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Dalits

 

ACN Interview: Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, auxiliary bishop of Ranchi and Secretary General of the Indian Bishops’ Conference

18.04.2019 in ACN International, ACN PRESS, By Maria Lozano, Dalits, India, Peace, Persecution of Christians

INDIA

Rise in violent attacks against Christian minorities

 

India has just begun its electoral process, which will take place in seven separate stages between April 11 and 19 May this year. Fears that this, the most populous democracy in the world, might end up becoming a theocratic Hindu nation have strengthened recently, in light of the fact that the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata (BJP) and its president Narendra Modi are seeking a second mandate. During its present term in office there has been an increase in interreligious violence, according to the report on Religious Freedom Worldwide by the international Catholic Pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). The figures speak for themselves: in 2016 a total of 86 people were killed and 2371 injured in 703 separate incidents of sectarian (Hindu fundamentalist) violence; in 2017 the figures were 111 killed and 2384 wounded in 822 separate reported incidents.

 

The most recent attack –  March 26 – took place in Tamil Nadu against a Catholic school, the Little Flower Higher Secondary School in Chinnasalem, when a crowd of Hindu fundamentalists smashed up the school and even attempted to strangle the religious sisters who were running the school. ACN journalist Maria Lozano interviewed Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, auxiliary bishop of Ranchi and Secretary General of the Indian Bishops’ Conference and asked him about the elections and the gravity of this recent incident.

 

Interview with Msgr. Theodore Mascarenhas, 12.04.2019
by Maria Lozano
Published by ACN Canada April 18, 2019

ACN: We have heard of the increase in attacks by Hindu fundamentalists against religious minorities in other parts of India, especially in the north of the country, but the brutal violence of this recent incident has shocked us. Was there any particular reason for the attack?

Over the last year or so there has been a rise in fundamentalism in Tamil Nadu. Above all it has been the evangelical or Protestant so-called “house churches” that have complained of these attacks. There is an activist, who publishes on the web stories of groups of Christians being beaten up while praying in their house churches or some little church structure destroyed. But as the Catholic Church we have not had this type of open attack until this time, at least not such a big one, we have had small, small things. Two years ago there was a Good Friday incident; a mob did not allow us to worship in one place.  So we have had incidents here and there. But the Protestant churches or Protestant groups or these smaller denominations have had a lot of problems over the last two years. So it did not come to me as a surprise that eventually we would be attacked. But that it took place on such a large scale is really frightening.

 

ACN: It must also have been an enormous shock for the sisters of the Franciscan Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who have been running the school for 74 years now. What is the present situation in Chinnasalem? And how are the sisters faring?

 

It is a small town. And the sisters have been doing a lot of this work for very, very poor children. And in fact the hostel, the boarding school can take girls who come from very poor areas and poor families.

 

I spoke to the Sisters a few days ago and I spoke to the Archbishop also, and they say for the moment that some people have been arrested and we are waiting for some more people to be arrested. But for me it is not what happens after the incident. For me the whole thing we have to question is how such incidents can even come about in a civilized society.

 

ACN: But apart from the incident itself and notwithstanding the gravity of it, are you concerned about the social dimension that this kind of attack implies?

How is so much hatred being spread in society and how can we stop this hatred being propagated – that is exactly the question. There are groups that are promoting hatred and these groups are not being stopped, neither in social media nor in actual life, and they seem to be getting political privilege, patronage, and that is my worry, even political authorization, and that is my problem. It is not that these small groups make demands against us or make charges against us or accuse us. The problem is that political leaders are actually encouraging them.

 

ACN: Do you think this increase in incidents in the last year is also related to the elections?

It might be related to the elections but I think it is going long-term now. I have a very simple philosophy on this. Once you plant the seed of hatred, once you bring the beast, the animal of anger, hatred, violence, that animal cannot be controlled. And this is my worry. All those who are spreading this hatred must know what harm they are doing to society and that it will become difficult to bring back things under control; and if it cannot be brought back under control we will have a problem.

 

ACN: But this problem is already damaging especially to the minorities in India…

Yes, it is the minorities, but today I was just thinking of that beautiful poem attributed to a German Lutheran pastor: ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out-because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’ So we use this now today because first you start with one minority and then the second. the Muslims are under attack, the dalits are under attack and we are under attack, we don’t know who next.

 

ACN: Does that mean then that in the end this nationalist fundamentalism which the political leaders are promoting will actually damage the whole country?

We must say one thing in all fairness. A large Hindu majority, and a large Indian majority of whatever religion we belong to, we are tolerant, we accept each other, and we live with each other, we have been living for thousands of years together, this is a multi-cultural, multi-religious diverse society, and we’ve been living with each other and enriching each other. Now we suddenly come to a situation where certain groups are getting strong and spreading this hatred around and that is not acceptable, because eventually it is the nation that is going to suffer from this. Not just the minorities.

