By Antony Raj - JIVAN January 1992
The DCLM (Dalit Christian Liberation Movement)
is a protest movement fighting for human dignity and justice for
the Dalit Catholics in Tamil Nadu. Dalits form 70 per cent of the
total Catholic population. This movement is by-product of the caste
politics of the Catholic Church.
Just like any other social organization the Church in India is
organized around caste structures and caste identities. We have
Velleda Catholics, Udayar Catolics, Vanniyar Catholics, Reddiyar
Catholics, and etc. Sadly we have never seen a Christian in the
Catholic Church. If any such exist, it is without our knowledge.
This is the phenomenon of caste in the Catholic Church in Tamilnadu.
What do we want?
All the dalits seek from the caste-ridden Catholic Church in Tamilnadu
is human dignity and social justice. It is not possible for us dalits
to celebrate our human dignity in a Church that nurtures and promotes
caste values, and tolerates the practice of untouchability. Our
celebration of human dignity will be incomplete without social justice.
If we are the majority then justice is nothing but making the Church
our own. Hence our slogan, "the Church in Tamilnadu is a dalit
Church". Unfortunately, the 30 percent non-dalit Catholics
are virtually holding the dalits to ransom. They have created a
system of social closure wherein they arrogate to themselves all
the position of power and privilege, monopolize all the resources,
and systematically exclude the dalits from having any access to
them. Only through an exercise of power from below we will be able
to break such closures.
We have gone for negotiation and dialogue. In an unequal power
relation dialogues does not bear much fruit. Therefore the DCLM
is forced to go for mass mobilization in order to demonstrate people's
power. There have been fastings, protest meetings, black flag demonstrations,
and other forms of struggles in many dioceses. People throng in
their thousands to the bishop's houses demanding justice. They are
making it clear to the bishop that they are angry and they want
justice not their blessing. Surely, these are signs of unrest and
the angry people make it abundantly clear they are disenchanted
with the Church authorities.
The Church's response
The Church authorities' response to this unrest is quite undemocratic.
They are more concerned about law and order than justice to the
dalits. All the repressive forces, spiritual and material, are let
loose to destroy the DCLM. A bishop writes pastoral letters instructing
the faithful not to support or join the DCLM. A priest makes effective
the use of the public sound system to denigrate the movement. Pious
associations are revived and are told to work against the movement.
The employees of the multipurpose societies of every diocese carry
on a vilification campaign against the DCLM.
Money and muscles power is not spared. The priests of Pondicherry
divided the dalits and pitted one against the other. Liquor was
served to one group to beat up the other. The priest of Palayamkottai
diocese bribed the police to foist a false ease against Fr. Gnanapragasam,
a dalit priest from the same diocese, who is championing the cause
of his people. 150 Catholics were also implicated. Another priest
from Pondicherry diocese handed over dalit youth to the police.
In most of the dioceses the non-dalit priests are organizing the
non-dalit Catholics to counter the DCLM. Needless to say such moves
can become a caste war. The diocesan SC/ST commissions have drawn
up their programmes to liquidate the movement.
Individual victimization is very common. Some teachers are served
memos, others are transferred, and one or two are suspended. Dalit
students studying in Catholic school who where promoted earlier
are demoted for their participation in the dalit struggles. Admission
and appointments are denied in Catholic schools, boarding houses
and orphanages. Entry into the minor seminaries is impossible. Sisters
running dispensaries and hospitals ridicule the dalits and ask them
to go to a dalit hospital. In many dalit parishes sacraments are
Despite their all-out efforts to destroy the movement, the DCLM
is gaining momentum in all the fourteen dioceses of Tamilnadu. Unable
to arrest its growth, the bishops are selling new stories to annihilate
the movement. They allege the DCLM as anti-church and Christ because
it has touched the sacred aspects of the Church's sacramental life
and authority structures. Therefore, people faith in the sacrament
and in the Church authority has been shaken. The DCLM, they claim,
is a caste movement and by its exclusive approach to development
destroys the unity and universality of the Church. They also accuse
the DCLM, which draw its inspiration from Marx, of pre-meditated
violence. The awakened dalits are not buying these new stories coming
from the bishops. Therefore, the bishops use pressure from above.
Complaints to Rome
All the fourteen bishops at the time of the Pondicherry struggle
complained to Father General in July 1990 alleging that the Jesuits
of Madurai Province have incited violence in that diocese. Then
on a number of occasions as the DCLM takes up issues in various
dioceses, the bishops have been requesting Father General to curb
the movement of the Jesuit in their dioceses. The bishop of Palayamkottai
has been constantly writing to Rome to take the disciplinary action
against me, Fr. Antony Raj SJ, who is allege to have disturbed law
and order in his diocese. Under pressure from the bishops of Tamilnadu,
Father General directed the Provincial of Madurai to ask Fr. Antony
Raj SJ to step down as President of DCLM.
This raises a number of questions. Can any religion, particularly
an egalitarian religion like Christianity, put law and order over
justice? Why should the Church use repressive measures to suppress
a poor people movement? Repression implies a loss of legitimacy.
Have the Church authorities lost their legitimacy rule to the Church?
Do they intend to restore legitimacy through terrorist and unethical
means? Does the Church think that it is always infallible? Why does
it refuse to listen to the cry of the poor? Why can't it put an
end to the practice of untouchability?
What is really perplexing is labeling our movement as anti-Christ
and anti-Church movement. We have never questioned any of the dogmas
of the Church and its pious devotions and practices. If you say
that the demand for justice is anti-Christ, then the Christ should
be the first accused. The bogey of violence is a convenient label
for the Church authorities to name a dog a kill it. When the Church
authorities bribed the police to beat us up in Palayamkottai and
Pondicherry, is it not violence? The amount of structural violence
perpetrated by the Church is "not violence" for the authorities.
But poor people's simple aggression is considered violence, and
the DCLM has become a violent movement.
There is no need to go into Canon Law to find out whether a Jesuit
can lead a social movement or not. More than being a Jesuit, I am
a dalit, and I have every right to lead my people. My dalitness
makes me a different type of leader. Whereas the bishops uphold
the sacredness of the sacraments, I underscore the sacredness of
human dignity over anything else. We refuse to be untouchables.
We are human beings in the Catholic Church. I do not question the
authority of our bishops. All I fight for is human dignity to the
dalit Catholics. The very mission of Christ is to make us human.
If this is a mistake for which I have to step down, then the Church
authorities must also admit they are heading an inhuman organization
which has thrown all Christian values to the wind.
To conclude, in the Catholic Church in Tamilnadu, we are faced
with a situation where the conscienceless power of the clergy meets
powerless conscience of the dalits. The clergy want to be our masters,
but we refuse to be their slaves. The battle line is drawn. We dalits
will die on our feet rather than bend our knees before insolent