By John Dayal Catholic News Service
India has just elected a tribal woman as the republic's president. Now it has its first cardinal from a group that was, till 1947, considered "untouchable" -- whose very shadow would pollute upper caste men and women, in any religion, including Christianity.
The practice of untouchability is now a crime under the law, but its parent, caste, is still practiced by politicians, bureaucrats, teachers and judges.
The untouchables were called Harijans, people of god, till they told Mahatma Gandhi the name was patronizing. The Constitution of India gave them the sanitized and inhumanly cold title of Scheduled Castes, because their names figured in one of the many schedules of the 1950 statutes that listed peoples or groups deserving of affirmative action because of the civilizational persecution during 3,000 years of Sanatan, or eternal supremacist laws.
They prefer to call themselves Dalit, the broken people, now seeking their place in the sun as citizens, but still resented in real life. Their women are raped, their youth killed if they ride a motorcycle, curl up their mustache, or dare woo their bride riding on a horse.
It does not matter if they are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Muslim.
Technically, under current Indian law, one cannot be a Dalit (Scheduled Caste) and a Christian at the same time. One must choose to be affiliated with a religious minority, Christian, or stay a "low caste" if one seeks anything from the state or the law.
The matter is before the Supreme Court, and it does not seem a judgment will come soon.
This little bit of cultural anthropology and constitutional law needs to be read before one decides how deliriously happy one should be when Telugu-speaking Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad has received the red hat from Pope Francis in the consistory at the Vatican, becoming "the first Dalit cardinal in history."
Long before President Droupadi 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 irrespective of the faith they practice: their native worship of nature, the more organized Sarna religion, the Sanatan Hinduism in which they have been gang-pressed by a sleight of hand in the census laws, or Christianity brought to their lands by Jesuits, Anglicans and Baptists over the last 200 years.
Church historians and analysts will tell you that Cardinal Toppo was a fine man, brave as he ventured into a burning Kandhamal district in Orissa in 2008 when his fellow faithful were massacred in independent India's most massive pogrom against the Christian community.
But apart from the tokenism of his rank as the first of his people to become a voter in a papal election, it is a moot question if the beloved cleric could do anything really concrete in negotiations with the state or in discussions within the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.
The state, under the very communal leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is trying its best, using agent provocateurs in the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to see that tribal Christians lose their rights over land, minerals and constitutional assistance by way of scholarships and jobs because they now profess an alien faith. The threat is real and present.
Within the church, the tribal church remains cocooned, and therefore unheard. Its cries are its own, without an echo in the rest of the Latin church spanning India, and totally unknown in the regimes of the two Oriental synods headquartered in Kerala.
One litmus test would be the fact that there is almost no tribal bishop outside the tribal belt in central India. Most of the prelates are from the Konkan and Malabar coasts, from Kerala, Mangalore, Goa and Mumbai.
Pope Francis has broken the mold and shattered the steel ceiling for Dalit Catholics by choosing Anthony Poola as a cardinal, but many will say he has 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 to the rule.
There are no longer walls dividing parish graveyards as they first did in the southern states that have 500 to 2,000 years of a Christian footprint. Skirmishes, loud or silent, still take place in parishes, even more so in seminaries and occasionally in clergy homes.
Those of us who travel and meet junior, middle and senior clergy, in public and in private, know for a fact the depth of casteism raving the innards of the church.
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Dayal is a journalist and human rights activist based in New Delhi. He is secretary-general of the All India Christian Council and a past president of the All India Catholic Union. His remarks are his own and do not reflect the opinion of Catholic News Service or UCA News.