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Dalit Christians stage protest march in southern India

Protesters demand appointment of a Dalit bishop and an end to discrimination within the Church

Dalit Christians stage protest march in southern India

Dalit Christians stage a protest in Kumbakonam Diocese in Tamil Nadu demanding equal treatment for people of Dalit origin on Feb. 6. (Photo supplied)

Dalit Christians in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu held a protest march in Kumbakonam Diocese against the discrimination faced by Dalits.

The protesters from eight Dalit Christian groups marched on Feb. 6 to submit a memorandum to the bishop and other diocesan officials stating their demand for a Dalit bishop in the diocese.

“Bishop Antonysamy Francis of Kumbakonam will be retiring from his post as he will reach the canonical retirement age of 75 in December, so we wanted to intensify our demand for a bishop of Dalit origin in this diocese,” Kudanthai Arasan, founder and president of Viduthalai Tamil Puligal Katchi, told UCA News.

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“We have faced discrimination within the Church as well as in civil society for the past several decades, not only in Tamil Nadu but also in some other states and our demand remains the same — to treat Dalit Christians equally.” 

Arasan said Kumbakonam Diocese was formed on Sept. 1, 1899, but even after 121 years no initiative was taken by the former three bishops and the present bishop to appoint a Dalit as bishop in any diocese in Tamil Nadu.

There are more than 2 million Christians in the diocese and Dalit Catholics account for 65 percent, he said.

Arasan said that among 135 priests in the diocese, 29 qualified priests are from a Dalit background. Such caste discrimination is against canon law, section 378.1, he said.

Franklin Caesar Thomas, coordinator of the National Council of Dalit Christians, told UCA News that over the past 14 years not one of the 10 priests elected was Dalit.

“The basic reason for all these discriminatory practices is caste and an untouchability mindset,” said Thomas, a Supreme Court lawyer.

The struggle of Dalit Christians and Muslims seeking the status of scheduled caste started after a 1950 presidential order removed the privileges given to scheduled caste converts who were not Hindus.

While such privileges were restored to Sikhs (1956) and to Buddhists (1990), Christians and Muslims have not been granted them and there seems to be little hope for them.

Different commissions appointed by the government have recommended that Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims should be included in the scheduled caste list.

Dalits, or untouchables, are the lowest caste within Hindu society. Huge numbers of Dalits have converted to Christianity and Islam over the decades, though the religions offer limited protection from societal prejudice.

The word Dalit means "trampled upon" in Sanskrit and refers to all groups once considered untouchable and outside the four-tier Hindu caste system. Government data shows 201 million of India’s 1.2 billion people belong to this marginalized community. Some 60 percent of India's 25 million Christians are of Dalit or tribal origin.

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