Print edition : April 25, 2008

Caste violence at Eraiyur in Tamil Nadus Villupuram district brings to the fore the issue of discrimination against Dalit Christians.

in Eraiyur


THIS years Holy Week (March 16 to 22), the week that precedes Easter Sunday, was observed as untouchability protest week in parts of northern Tamil Nadu. This was in response to a call given by the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Dalit Christians Liberation Movement to highlight the plight of Dalits in the Christian community. At least 10 churches in Cuddalore and Villupuram districts had to go without or curtail the ceremonies that usually begin with Palm Sunday, celebrated in commemoration of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. In some places Dalits hoisted black flags atop churches and in a few others they locked up the places of worship. Demanding justice to Dalit Christians, VCK general secretary Thol. Thirumavalavan led a demonstration on March 19 near the Bishops House in Puducherry, the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Pondicherry and Cuddalore.

The immediate provocation for the protest was violence against Dalits by upper caste (Vanniar) Christians at Eraiyur in Villupuram district on March 9. In the police firing that followed, two Vanniar Christians were killed.

Dalit Christians of the village have been on a fast since March 7 demanding that the Archbishop recognise the Sagaya Matha Chapel they had built for a new Dalit parish in the village. Their complaint was that they were not treated as equals by the Vanniar Christians within the Church of Our Lady of Rosary, the present Eraiyur parish church, located in the centre of Eraiyur. Archbishop Anthony Aanandarayar was firm that there could not be two churches for the same order in one village.

On the third day of the fast, on March 9, angry Vanniar Christians carrying sticks, poles, iron rods, stones and other weapons stormed the Dalit colony in the village. Over 30 Dalits were injured and about 80 of their houses were damaged.

The two Vanniar Christians killed in police firing were innocent onlookers, it is said. In the mob retaliation, seven police personnel, including the Superintendent of Police, A. Amal Raj, were injured. The State government has ordered payment of compensation to the families of the firing victims, although the Dalits, who were injured and lost property, are yet to receive any assistance from the government. Worse, they complained, the Vanniar Christians had subsequently imposed a social and economic boycott of the Dalits. Most of the Dalits in the village are agricultural workers who depend on the land-owning majority community (Vanniars) for their livelihood, and they are now jobless.

Vanniar Christians, who are angry about the police firing, accused the clergy of standing in the way of maintaining certain traditional practices and threatened to convert to Hinduism. The Archdiocese has initiated a dialogue with Vanniar Christians and Dalit Christians. Meanwhile, the parish church administration has ordered the closure of the church until the return of peace. The Eraiyur parish has a 300-year-old history behind it. Eraiyur is one of the earliest Tamil Nadu villages in which Christianity took root in the second half of the 17th century. A note on the parish, published on the website of the Archdiocese of Pondicherry and Cuddalore states: The first Catholic community was established in the 17th century when Christianity began to grow around 1660. Eraiyur began to grow in Catholic faith.

The building up of the first Catholic community, the note further says, was the hard work of Rev. Fr. Freyre who was a Jesuit priest. The priest went to Eraiyur around 1679 and met the people in and around the village. They used a small house as the place of worship. But because of the rule of Maratiar [Marathas] these people were tortured and also because of a great famine they began to move away from Eraiyur and settled near Salem. It is not known when the second Catholic community in Eraiyur was built, the note says. It, however, mentions Fr. Beschi among the priests who stayed in the village and converted more people to Christianity.

Fr. Costanzo Beschi (1680-1746), a Jesuit missionary from Italy, gave himself a Tamil name, Veeramaamunivar, and authored a classical Tamil epic, Thempavani, in honour of St. Joseph. Eraiyur became a separate parish in 1870. The Church of Our Lady of Rosary at Eraiyur was built in 1894.

Dalits account for about 70 per cent of the 25 million Christians in India, but caste-based discrimination against them is not uncommon. This despite repeated appeals from the Church leadership against such practices. Eraiyur is no exception to discrimination, particularly because Dalits, both Christian and Hindu, are in a minority in the village dominated by Christian Vanniars. (Christian Vanniars number about 20,000; the Christian Dalit population is less than 1,500.) There have been instances of caste clashes in the Eraiyur parish, which has the distinction of having produced 30 priests and 55 nuns.

The Dalit Christians of Eraiyur have been demanding recognition from the Archdiocese for the Sagaya Matha Chapel they had built for a new Dalit parish. Their complaint was that they were not treated as equals by the Vanniar Christians within the Church of Our Lady of Rosary.-

The current dispute has its beginnings in the late 1990s. Dalits in the village have been denied even access to public roads and other facilities. On February 16, 1999, things came to a head when the Dalits protested against denial of access to the burial ground. Significantly, the victim here was himself a priest, Fr. A.C. Irudayanathan, who had lost his mother the previous day. A large number of priests, nuns and lay people gathered at his house for the funeral procession. When Irudayanathan wanted the body to be taken through the main church road (barred for Dalits by the upper caste Christian Vanniars), the Christian Vanniars objected. A group of Vanniars stormed into the Dalit colony and threw stones at the mourners. This caused unrest among the Dalits.

