Caste divide

Published : Feb 25, 2011 00:00 IST

The Roman Catholic church at Thachur village. - A. MURALITHARAN

The Roman Catholic church at Thachur village. - A. MURALITHARAN

Tensions run high within the Christian community in Thachur village, and the government has adopted a hands-off approach for now.

THE wrinkles on S. Royappan's face are a result of advancing age, but the ridges and furrows in them tell a story of humiliation of this Dalit Christian, as also others like him. Royappan, 82, was a bonded labourer, or padiyaal, in Thachur village in Tamil Nadu's Kancheepuram district, but it is the bond' with the Roman Catholic church in the village that remains vivid in his memory.

The 175-year-old Arockiya Matha (Our Lady of Health) church has a chequered history, and the most recent additions to it may have the potential to be a turning point for Dalit Christians in the village. The events were the burials of two Dalit Christians in the cemetery attached to the church and the opposition to them by upper-caste Reddiar Christians, who claim the cemetery is only for their dead. The Reddiars' behaviour failed to unnerve Royappan, though; he had seen worse.

An eerie silence pervades Thachur, and most of the men of Reddiar families stayed away from the village for several days fearing police action. The Dalits in the village had overcome stiff resistance from the Reddiars and asserted their right twice in January when they buried the brother of a Dalit priest and a Dalit farm worker in the cemetery. The priest's brother, Velankanni, had died of natural causes on January 22, but the farm worker, Rajendran, was murdered; his body was retrieved from the lake in the village on January 24.

The full import of the development in Thachur, a predominantly Christian village around 80 km from Chennai, can be understood only by delving into the past.

Though the church building was constructed in 1922, the village is considered to be one of the oldest parishes in the State because the first Christians here arrived in 1836. The parish was then under the Pondicherry-Cuddalore diocese. In 1969, it came under the Madras-Mylapore diocese and moved to the Chengalpattu diocese created in 2002.

The population comprises Reddiars, who migrated from Andhra Pradesh, and Dalits, including Adi Dravidars and Arunthathiars. Though almost all of them are Christian converts, a sharp division existed right from the beginning on the basis of socio-economic disparity. Varna vyavastha (caste hierarchy), which is deeply rooted in Hinduism, has been absorbed by the converts and this has deepened the hiatus further.

Fr John Suresh, a priest who is also the director of the Chengalpattu Rural Development Society, said the cross-shaped church enabled the upper-caste Christians to occupy the centre, while the sides were earmarked for the Adi Dravidars and the Arunthathiars. The administration of the parish was under the control of a team of dharmakartas (trustees) belonging to the Reddiar caste. The Dalits were denied a role even in the day-to-day affairs of the church, not to speak of its administration. They could not assume the role of readers or lectors at Mass. They challenged this decades-old discrimination in the 1990s. The protracted legal battle resulted in the closure of the church for over 10 years until a path-breaking tripartite agreement was reached in November 2006.

But caste discrimination even in death continues in Thachur. The village has three cemeteries, one for each group. The one inside the church complex is claimed by the Reddiars, while the other two groups have theirs on the outskirts of the village.

The Dalits' struggle drew support from some political parties, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and organisations such as the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF), the Dalit Human Rights Centre, and the Chengalpattu Rural Development Society, which work for the welfare of oppressed people.

According to Bharathi Anna, convener of the Kancheepuram district unit of the TNUEF, even today the vast stretches of fertile land on the Palar river bed belong to the Reddiars. The majority of the Dalits work in these fields. A few of them are marginal farmers and a minuscule number have government jobs. Though a sizable number of upper-caste Christians have migrated to urban areas, including Chennai, they continue to own land in the village.

Reddiars, Adi Dravidars and Arunthathiars reside in different localities in the village. Most of the Dalits continue to be farmhands though the padiyaal system has by and large vanished. A good number of them have become construction workers, while some Dalit youth have entered the portals of higher education.

However, the Reddiars have been reluctant to relax their grip over the administration of the church. Royappan and several other residents of the village narrated the treatment meted out to them and others. There was a time when the padiyaals were flogged with tamarind twigs or tied to the wheel of a moving bullock cart as punishment. The Dalits employed by Reddiars had to drink water and gruel poured into their cupped hands. Such practices continued in the feudal society for long.

With some parish priests initiating steps to democratise the administration of the church, besides striving for the economic independence of the oppressed people, Dalit Christians slowly started raising their voice against discriminatory practices, said Fr John Suresh. As a result, the priests incurred the wrath of the upper-caste Christians. Some of them were even assaulted, alleged Fr John Suresh.

In another incident at R.N. Kandigai village under the same diocese in 1995, a parish priest who was seen to be pro-Dalit was manhandled by upper-caste Christians with a view to hindering his priestly duties. The church was closed indefinitely by the Archdiocesan authorities.

Recalling the legal battle in the local courts, L. Yesumarian, director of the Chengalpattu-based Dalit Human Rights Centre, said upper-caste Christians had set the ball rolling in 1995 by filing a case against a change in the route of the procession of Mother Mary as part of the parish's feast celebrations. They said the car procession should take the customary route, that is, it should not pass through the Dalit localities.

