|September 27, 2005||Vol. 3, No. 20|
Fr. Francis Gonsalves is a Jesuit in the Gujarat Province, India. He lectures in systematic theology at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi, and has published many articles on theology, spirituality and social justice.
Recasting caste: a challenge to Indian Christianity
By Fr. Francis Gonsalves, S.J.
Since independence in 1947, the State has been struggling to satisfy castes and sub-castes that vie with each other for the public pie. A 1950-Presidential Order deemed that, apart from low-caste Hindus, Dalits of other religious communities would not be eligible for "reservations" (affirmative action in education, employment and social benefits). However, after protracted protests, Dalits of the Sikh and Buddhist faiths retrieved their rights, but these rights are still denied to Dalits of the Christian and Muslim communities.
Over decades, Dalit Christians have rallied for reservations from apathetic governments afraid of reopening Pandora's box. There are apprehensions that if India's underprivileged Christians are granted minority rights and reservations, the doors would open for more conversions to Christianity. Nonetheless, in 1996, in a token gesture, Sitaram Kesri, Welfare Minister of the erstwhile Congress government introduced a bill in parliament to grant rights to Dalit Christians. However, parliament was dissolved, and the bill proved unproductive.
"We eagerly expected the government to ensure justice for Dalit Christians," said John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union, who has been spearheading the struggle. "But," he added, "the present government, like its predecessors who advocated Hindu fundamentalism, is dragging its feet." Dayal's critique comes after the Supreme Court's announcement to delay its decision until Oct. 18, at the behest of government lawyers.
Although caste-conversations embarrass Indian Christians, opinions range from gross indifference to great insistence that caste be upheld. Gujarat's Martin Macwan, eminent campaigner for Dalit rights opines: "Many Christians feel that to accept 'reservations' is to accept that they're inferior, a stigma they've been able to shake off in urban areas."
Macwan says, "While Christians of India's rural areas suffer extreme poverty and thus require reservations, city-based Christians, who are wealthy, vocal, and whose opinion carries weight, are indifferent about reservations." He laments: "Indian church leadership rests with those who consider themselves former high castes."
Concluding the 2004 ad limina visit of Tamil Nadu's bishops, John Paul II castigated casteism as being incompatible with Christianity. "This exhortation should have been addressed to all Indian bishops," Archbishop Chinnappa said. Indeed, as he hinted, caste is widely -- albeit, covertly -- practiced among many Christians.
Leaving the archbishop's house, I muse: Can caste ever be cast away? Or recast as avatars benefiting Dalit Christians? These unanswered questions amply indicate that caste will ceaselessly challenge Indian Christianity.
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