Fr. Z. Devasagayaraj
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The Office for SC/BC is the official body of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India formed for the overall development of the Dalits, Tribals and Backward Classes. Dalits mean broken people referring to the untouchables who suffer the stigma of untouchability. Realizing its responsibility to uplift the downtrodden, the CBCI General Body meeting held inGoa in 1986 established the Commission for SC/ST/BC. The Standing Committee in April 2006 constituted a separate ‘Committee for Scheduled Tribes.’
To coordinate, to inspire and to animate the regional commissions.
The Indian society is structured according to the hierarchical caste system that has pushed the Dalits to the lowest level down the centuries with the denial of right to education, property, development and participation. Caste is the most flagrant attempt in the history of humankind to institutionalize inequality with religious and philosophical foundations. Driven by acute poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, the vast majority of Dalits are engaged in menial jobs, undergo extreme exploitation, inhuman treatment and atrocities. The term ‘Scheduled Castes’ is an administrative concept introduced by the British administration.
In the case of the Dalits an important problem is to break through the barrier of untouchability, not simply in its formal legal sense but in its wider social application. The Dalits suffer the crucial problems of displacement and land alienation due to the process of globalization. According to the Census of India 2011, 16.2%, i.e 166millions are the Dalits.
They belong to the backward castes but do not suffer the stigma of untouchability. They are economically poor.
Of the 24 million Christian population, the Dalits constitute about 16 millions. Together they form 18 millions. Majority of these Dalit Christians are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Dalit Christians are thrice discriminated people within the church, within the society and by the State. Dalits embraced Christianity seeking a better life with dignity. But they experience discrimination within the church. The dominant caste converts do not accept the people of lower castes as their equals. Unchristian and discriminatory practices are being continued within the church. Whether Christians or Hindus, the dominant caste people treat the Dalit Christians with the same contempt and subject them to the same ill treatment as their Hindu counterparts.
The third paragraph of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950, popularly known as the Presidential Order, stipulates that "no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of Scheduled Caste." Even a cursory reading of the Order reveals its discriminatory nature. By restricting the benefits to a particular religion, the Order has divided the entire Dalit community on the basis of religion. Instead of caste and socio-economic backwardness being the criterion for reservation, the linkage of caste and religion is treated as the crux of the problem.
The Order violates the letter and spirit of many articles of our Constitution. Article 15 says: "The State shall not discriminate against any citizen only on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them." But here we see the state itself discriminating the Dalit Christians on the basis of religion
The Church leaders have accepted that caste discrimination and untouchable practices exist within the church and exhorted the people to move towards greater equality. Pope John Paul II on 17 November, 2003 in his address to a group of Bishops from Tamil Nadustated: “They (Christians of SC origin) should never be segregated from other members of society. 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 solidarity of the whole Christian community.”
The Statement of the CBCI (Mangalore January 1978) says: “The dignity of man confers certain inalienable rights upon him, whatever be the accident of his birth. Any curtailment or, what is worse, denial of these rights is an act of injustice. Hence, discrimination of any type must be part of our Christian concern. When, unfortunately, it is practiced within the Church itself, it becomes a counter-sign to the Gospel values we profess.” The Statements of the CBCI in Kottayam (1988), Varanasi, (1998) and other statements have called caste discrimination not only a denial of human dignity and equality, but also against the fundamental teachings of Christ.