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Mahatma Gandhi wanted an end to untouchability only, but not to caste system - John Dayal

"Historically till about fifty years ago, some churches in south India had separate segments for Dalits and upper caste. It is not so any more. But traces exist. Caste is an Indian phenomenon, and all religions including Muslims and Sikhs and Christians have practiced it at some level. That is the truth."

Excerpts of John Dayal's interaction with Sai Prasan : December 24, 2008

John Dayal

John Dayal, secretary general, All India Christian Council and Member, National Integration Council, has been fighting for the cause of the Dalit Christians for past several years. Currently, Dayal is working 24/7 to bring out a White Paper on Orissa – 2008. 

Here is an excerpt of a bouncer session between Sai Prasan and John Dayal on issues ranging from the Dalit Christian rights to the foreign funding of  the RSS and VHP to pursue communal politics in India.

SP: What will be the strategy of the Church in countering the violence unleashed by the Hindu fundamentalists on the Dalit Christians in Kandhamal? How Church will protect their life?

JD: As a peaceful people, we can do nothing but pray. But as citizens of India, there is much we can do, and have done. We have moved constitutional authorities in the political, administrative and judicial spheres, ranging from President of India, prime minister and chief minister to the High Court and the Supreme Court.  We are hoping the government will provide enough CRPF forces to ensure peace in Kandhamal, and if necessary, will call in the Indian Army.

SP: There is a strong opinion that Christian organizations also do not want quick solution of the problem as they get foreign funds in the name of persecution?

JD:  We want the violence against us to end as soon as possible so that the refugees can go home. We have a vested interest in peace. It is the Hindutva forces that thrive on tension and fear. The church does not get a penny from any source without the knowledge and permission of the government. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) ensures that. In fact, the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) get foreign funds from NRIs without any check.

SP: Why the Church failed in fulfilling the aspirations of the Dalit Christian youth as youngsters are either joining Left extremism or they are Naxal sympathizers in Orissa including in Kandhamal region?

JD: The government has failed and betrayed us. It gave Dalit rights to Buddhists and Sikhs but has denied us those rights. It is a communal gesture and seeks to keep Dalits as bonded labour of Hindu upper caste society. The church is doing what it can from its limited resources, but it is committed to helping all people without reserving its activities only for Christians. It helps Hindu Dalits as much as Hindu Tribals and non-Hindu Tribals.

Naxalites and Maoists, which are different ideologies, do not have a religion. Most ultras are from Hindu families. There may be some from Muslim, Sikh or Christian families in the country, including Kandhamal.

SP: Why are the Dalit Christians in Orissa divided on the denominational lines? Why are the different Churches staking their claim on Dalits?

JD: This is not a fact. Orissa has several regions and the situation differs from one place to another. In the plains, especially in the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar-Berhampur coastal region, there are a few upper caste Christians, even perhaps in Sambhalapur. The rest are Oriya Dalits. And in both segments, both the Catholic and Protestant churches are prevalent. In the protestant churches, the Baptists are the dominant groups in Cuttack, for instance. In Tribal areas, the situation is slightly different. In the Northern region adjoining Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, the Oraons and other Tribals are mostly Catholic for historic reasons but there are Church of North India, which is about thirty years old and was founded by uniting existing denominations such as Church of England and Presbyterian, and Pentecost groups also.

The situation in Kandhamal is complex. Kandhamal has four groups of people. The outsiders are Oriya migrants from the plains who are mostly Hindus. The local people are Kondhs, Kuis, who speak the same language as the Kondhs but are ethnically different, and the Panos who speak a variant of Oriya but are culturally and ethnically different. All three groups have both Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants, as usual consist of Baptists, the oldest, church of north India and new Pentecost groups. Some Kondhs are also nature worshippers and are not Hindus.

The historic reason is that both Catholics and Baptists first came about 140 years ago from two streams – from Calcutta and from the Madras Presidency region. The churches they established continue to this day. The Catholics are the most visible because of the structured churches and the Nuns.

SP: What are the reasons behind your not attending in person the proceeding of the State instituted Commission (investigations) in Orissa?

JD: There two reasons. First, the government could not provide security to witnesses coming from Kandhamal. Second was that Mr Panigrahi seemed to have made up his mind? I have, together with the church, decided to boycott both commissions.

SP: What is the permanent solution of Kandhamal violence ?

JD:  Permanent peace can come with justice and implantation of constitutional guarantees. The police cannot be partisan. The poison which was spread by Mr Lakhmanananda will have to be removed. Forcible conversions will have to be stopped, and the guilty should be punished; the rule of law has to be maintained. Churches and houses must be rebuilt, livelihood given, education restored and normal life encouraged. Kondhs, Kuis and Panos, whatever be their religion, will have to live together in peace and they will do so once they understand that the government will be fair and will not tolerate violence.

SP: How do you portray Indian Dalit Christians in front of the western world  including Vatican City specially through Christian media –  and and similar other websites and publications?

JD: Indian Dalits are a marginalised group that has been denied of its constitutional rights. No more. No less. They are fighting for their rights, and will get them some day.

SP: What is the view of the western world including Vatican City on Indian Dalit Christians? Or What is the take of Vatican on the Dalit Christians?

JD: The same.

SP: At what level, the discrimination exists between the Christians and Dalit Christians? How the co-existence is maintained within the Church periphery in the social context?

JD: Historically till about fifty years ago, some churches in south India had separate segments for Dalits and upper caste. It is not so any more. But traces exist. Caste is an Indian phenomenon, and all religions including Muslims and Sikhs and Christians have practiced it at some level. That is the truth. Even Mahatma Gandhi wanted an end to untouchability only, but not to caste system.  The church has outlawed caste within it and is working hard to make it a reality. There has been much success, but traces still remain.

SP: Are the Dalit Christians going to remain Dalit Christians for ever as it is being observed in Southern states including literate Kerala where Christianity is 1,900 years old? Has church kept any time frame for their total integration?

JD: Of course not. There will be no more Dalit Christian when there are no more Dalit Hindus. In the church, there will be no separate feeling within the next generation.

SP: How do the reformed Dalits view themselves in the Christian fold? Is there any behavioural awkwardness among Dalit Christians?

JD: No different from the rest.

SP: Are Dalit Christians willing to forego the state offered benefits like land and jobs once they are converted to Christianity? Has the Church taught Dalits the Central tenets of Christianity after adopting them into its fold?

JD: Dalit Christians get no benefits from the government. Dalit Christians are the same as any other Christian in their faith understanding.

SP: Why does the Church think that it has started the social reform process when the Church leadership itself concedes that it does not interfere in the social issues like discrimination on the caste lines in marriages ?

JD: Church does not interfere in anything of a personal nature, but the social teachings of the church make it clear that it does not acknowledge or encourage castism .

SP: Do you endorse the Dalit concept in Christianity as Bible does not permit any discrimination on any ground. Why do you demand reservation for the Dalit Christians which is against Bible?

JD: I do not endorse any discrimination on any basis -- caste, race, gender. The Bible does not come into the picture when legal rights are concerned.

SP: Are there any other issue which you want to convey.

JD:  These are issues of justice and of the rights of citizens. Let us not let religion come into it. That is communalising civil rights.

(Author is a senior Journalist based in Mumbai.)



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