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Dalits caught in the Cross-Coconut Battle

"Dalits are getting sandwiched in the show of strength between Cross and Coconut as the Church gives cross and the Hindu organizations give a coconut to people coming to their own fold. A detailed analysis is required whether the conversion has really helped the Dalits to change their social and economic status or it has further deteriorated their conditions like leading to homelessness that has been witnessed in the latest communal violence in Kandhamal."

Sai Prasan : December 2, 2008

In the aftermath of Kandhamal violence, both Christian expansionists and Hindu fundamentalists have intensified their activities to tighten their grip on hapless Dalits.  

In a significant move, the two major Christian organizations have decided to observe Dalit Liberation Sunday 2008 in Churches across the country on December 7, 2008. This event is taking place just three days before the International Human Rights Day (December 10, 2008) to express solidarity with Pana Christians in Orissa.  

The National Co-ordination Committee for Dalit Christian Rights (NCCDC), a joint forum of the Catholic Bishop Conference of India (CBCI) and the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI), has decided to unite all the Christians to counter the threats of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) led Sangh Parivar who have called for a Orissa bandh on Christmas day (December 25, 2008).

Dalits are getting sandwiched in the show of strength between Cross and Coconut as the Church gives cross and the Hindu organizations give a coconut to people coming to their own fold. A detailed analysis is required whether the conversion has really helped the Dalits to change their social and economic status or it has further deteriorated their conditions like leading to homelessness that has been witnessed in the latest communal violence in Kandhamal.

Dalits Christians themselves are divided whether the conversion has proved a boon or bane for them. One section led by Church is of the opinion that it has been at the fore-front of Dalit liberation. Whereas, the rebels among the Dalit Christians allege that Church have left them  in a lurch and it is not taking care of their needs.

In a more than hour-long interaction on the recent Kandhamal violence, Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack diocese, expressed his concern on the VHP led Sangh Parivar attack on Pana Christians.

According to him, Church has been at the fore-front of the Dalit-Tribal liberation that constitutes 39% of the combined population in Orissa. No agency, other than Church, has given a proper attention on the development of this deprived section. "The upliftment of Dalit-Tribal combination is vital for the holistic development of Orissa", he asserted.

Church has more than three hundred big and small educational institutes in the State. And, Cheenath refuted the allegations that the Church run institutes are merely money spinning entities. "A majority of the students in these academic institutes are from the deprived section of the society", he said.

The Hindu fundamentalists supported by the established social order are not able to digest the Church initiative to bring Dalit-Tribal combine to the mainstream of society. And, they have attacked Christians – both Pana and Tribals – as they are going up in the social and economic ladder. It is not a conflict of caste-ethnic differences as it has been shown in Kandhamal. "If it is a caste-ethnic violence, then how the Hindu fundamentalists attacked the tribal Christians in Kandhamal", Cheenath questioned showing his hand towards the victimized tribal Christians who have taken shelter in his Archbishop House Bunglow in Bhubaneswar.

Further, Cheenath got agitated to point out that more than 200 Churches have been destroyed in Kandhamal violence in which several Christians lost their lives and thousands turned homeless. A nun and a Hindu girl were raped by the Hindu fundamentalists. The Hindu girl was raped and murdered because her grand-parents were converted Christians, he stated.  

It is a fact beyond denial that a large number of converted Dalit Christians have got the basic education in the Church run schools. But, at the same time, it is also true that the conversion has failed to change their social status in their own place.

The discontentment within the Dalit Christian community is simmering as the Church is not addressing the discriminatory trends prevalent in the Christian community. RL Francis, President, Poor Christians Liberation Movement (PCLM) alleges that the Church is shying away from its responsibility by shifting responsibility on the government. Dalits have taken up Christianity before Independence only in search of self-respect against all the privileges including reservation facility offered to them by the Government, he said.

He also pointed that the caste discrimination is still rampant in Christian community. Both Dalit and Tribal population constitute nearly seventy five per cent of Christian population. But, they hold less than ten per cent of the positions in the Church hierarchy. "The Church should stop conversion activity and should set up a Rs 1,000 crore - Dalit Christian Development - fund to ensure an integrated social and economic development", he said in a demanding tone.
This discriminatory trend prevalent in Christian community is against the teachings of Bible:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians, 3:28)

When the attention was drawn towards Francis's allegations, Cheenath said that the discrimination is prevalent in the old churches of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The Church has vehemently denounced these trends. Nevertheless, some disgruntled elements are always there to make allegations on some or other grounds, he added. 

However, the views of John Dayal, member, National Integration Council (NIC) and a Dalit Christian leader, is similar to that of Francis as he said, "the fact remains that the act of untouchability was outlawed by the new constitution, but not the fact of it.  Untouchability is not just Varna and the Manusmriti, it is in the very soil of this country and its genetic stock, even after three-thousand years. Indian upper caste Hindus export it with them when they become NRIs, and Indian Dalits export it with them when they become Sikhs, or Muslims or Christians, that is the reality, as bitter as the existence of the cheri, the Dalit sub-village downwind of the upper caste south Indian village".

It is interesting to note that the Pana Hindus have become Pana Christians after the conversions. This is an all India phenomena because Caste is a social reality in India. This phenomenon is intense in South India especially in Andhra Pradesh. The dominant castes Kamma and Reddy have become Kamma Christians and Reddy Christians. Similarly, the Mala and Madigas (the two types of Dalits) have turned Mala Christians and Madiga Christians. There is a separate drinking water, sitting, and burial ground arrangements in Andhra Pradesh as well as in Tamil Nadu.  

The situation is not very different in the literate Kerala where Christianity is more than 1,900 years old. The denominations itself have been formed on the caste lines. The Syrian Christians by and large consist of upper caste and they have a strong hold over business, education, bureaucracy, land and, of course, politics of the state.

Likewise, the Latin Catholic Christians are the converts from the backward classes and fishermen. And, Nadar Christians are the converts from the Nadar Hindus in Kerala.

John Dayal admits that the Christian community is particular on the caste and denominations when it comes to the marriages. "Inter caste (denomination) marriages are still a rarity, especially in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They are becoming more common in metro and in north India among educated classes.  They are, however, still the exception.  It is also partly because of denominational issues. Syros Malabar will marry Syros Malabar girl, so to say, and that takes care of both language and caste affinity", he said.

To conclude, the Dalits are at the receiving end both from the caste-based and communal forces. They have become fodder both for the Christian expansionists and Hindu fundamentalists. The former wants to take them into their fold to get more and more foreign funds and the later force them to re-convert for the political considerations.

The need of the hour is to intensify the social and political movement in Orissa also on the lines of Tamil Nadu, UP and other states. The social and economic development along with the political empowerment of both Dalits and Tribals can only bring social and communal harmony and can change the face of Orissa.    

(Author is a senior Journalist based in Mumbai.)



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