The Indian Catholic Church on Monday, has officially released a policy document to build a truly inclusive community as an ethical imperative. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) has launched the new policy of inclusion, support and development of Dalits (so-called untouchables), the poorest and marginalized sectors of Indian society.
The document was presented by Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, President of the Conference, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Conference, Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara and other dignitaries where it was explained that this policy aims to be a step forward, to “eradicate the practices of untouchability and caste discrimination at all levels, improving the living conditions of the Dalits and especially accompanying the Dalit Christians who seek constitutional protection and justice from the state”.
“The Catholic Church has been working for the development of Dalits for many years through social development programs and education. Now through the new policy for the Dalits in India, the Church wants to dedicate itself to them through a more systematic approach”, explained to Fides Fr. Zackarias Devasagayaraj, CBCI Office Secretary who takes care of the pastoral care for the Dalits. “Our hope is that this new approach changes the lives of many Dalit communities in the Catholic Church. We hope to show civil society a new mentality and a new way to consider the poor and marginalized such as the Dalits”, he added.
The 44-page document, titled ‘Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India’, asks the 171 dioceses to submit long and short-term plans within a year to end all kinds of discrimination against Dalit Christians. “If there are dual practices based on caste discrimination, such practices should be stopped forthwith. In case of failure to do so, stringent measures should be taken by the Church authority concerned,” says the document.
Cardinal Cleemis told The Indian Express: “It’s a revolutionary step. We are admitting that it’s a grave social sin, an issue and a problem. It’s a sin, if you are going by the Christian spirit. This is a step to end the practice of discrimination within the church. It’s a message as well as an introspection.”
Criticising the Supreme Court judgment that there was no evidence that Dalit Christians remain as socially and economically backward as Dalit Hindus after conversion, the policy document contests that this position is against Article 15 (1) of the Constitution that prohibits discrimination based on religion.
In the document, the CBCI asks all dioceses to abolish “any practices of untouchability, discrimination and exclusion, especially in places of worship and burial grounds”. It also demands that special attention be given at all levels for the promotion of Dalit Christians within the establishment, ensuring proportionate representation in church bodies and parish councils, and participation of women from the section in decision-making bodies.
It adds, however, that there have been some positive changes and “more acceptance of the rights and dignity of Dalits at least at the ideological and theoretical level” due to various efforts made by the Church and Dalit outfits.
Father Ajaya Kumar Singh, a social activist and director of the “Forum for Social Action of Orissa”, told Fides News Agency, “It is a historic initiative of the Church in India today. It is a milestone to resolve the issue of Dalits in India. Almost 65% of the Indian Catholic community is made up of Dalits. A policy to facilitate their inclusion in all spheres of society and to ensure them a dignified life is essential”. “I am sure that in this way the Dalits will be able to recover their own space. We hope with all our heart to put an end to caste practices in the Church and in society. I hope this document represents a light for the community”, he says.
The Dalits in India, often victims of oppression, belong to the former caste of “untouchables” in the Hindu caste system. It is estimated that more than half of the 25 million Christians in India are Dalits.
The 44 page document, Policy of Dalit Empowerment in the Catholic Church in India prescribes the following action plan in brief:
- Timely plan to abolish untouchability and discrimination in all places including the Church and cemeteries.
- Any action based on caste should be stopped.
- Dalit Christians should be given proportionate reservation in all Councils like Educational Boards, Economical Councils and Council for Appointments at the Diocese and the Parish levels.
- Inter-caste marriages are to be promoted with more benefits.
- Special consideration should be given to Dalit students who seek admission in CBSE schools. The reservation should be given in higher educational institutions as well for them. Hostel facilities should be extended to them in metropolitan cities.