India’s first Dalit cardinal no longer has a mission
By John Dayal, Catholic News Service
India has just elected a tribal woman as president of the republic. Now it has its first cardinal from a group that was, until 1947, considered “untouchable” – whose very shadow would pollute upper-caste men and women, in any religion, including the Christianity.
The practice of untouchability is now a crime under the law, but its relative, caste, is still practiced by politicians, bureaucrats, teachers and judges.
The untouchables were called Harijans, people of God, until they told Mahatma Gandhi that the name was condescending. The Constitution of India gave them the sanitized and inhumanly cold title of Scheduled Castes, because their names appeared in one of the many schedules to the 1950 statutes which listed peoples or groups deserving of affirmative action on account of the civilizational persecution during the 3,000 years of Sanatan, or Eternal Supremacist Laws.
They prefer to call themselves Dalit, broken people, now seeking their place in the sun as citizens, but still unhappy in real life. Their wives are raped, their young people killed if they ride a motorbike, twirl their mustaches or dare to woo their wives on horseback.
It doesn’t matter whether they are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists or Muslims.
Technically, under current Indian law, one cannot be a Dalit (scheduled caste) and a Christian at the same time. You have to choose to be affiliated with a religious or Christian minority, or to remain a “low caste” if you ask anything of the state or the law.
The case is before the Supreme Court, and it does not appear that a judgment will come soon.
This little bit of cultural anthropology and constitutional law should be read before deciding how happy one should be when Telugu-speaking Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad received the red hat from Pope Francis during the Vatican Consistory, becoming “the first Dalit Cardinal in history.
Long before President Draupadi Murmu and Cardinal Poola, there was India’s first indigenous or tribal cardinal, Telesphore Toppo, currently very ill in his archdiocese of Ranchi.
He remains a father figure to the entire indigenous community, some 8% of the Indian population, whatever religion they practice: their native nature worship, the more organized Sarna religion, Sanatan Hinduism in which they have been plagued by sleight of hand in census laws, or Christianity brought to their lands by Jesuits, Anglicans and Baptists over the past 200 years.
Church historians and analysts will tell you that Cardinal Toppo was a good, brave man when he ventured into a burning district of Kandhamal in Orissa in 2008 when his followers were massacred in the most massive pogrom ever. of independent India against the Christian community.
But apart from the symbolic nature of his rank as the first of his people to become voters in a papal election, it remains to be seen whether the beloved cleric could do anything really concrete in negotiations with the State or in the discussions within the Catholic bishops. India Conference.
The state, under the very communal leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is doing its best, using agents provocateurs from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to make tribal Christians lose their rights to land, minerals and constitutional assistance through scholarships and jobs because they now profess a foreign faith. The threat is real and present.
Within the church, the tribal church remains cocooned, and therefore unheard of. His cries are his own, unheard in the rest of the Latin Church spanning India, and utterly unknown in the regimes of the two eastern synods headquartered in Kerala.
A litmus test would be the fact that there are almost no tribal bishops outside the central Indian tribal belt. Most of the prelates are from the Konkan and Malabar coasts, Kerala, Mangalore, Goa and Mumbai.
Pope Francis broke the mold and shattered the steel ceiling for Dalit Catholics by choosing Anthony Poola as cardinal, but many would say he acted eight years too late in his own reign.
Caste is a reality in religions in India, and the Catholic and Protestant churches are no exception.
There are no longer walls separating parish cemeteries as they first did in southern states that have a Christian footprint of 500 to 2,000 years. Skirmishes, noisy or silent, still take place in the parishes, even more in the seminaries and sometimes in the houses of the clergy.
Those of us who travel and meet junior, middle and senior clergy, in public and in private, know firsthand the depth of caste that ravages the bowels of the church.