March 04, 2005

Dalits and the Church in India

The Feb 14 2005 issue of America Magazine had an eye-opening article on the struggle of Dalit Catholics in India, and within the Indian Catholic Church. 'Dalit' means 'broken' - and the Dalit are essentially the untouchables in India. They also make up a sizable portion of India's population and of the local Catholic church.

Dalit's - whether they are Christian or Hindu - really don't have any basic rights in India. According to the article in America, Dalit girls are raped by upper-caste men with little fear of the law, Dalits are not allowed to sit on bus benches or use public toilets or water fountains, and aid money for Dalits is often stolen by higher-caste officials. The article tells of a Dalit man who married a woman from one of the lower castes (Dalit's are below the castes). His wife took an overnight visit to her family and didn't return. He went to investigate, and found she had been beaten and buried alive by the villagers. Those same villagers also beat him to death, apparently with no consequences from the law. The list of abuses could go on, but just imagine that Dalits are treated as less than human, and the caste-culture allows the abuse to continue. Many Dalits are also ignorant of what rights they do have, or are too afraid to pursue them.

And if all that is not bad enough, cateism and the abuse of Dalits is part of the Indian Catholic church. Most of the native priests and bishops are from the upper castes and seem to have carried their caste-views with them. Dalits were not allowed to enter the seminary until the 1960's and even today about 70% are turned away. Parishes are split along caste-lines, and if a priest tries to help his Dalit parishioners, he is often disciplined. The Jesuit Provincial of India is a Dalit, and when he tried to mention caste problems in one of the society's documents, his Indian colleagues admonished him and took it out.

Christian Dalits have started an organization called the 'Dalit Christian Liberation Movement' in an effort to publicize and bring an end to this discrimination from both their society and the church. Their web site has some very interesting material, including letters to the council of Indian bishops and to Pope John Paul 2 urging that action be taken. It doesn't report what action was taken, if any.

The article in America calls for the US Catholic church to come to the aid of the Indian church in a way similar to how it helped force South Africa to end aprtheid in the 70's and 80's. In my opinion, every Catholic ought to be concerned with casteism and discrimination in the church.

Catholic identity and membership knows no national boundaries - the Dalit at mass in Kerala is just as much my brother or sister in Christ as the friend standing next to me at mass at my home parish. While we may know that at an intellectual and spiritual level, aren't we also called to show our concern for them in some tangible ways? Perhaps we can start by getting more familiar with the issue and writing a letter to our bishop.