Fr. Z. Devasagayaraj
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New Delhi - 100 001
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The Commission for SC/ST/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.’ It functions in close collaboration with the Office for SC/ST/BC
so that more attention could be given to the issues of the Scheduled Tribes in the
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.
The Tribals were the indigenous people of this land. In spite of various invasions
they have maintained their separate identity. They have had a history of isolation
which gives in many ways a unique character to their problems. They are faced with
the task of achieving integration without doing violence to their rich cultural
and artistic heritage. They face challenges of poverty, illiteracy and social prejudice.
In the name of development they are displaced, made landless and uprooted from their
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.
Both the Dalits and Tribals suffer the crucial problems of displacement and land
alienation due to the process of globalization. According to the Census of India
2001, 16.2%, i.e 162 millions are the Dalits and 8.6, i.e., 86 millions are the
They belong to the backward castes but do not suffer the stigma of untouchability.
They are economically poor.
The Dalit and Tribal Christians
Of the 24 million Christian population, the Dalits constitute about 16 millions
and the Tribals 2 millions. Together they form 18 millions. Majority of these Dalit
Christians are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil
Nadu. Most of the Tribal Christians live in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa
and Northeastern states.
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.
Discrimination by the Government
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.
Church’s Response to Caste Discrimination
and Untouchable Practices
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.