 

ACN: Is India heading towards becoming a theocratic nation like Pakistan?

In 1947 two countries were born, Pakistan and India. Pakistan decided that it would be a country founded on a religion, Islam; our founding fathers in India decided we would not be based on any religion or any one culture but we would be multi-cultural, pluri-religious and with diverse languages and regions. And the country has lived peacefully after that.

 

ACN: But who are these new people who want to change what the founding fathers decided, and why? 

These are certain fundamentalist groups which come up in every society and fundamentalist groups always damage society. But when they start getting overt or covert support from the others then they become dangerous.

ACN: What has been the reaction of the Christian community on hearing this news? Surely these incidents must make them feel very frightened?

We as Christians, we trust in the Lord, we are not afraid. When I asked the Sisters ‘Are you afraid?’ they said ‘No, we shall continue our work.’ I think that is our spirit, we shall continue our work, we will not be afraid of anyone. We think of Jesus who told us ‘Be afraid of the one who can take care of your soul rather than those who can destroy your body.’ So that is our basic principle. I don’t think anyone is frightened and we will go ahead with our work, we will continue serving the poorest of the poor. We know that this will bring us difficulties, this will bring us persecution, and this will bring us even hardships, but we will continue doing our work for the poor, for God and for Jesus.

 

ACN: One last question: do you believe that it is precisely the fact that you are working with the poorest and most socially discriminated against is one of the reason why some people don’t seem to like the work of the Church?

We have a saying in my own local language Konkani: ‘Stones are thrown only at a tree that bears fruit’. You don’t throw stones at a useless tree, only at a tree that bears fruit. So I think that one of the reasons we are under attack is that we are serving the poor, somebody does not like that we are serving the poor and this I believe is the real reason why the fundamentalists do not like us.

 

 

 

 

ACN Interview – “In India, the Church serves all, fighting discrimination on all fronts”

20.04.2018 in ACN Interview, ACN USA, Aid to the Church in Need Canada, By Joop Koopman, Dalits, India, International Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Journey with ACN, Julie Bourbeau

India

“The Church serves all, fighting discrimination on all fronts”

 

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur was recently appointed Chairman of the Commission for Scheduled Castes (SCs)/other Backward Castes (BCs) by the Catholic Conference of Bishops of India (CBCI). An important part of the Commission’s task is to shape the Church’s policies with regard to the country’s dalits—the lowest caste in the Hindu hierarchy, formerly known as ‘untouchables’—who suffer severe discrimination in Indian society. Dalits comprise 65 percent of India’s Catholic population of close to 20 million. A native of Kandhamal, Odisha State, where some 100 Christians were murdered by a Hindu mob in 2008, Bishop Nayak is one of only 12 dalit bishops, out of a total 224. Aid to the Church in Need met him. 

 

Why are Christian (and Muslim) dalits still denied affirmative action, even though the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens?

After independence from England in 1947, the Indian Constitution went into effect in January 1950. It guaranteed equal fundamental rights for all of its citizens, irrespective of caste and creed. On Aug. 10, 1950, a Presidential Order went into effect to grant Hindu tribal people and dalits affirmative action benefits to compensate for their low socio-economic status after centuries of neglect and discrimination. Dalits belonging to other religions, however, were not included. Eventually, Buddhist and Sikh dalits were granted the so-called ‘Scheduled Castes’ status along with the benefits. However, Muslim and Christian dalits remain deprived of these rights to this day, despite continuous protests and appeals to the government for the past 60 years.

Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur diocese in India. The motto’s Bishop is “to be a happy servant”. 

Previous governments, mostly run by the Congress Party, did not have the political will to amend the Constitution, even when they had the absolute majority in Parliament. The present BJP government, with its Hindu nationalist ideology, is openly against extending the Constitution’s affirmative action provision to Muslim and Christian dalits.

 

Is the Church in a position to change the situation? What is the Church’s strategy on this front?

Christians comprise only 2.5 percent of the total population, so politically, the Church has not been able to do much to challenge the constitutional validity of the 1950 Presidential Order. It must be challenged, as it discriminates purely on the basis of religion, which runs against the basic tenets of the Indian Constitution that hold that all citizens must be treated equally—irrespective of caste, creed, gender or religion. The Church’s sustained peaceful protests have not succeeded thus far, though news coverage has brought the issue to the attention of the general public.

As a strategy, the Church is trying to fight it out alongside Muslims and people of goodwill from other faiths and various political ideologies. The Church is also trying to unite all dalits on this issue; unfortunately, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh dalits are concerned that the extension of benefits to Muslims and Christians might reduce their benefits. Finally, the Church approaches the issue from a human rights perspective. The deprivation of dalit Christians is a violation of human rights, a violation by international standards.