The next case was filed by the same group a couple of years later, seeking the transfer of the then parish priest, Fr K.M. Joseph, a Malayalee, and the appointment of a priest who had knowledge of Tamil and Telugu. In turn, Fr Joseph filed a case seeking a direction that the parish priest would be the sole authority to administer the parish and to decide the mode of celebrations. In the same year, the Reddiars filed a defamation case against the Adi Dravidars. In 1999, the Adi Dravidars filed a case pleading for orders not to open the church until the suits in the courts between the parishioners were settled and decided.

When the legal battle was on, the Dalit Christians carried on different forms of agitation demanding a due share in the administration of the parish. They also called for steps to end the caste-based discrimination in the church and in the village. The control over the land belonging to the church also became a contentious issue.

Sustained struggles by the Dalits of Thachur resulted in the agreement of November 28, 2006, signed by representatives of Reddiars, Dalits and the diocese in the presence of officials of the Revenue Department.

The 12-point agreement laid down that all Christian groups in the parish should accept the authority of the bishop of Chengalpattu diocese and of the parish priest appointed by him as per Canon Law. The annual festival of the parish, it said, should be held with the involvement of all members of the parish under the direct supervision of the bishop. It also said all the groups should maintain unity to ensure that the car procession passed through all the habitations in the village.

The accord urged the parties concerned to abide by the diocese's decision on the issue pertaining to church land. All the places of worship and movable and immovable properties within the parish's jurisdiction should be brought under the administration of the diocese and the direct supervision of the bishop, it said. It also provided for the setting up of a parish council with elected representatives and for the appointment of pious groups.

Above all, all stakeholders agreed that acts of caste discrimination in the church or its administration would not be allowed. All the groups were advised to withdraw the cases pending before various courts. It was also agreed that the Sunday evening Mass would be in Telugu, while on other days it would be in Tamil.

Only a few of the provisions, such as the car procession being taken to all the areas in the village, were implemented without any major impediment, said residents. However, caste animosity continued to haunt Thachur. Particularly, the Dalits were not allowed to use the cemetery in the church complex to bury their dead. The Reddiars ended their dependence on the local parish priests to perform rituals by bringing Telugu-speaking priests from other dioceses.

The Dalits were biding their time to break this barrier; a couple of attempts they made earlier had failed. But Velankanni, they decided, would be buried inside the church complex. They faced stiff resistance from the Reddiars while conducting the funeral mass and burying the body. At one stage, the Reddiars even locked the gate of the church, Bharathi Anna said. He added that the incident occurred even as the CPI(M) MLA G. Latha and other leaders were consoling the relatives of the deceased.

Rajendran, the Dalit farm worker, assisted the family members of Velankanni in digging the grave. He was found murdered a couple of days later. The police initially filed a man missing case but later, on the basis of the post-mortem report, changed it to one of murder. Dalit Christians staged a road-roko protest in the village demanding the arrest of those involved. The police said they had arrested a few persons in the case.

Such acts of discrimination against Dalit Christians exist in several other villages, including M.N. Kandigai, R.N. Kandigai and K.K. Pudur under the Chengalpattu diocese, said Fr Yesumarian. According to him, in many villages dominated by Telugu-speaking upper-caste Christians, language has been used as camouflage to continue with the discrimination against Dalits.

Though there are as many as 20 priests, 60 nuns and three bishops belonging to the Reddiar caste in Thachur, none of them cares to explain to their own caste members that they should not violate the Canon Law, he said.

Arunthathiars in these villages are virtually caught in the crossfire between Adi Dravidars and upper-caste Christians. One group has muscle power and the other has money power. We are powerless. We find no other course but to maintain equidistance in the given situation as we depend on the rich farmers in the Reddiar community, lamented a resident of the Arunthathiar habitation in Thachur.

Reddiar Christians of Thachur deny all the allegations against them. They only want to protect their rights as a linguistic minority, a spokesman of the Reddiars said, adding that Dalits were being instigated by some priests belonging to the oppressed community.

Regarding the November 2006 agreement, he said, some Reddiars had signed it without the consent of others. Denying any caste-based discrimination against Dalits, he said the Reddiars would demand an independent probe into the recent untoward incidents in the village. Official sources say that the government wants to adopt a cautious approach to the sensitive issue. The district administration has taken steps to ensure law and order in the village. Though the government may intend to evolve a consensus among the contending groups of the same religion, it will not impose any remedy, as it may become counterproductive, say official sources.

Any attempt by any group or section of people to promote untouchability is highly condemnable, said Fr A. Vincent Chinnadurai, Chairman of the Tamil Nadu State Commission for Minorities. The commission would extend all assistance to restore normalcy in that village, he added.

The emergence of the Dalit Christian Movement and the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement and the support extended to them by secular and democratic forces have raised the hopes of Dalit Christians that they will win the relentless battle against caste-based discrimination in various denominations of Christianity, said activists of these movements.

Dalit Christians constitute more than 70 per cent of the Christian population in Tamil Nadu. Their sustained campaign, with the support of the secular and democratic forces, resulted in the 10-point programme charted by the Tamil Nadu Bishops' Council in 1990 for the integrated development of Dalit Catholics, they pointed out. After evaluating the implementation of the programme in 2003, it was further pruned for focussed action, they said.

However, the different forms of discrimination, such as the violence against Dalit Christians in Erayur in Villupuram district in March 2008, the attempts to preserve the dividing wall in the cemetery in Melapudur, the construction of churches with a design to maintain the caste hierarchy, as in Thachur and several other places, still continue, the activists pointed out. This underscores the fact that the struggle has to be intensified, they added.

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