superiors in the Tamil Nadu-
Pondicherry Catholic Religious of India (TNPCRI) are Dalits? As per the report of the General
Body Meeting of the CBCI 1988:
The discrimination based on caste that is rampant in the rest of society continues also
among Christians. Most Christians of scheduled caste origin are still deprived of
economic opportunities, access to adequate educational facilities, leadership roles and
participation in decision-making.
We can also see whether our hierarchy talk about casteism or only about poverty when they visit
the funding as well as ecclesiastical authorities in Europe and the USA – It would be good to
reflect this in the background of the Pope, during his visit to India, citing casteism and the
statement of the CBCI accepting casteism in the Church in India. Pope John Paul II said, while
addressing the Bishops of India during their „ad limina‟ visit (Nov 17th 2003):
Any semblance of a caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians is a countersign
to authentic human solidarity, a threat to genuine spirituality and a serious hindrance to
the Church‟s mission of evangelization. Therefore, customs or traditions that perpetuate
or reinforce caste division should be sensitively reformed so that they may become an
expression of the solidarity of the whole Christian community.
The CBCI General Body Meeting had already voiced forth this concern at Varanasi in U.P.
(March 21-28, 1998):
The Church in India, particularly in recent years, has been actively involved in
denouncing caste system and discrimination against the Dalits. Further, it has taken
positive measures for their development. However, we have to admit that the situation
still remains a serious concern. The prevalence of the caste based practices, not only in
society but also in some parts of the Church in India even at the close of the 20th century,

is a matter of shame and disgrace to all of us. It is a cause of sorrow and expression of
our inability to live our Christian faith adequately. It is not only a denial of human
dignity and equality, but also against the fundamental teaching of Christ who was a friend
of the outcastes of His time, and freely mixed with them.
The Church as a whole should also reflect how to annihilate the barriers to unity in the Church
and to fight for human rights and human dignity and equality.

9.2. Equality-Consciousness:

The Dalits embraced Christianity expecting acceptance as equals in the Church but the
disillusioned people are slowly leaving the Catholic Church as the reality in the Catholic Church
is not anything different from the social contradictions they left behind. If we do not effectively
address this situation Church would mean the buildings and estates and the Shepherd would
stand alone without the sheep while the sheep would be enlightened to take care of themselves.

Jesus had a dream that all should be united just like He and his Abba (Jn 10:30) were united. He
wanted that all have life – life in abundance (Jn 10:10). He came to this world to lay down his
life so that others have fullness of life. Jesus came to give His life as „ransom‟ for people (Mk
10:45). And the spirit of commitment for the members of the Church brought in the spirit of „one
in mind and heart‟ (Acts 4:32-35). If we do not stop the bleeding of untouchability and
discrimination of the Dalits, the Cross of Jesus would continue to drip down with blood and there
would be no resurrection of fullness of life for the Christians. St Peter‟s counsel to the early
Christian community was „Find a reason for your faith‟ (1 Pt 3:15). The Dalit Catholics are
trying to find a reason for their faith in the Church – If the reason is not human dignity and
equality based on human rights, then the faith may be meaningless. For this the discrimination
and marginalization should be abolished - then we could say with Paul, in remembrance of the
Pauline year, that in God „we live and move and have our being‟ (Acts 17:28). Then we would
be able to see God in everybody and we could find everyone in God – Then there would be one
Abba in heaven for us all.

10. Conclusion: Hope in Contradiction
We are able to go to the Moon and return but we are not able to reach out to the Dalits across the
road – We are able to split atom but we are not able to break-down our prejudice against the
Dalits. In the secular world Barack Obama could be elected the President of the United States but
the status of the Dalits in the Holy Catholic Church has not changed much. Perhaps a Dalit
Messiah has to come to lay down his life again, on the cross of discrimination, for the liberation
of the Dalits, especially of the Dalit Catholics! The other possibility would be, which might be
more relevant and practical, the struggling forces converge as a revolution to replace the existing
system of class or caste hierarchy and to create a world of human rights, equality and dignity.
This implies that the Gospel of Jesus needs to be re-interpreted (and truly explained as Jesus has
stated in the context of the marginalized) from subaltern perspectives and the structure of
hierarchy and administration in the Church needs revisit.

Christianity is a religion of hope: From the annihilation of the cross comes out the triumphant
resurrection. If Barack Obama could say in his inaugural speech “a man whose father less than
sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take

a most sacred oath” it gives the Dalits confidence that one day their dream of equality and human
rights would come true. If Mayawati could emerge as the national force, it gives courage to
march forward. From a student, who was made to sit in segregation in the class room because he
was untouchable, the father of Indian Constitutions could emerge, Dr Ambedkar infuses
enduring spirit to meet with the present ordeal of marginalization. From the apartheid a head of
the nation could emerge in South Africa, Mandela inspires light at the end of the dark tunnel of
humiliation and discrimination. In the evolution of empowerment of the powerless, present
humiliation and suppression and exploitation are only the present phenomena. The dream that
one day “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough
places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the
Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Is 40:4-5) will become a reality. The
good news of Jesus, namely liberation to the broken (Lk 4:18), is now germinating in the
sufferings of the marginalized. The hope that the stone rejected by the Church would become the
corner stone of the new Church (Mt 21:42) keeps us marching on. The „glorious rebel‟ Jesus‟
promise of equality and liberation is the dynamic force to keep going. A change is needed in the
Catholic Church and it has to come soon – Tamil Nadu could be the epicenter of the
transformation. The dawn of the Dalit Church would rise upon the Church and then there will be
a new heaven and a new earth and a new Church - Come Lord Jesus (Rev 22:20).

Francis P Xavier SJ
Loyola College, Chennai-600034