According to a special report of the TNBC (Tamil Nadu Bishops Council Commission) for S.C./S.T., an official body of the Catholic Bishops of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, though the parish priest said the body could be taken through the main road, a group of Vanniars arrived on the scene with stones and home-made weapons and refused to budge. Top police officials tried to convince the priests to avoid the church road and instead take the customary route, a circuitous lane (meant for Dalits). When Archbishop Michael Augustine arrived on the scene in the evening, the Vanniars prevented his entry into the church. They abused him and the Dalits. The police apparently said the situation was going out of control and tried to convince the Archbishop on the need for the funeral procession to take the Dalit route.

Meanwhile, the Vanniars, according to the report, locked the gates of the church. If the Archbishop insists on taking the main route, the police argued, there would be a law and order problem and they may be forced to issue orders for shooting and that the police should not be held responsible for the consequences, the report said. The Dalits and the clergy had to obey the police orders and conduct the funeral at the segregated Dalit cemetery. It is clear that the rigidity of the casteist forces, the weak reform measures of the clergy, the unhelpful attitude of the police and the gross indifference of the district administration have all contributed to the continuation of discrimination, which is banned by the Constitution.

Even after nearly a decade, the situation has not improved for Dalit Christians. Dalits, when they changed religion, would have hoped for an end to caste discrimination that their ancestors had suffered and their brethren who opted not to convert continue to suffer. But the reality was otherwise. Untouchability manifests itself in many forms in the church as it does elsewhere denial of access to common resources such as water and public facilities such as roads, compulsion to do menial and degrading jobs and discrimination in education and employment.

Dalits are denied even a common burial ground, a common pathway to the cemetery, and so on. It is clear that people from the caste Hindu social groups carry their caste tags and identities even when they join a new religious community. Common burial ground and the right to take the dead to the burial ground in a common tumba (hearse) through the common road have been matters of contention between the social oppressors and the oppressed for quite some time in many areas.

The Eraiyur Dalits have been consistently fighting discrimination at the place of worship and denial of access to the cemetery for a long time. In the 1990s, in protest against discrimination in the church, they built a small place of worship. This has now grown into an alternative church. It was to win legitimacy for the church that they sought recognition from the Archdiocese. When the recognition did not come, they announced a fast unto death from March 7.

The aim of the March 9 attack was to break the Dalits economic strength, which is evident from the enormous damage done to more than 80 of the nearly 350 houses in the Dalit colony. Television sets and fans, two-wheelers, tables, chairs and utensils were damaged in almost all these houses.

The attackers did not spare even the old, the women and the children. An eight-year-old boy showed this writer a slash on his head, which was allegedly inflicted by a teacher of his school. He was yet to come out of the trauma 15 days after the attack.

A young girl, who was attending her sick grandmother, said the attackers beat her up and tore her blouse. She said her grandmother, who was in a coma, was injured by splinters of glass from a window pane when attackers hurled stones at the house. The woman died a few days later, and her funeral was marred by protests against the Dalits taking out the funeral procession through the main road. Many children took refuge in a neighbouring village for many days.

The Sagaya Matha Chapel was also the target of the upper caste ire. Chairs, a public address system and a DVD player inside the chapel were damaged. Hindu Dalits also suffered losses when the raiders ransacked the colony. Dalit students could not go to school when their classmates were preparing for their examinations.

A fact-finding team comprising human rights activists A. Marx and Praba Kalvimani has observed that the incidents could have been avoided had the church taken effective, timely steps against the practice of untouchability and also against discrimination against the Dalit Christians. It also criticised the police for their failure to reach the village in time. It described the police firing as unwarranted and demanded a judicial inquiry into the firing as well as the atrocities against the Dalits.

The Sagaya Matha Chapel.-

Another group including human rights activists and lawyers E.S. Jose and E.S.P. Lucia has said in its report that had the Archbishop looked at the Dalits problem with a fatherly concern as a religious leader, the tragic loss of two lives in police firing and the heavy loss of property could have been averted. Discrimination, whether in the streets or in the sacred places, is a crime and of course, unchristian, the report said.

VCK Member of the Legislative Assembly D. Ravikumar told Frontline that in spite of repeated appeals from the Pope to political leaders of all hues, the church continued to be indifferent to the plight of Dalit Christians. He regretted that no firm and effective steps had been taken to end discrimination against them.

It will be appropriate to recall here the papal address of Pope John Paul II to the bishops of Madras-Mylapore, Madurai and Pondicherry-Cuddalore at the conclusion of the visits by prelates of India ( in the Vatican on November 17, 2003: At all times, you must continue to make certain that special attention is given to those belonging to the lowest castes, especially the Dalits. They should never be segregated from other members of society. . Therefore, customs or traditions that perpetuate or reinforce caste division should be sensitively reformed so that they may become an expression of the solidarity of the whole Christian community.

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