 

Some believe that if Christian dalits were granted government benefits many Hindu dalits would convert to Christianity. What are the aspects of the Christian life that are attractive to lower-caste Hindus?

The fear of mass conversions to Christianity seems unfounded; it is also another form of degrading dalits to presume they would change their religion to gain material benefits. This has been the strategy of the Hindu mind-set, irrespective of political ideologies: to instil fear of a mass exodus in the Hindu majority. Facts prove that the opposite is true: even though dalit Christians are deprived of government benefits, and even, in some states, suffer discrimination, they still remain faithful to their faith—even to the point of suffering martyrdom. What’s more, when the affirmative action provisions were extended to Buddhists and Sikhs, Muslim and Christian dalits or Hindu dalits did not join those faiths.

 

It is true, however, that Christians are known for their peace-loving, service-minded way of life that respects all people and that is dedicated to mission work. Hindu fundamentalists try to prevent or put obstacles in the way of Christian services such as those in the fields of education, health care or social services, lest people become attracted and embrace Christianity. Six states have anti-conversion laws in place to prevent any conversions. It is often said and accepted as fact that, though they only account for 2.5 percent of the population, Christians provide 20 percent of national services in various fields—yet, the size of the Christian community has not grown much in India.

 

Can you explain why Hindu nationalists are so hostile to Christianity?

In February 2016: Visit to a Hindu Temple.

First of all, they associate colonial British rule with Christianity. Relatively few British came to India, and yet they ruled it for more than 200 years; the Hindu nationalists fear that if there are more Christians in India, they will rule India again. Christianity is seen as a foreign religion. Secondly, Christianity challenges various tenets and practices of the Hindu religion and Hindus fear losing their influence.

For example, the Christian faith challenged the age-old practice of sati pratha, by which a widow was burned alive together with the dead body of the husband; the Hindu religion held that women have no independent existence apart from men—that widows have no right to exist, to own property or to remarry. That practice is almost fully eradicated today. Secondly, there is the jati pratha (the Caste System), which classifies people according to their birth and treats them as low or high. There are no social relationships allowed among the various castes.

Dalits are considered outcasts or untouchables—even coming under their shadow is considered to make someone impure. The caste system does not allow a person to take up a profession other than the job of the caste or family one is born into. The Church strives to eradicate casteism. It promotes and upholds the equal dignity and rights of every citizen.

The hindutwa ideology espoused by Hindu nationalists is trying to impose cultural nationalism, which calls for one culture, one language and one religion. While faithful to the teachings of Christ, the Church recognizes, respects and promotes the pluralism of cultures and language.

Finally, Hinduism is steeped in many dark beliefs, including the practice of black magic, sorcery, etc., which are used to exploit, torture and blackmail people. The Church, through education and awareness-raising, especially among dalits and tribal people, liberates people from these evil forces.

 

What are the bishops doing to combat discrimination against Catholic dalits within the Church itself?

At many national meetings, the bishops of India have issued statements calling for the end of the discrimination against dalits and of casteism, not only in the Church but also in society at large. However, casteism appears to be deeply rooted in the psyche of many Indians, including Christians. The “tail” of casteism survives even after Baptism. Now, by formally adopting the dalit policy in the Church, the Indian bishops have committed to a campaign to empower the dalits and educate all the faithful, reaffirming the equality of all people, and stressing the fact that dalits must be given equal opportunity in various professional and social fields.

 

How does the tension play out between deep-rooted Hindu notions of purity and the Gospel’s message that all men and women are equally worthy in the eyes of God?

Casteism in India is not only part of the Hindu religion—it is part of the Indian culture. Even though the Constitution of India forbids the practice of casteism, it still exists; and, sadly, it still exists even among Christians. In the past, as part of a missionary strategy for evangelization, casteism was tolerated by some missionaries, and some of that attitude persists today. Christianity is believed to first have been brought to Kerala and some parts of Tamilnadu by St. Thomas; local higher-caste Christians for centuries claimed a direct bloodline to the apostle; because of this caste mentality, the faith remained confined to that region and did not spread to other parts of the country for more than 1,500 years. It is only when St. Francis Xavier came to India that Christianity spread.

India, February 2018:  Holy Eucharist in a village – dalit community

 

You are a dalit yourself; what has been your experience pursuing your vocation in the Church?

I personally did not experience any discrimination in my childhood and even during my seminary formation. Discriminating against people according to caste is not only un-Christian; it is also inhuman. I am happy to be a priest and consider my priesthood to be the greatest gift God has given me for the good of His people. The episcopacy is an added responsibility and I try “to be a happy servant,” which is the motto of my episcopate. Being a dalit, it may be easier for me than for others to understand the concept of a being servant; and as a first generation Christian in my family, my faith in Christ brings me great happiness—as it is still new and still uncontaminated.