Interview: Dalit Indian Priest - Father Antony Raj Perinbam
ASIA FOCUS, September 15, 1990
MADURAI, India-Dalit literally means trampled
upon of crushed. It is a term people from the low castes use to
refer to themselves, instead of terms like 'Untouchable', 'Harijan'
(Children of God) etc., which higher caste Hindus use in reference
Indian Jesuit Father Antony Raj perinbam, 45, is from the dalit
community. His doctorate dissertation at Loyola University, Chicago,
United States, focused on the 'Social Bases of Obedience of the
Untouchables in India'.
Father Antony Raj who is presently researching 'Social Discriminations
against Dalit Christians in Tamilnadu, in Southern India, spoke
to ASIA FOCUS recently about the problems Dalit Christians face.
What is the Indian caste system?
Father Antony Raj: A better name for it is primitive barbarism.
It is simply a structure of domination legitimized by Hindu ideology
ASIA FOCUS: How is mythology used
Father Antony Raj: All societies, at one time or other, have invoked
the name of God to justify exploitation. The Hindu priest class,
the brahims, created myths and theological tenets to justify their
exploitation of the weaker section.
One such myth is that the brahims, who originated from the mouth
of God, are the priests and the teachers in society, and that the
warrior caste, who originated from the arms of God, are the rulers.
The Vaishayas, the third caste, the myth says, originated from the
thighs of God. The Vaishayas are traders and tillers.
The Shudras, the fourth caste, originated from God's feet and are
untouchables and the servants of all.
Hindu Scriptures say the God given division of labour and the resultant
social order should not be changed by any human intervention. Only
through fidelity to one's role and to the social order can one reach
ASIA FOCUS: How did the term dalit come to be used for untouchables
or low castes?
Father Antony Raj: Doctor B.R. Ambedkar,
the undisputed champion of the untouchables, said that we are broken
oppressed and shattered people.
Other existing names carried a pejorative sense, implying that we
dalits are unclean and impure. The term dalit also helps us to develop
a dalit conscious beyond sub-caste affiliations.
(Editor's note: Ambedkar, from the 'Untouchable' Mahar caste,
was India's first law minister. He played a leading role in the
framing of the Indian constitution in October 1956. Because of the
perpetuation of Untouchability in Hindu practice, he renounced Hinduism
and became a Buddhist, with about 200,000 fellow untouchables.)
ASIA FOCUS: How do you explain
Father Antony Raj: Many self-respecting dalits rejected Hinduism.
Some embraced Christianity.
It was a search for human dignity, justice, equality, and above
all, for brotherhood, not a search for 'wheat or rice' as some say
ridicule, it has to be underscored that faith had its role to play.
ASIA FOCUS: Do you, dalit Christian, enjoy respect and dignity
in the Christian fold now?
Father Antony Raj: I should say no. We dalits are twice alienated.
The state says that there is no practice of untouchability among
Christians and so denies us privileges enjoyed by Hindu dalits.
But (high) caste Christians do discriminate against their dalit
brethren. Christianity, instead of challenging caste and untouchability,
has been accommodating it.
ASIA FOCUS: How is this done?
Father Antony Raj: The Church is very casteist in its approach
and this goes unchallenged. In many parishes there are separate
chapels for high castes and for dalits. Dalit Christians are not
allowed to serve at mass, sing in church choirs or the lectors of
sacred scripture. Some parishes have two cemeteries, one for high
castes, one for dalits.
I would say the crucifixion of dalits starts right there in the
Church. Rarely will a priest or a nun dine with a dalit Christian
Within Christian communities, table fellowship and Intermarriage
with dalit Christians are not usual practices. There are, of course,
ASIA FOCUS: How do you see the Church's recent attempt to get government
concessions for dalit Christians? And how do you see directives
from religion superiors to give dalits priority in their institution?
Father Antony Raj: More concessions will not solve the problem.
They are not going to restore our human dignity to us, give justice
or end human rights violations. I see these concessions as an attempt
to divert our attention from the real issue. All discriminatory
practices within churches should be stopped. Church directives are
bound to remain on paper until a time-bound master plan is evolved
to implement them. Otherwise, I will treat them as empty rhetoric.
Sharing of power with dalits is the crux of the issue.
ASIA FOCUS: Sharing of power? Please explain.
Father Antony Raj: Dalits form nearly 70 percent of the total catholic
population in Tamilnadu. But there is only one dalit among Tamilnadu's
14 bishops. The 70 percent dalit catholic population has only 3.8
percent of the total number of priests and nuns.
Does that meant God calls persons only from the high castes? Is
God also biased in favor of the high castes?
Seminaries and novitiates, by fixing a cut off point in academic
scores, bar dalit children from entering religious life.
If Church authorities are really sincere, they should recruit our
(dalit) children and equip them with the necessary academic qualifications
for religious life.
ASIA FOCUS: How do you propose these issues be tackled?
Father Antony Raj: I think we should go for some hard options we
should identify notorious parishes with discriminatory practices
and boycott the Sacraments administered there.
Why should we receive Sacraments from a caste-conscious priest?
Only such practices of civil disobedience within churches will solve
ASIA FOCUS: How do you gauge the situation now?
Father Antony Raj: There is an emergence of dalit Christians throughout
the state demanding justice and equality.
You (high caste Christians) are not owners, but mere custodians
of the Church. This is the type of consciousness that is emerging
among dalits and we plan to demonstrate it at every level.
We have come of age. We can take care of ourselves and form a dalit
ASIA FOCUS: What is your expectation from the Church?
Father Antony Raj: Honestly, the Church being part of the problem,
we dalits do not expect any solution from the Church.
Our message is clear: "We are a big majority and so it is our
church. Move away from center stage graciously. Or else we will
occupy it forcefully."