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A Dalit Jesuit speaks to the Tamil Church

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.


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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 denied.

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.


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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 might.

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