'Stop caste discrimination in the Church'


Cardinal Peter Turkson © Catholic News Agency

From a conference on dalit discrimination in London comes a message to Pope Francis, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

And so it happened. Dalits, clergy and lay people have sent a message to Pope Francis via Cardinal Peter Turkson who attended the London dalit conference on 9 and 10 May 2017. Their plea? To ask the Pope to intervene to ensure that caste discrimination within the Catholic Church ends during this Pope's reign.

Growing up a Catholic in Calcutta, now Kolkata, I had no idea that caste could be a part of Christianity. Didn’t Christ preach justice and love for all? 'Love your neighbour as yourself' is a pretty tall order, if you think deeply and seriously about what this message really means. It’s pretty difficult to love anyone as you love yourself.

So how could the Church condone, leave alone allow, caste discrimination, or indeed the very notion of caste with Christ's church for 2000 years? He was diametrically opposed to injustice and discrimination. He opted for the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable.

The anger and bitterness in the hearts and minds of dalit priests and bishops was evident. They told stories of their powerlessness in the corridors of Catholic power. To me, it was both shocking and saddening. Immensely moving.

The history of how the Churches, both Catholic and Anglican, came into existence in India, is complicated and convoluted. The earliest church in India was started by St Thomas shortly after Christ died. He was welcomed into the court of the Maharaja of Travancore, who enjoyed religious discourse and new ideas. The earliest converts were Brahmins and Nairs attracted by Christ’s message of justice and love.

Later converts came a few hundred years after and these were from dalit and other castes. It was not a united church. They held on to notions of purity and superiority. The early Syrian Christians were educated and wealthy. The new converts were their servants and minions. The divide continued and grew. They worshipped in separate churches, buried their dead in different cemeteries and received communion at different rails. The history of conversions cannot be neatly fitted into a blog. Books have been written on the subject.

It is time to move on. Time to take action. Time for the Church to put its money where its mouth is.

Jesuits in Chennai have ensured 30 per cent reservation for dalits in Loyola College, one of Chennai's most prestigious colleges. Dalit kids often come from homes where there isn’t a single book in the house. Homes where there is barely enough food to eat. In order to succeed, to cope with the more affluent students in their classes, they need special mentoring and nurturing. They need good teachers to give them extra classes to help them catch up. They are in a world where they are despised because they compete with kids who come from privilege, from the best schools, with the most expensive private tutors. If our educational systems do not help our dalit kids to catch up, they will be doomed to disappointment, mediocrity and failure.

Education is the key, but additional measures are needed to achieve excellence. We can do it if we have the determination and will to do it.

Christian churches have created educational institutes of excellence which inspired and produced some of the best minds in the country. We can do this mammoth job.

The Christian Network Against Caste Discrimination must ensure that their support goes out specially to the people who are at the bottom of the dalit ladder.

Cardinal Turkson had that particularly beautiful face that I have seen in tribal chiefs and African elders and statesmen. It radiated calm, thoughtfulness and wisdom. If he and the dalit network can get this message to the Pope and Pope Francis speaks out, the Christian clergy will obey. Slowly, reluctantly, perhaps. But they will.