PROBLEMS & STRUGGLES
Persecutions in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry
The Eraiyur Incident
"I was very much hurt when young boys and women of Vanniar community abused us with derogatory caste epithets and hurled stones at us. I was really scared", laments a Dalit priest who had come for the funeral of the mother of Fr AC Irudayanathan.
"This is a problem of tradition, not of caste, it will go away in course of time. Even intermarriages have taken place in this parish", pleads Fr. Jacob, the Parish Priest of Eraiyur.
"The Archbishop is afraid of Vanniars. He himself was on the scene. He too was abused. The archbishop was not allowed into his own church. What kind of moral authority does he have if he doesn't take any action? Either he should close the parish or he should resign from his position", argues a Dalit activist.
These are some of the decent comments in the aftermath of the incident at Eraiyur when the upper caste Vanniars preferred their caste affiliations to Christian values and unleashing violence denied a decent burial to a Dalit Christian woman.
16 1h February 1999 is a black day not only for the parish of Eraiyur but also for the archdiocese of Pondicherry and for the Catholic Church of Tamilnadu. Every Christian worth the name should hang his head in shame for the unchristian and antiChristian behaviour of the so-called "upper caste" Christians in Eraiyur. The monster of caste discriminations once again showed its ugly face exposing the chink in the armour of the Catholic Church and challenging the faith they profess and practice.
A team headed by Fr A Philomin Raj, Secretary of the TNBC Commission for SC/ST/BC made an investigation into the events that took place on February 16 th at Eraiyur. The Parish Priest, the Archbishop and scores of others who were on and off the scene were interviewed. The following is a brief account of the incident at Eraiyur and what transpired thereafter.
The village of Eraiyur is situated west of Ulundurpet on the state high way between Elavanasurkottai and Thirukoilur of Villupuram District of Tamilnadu (Please refer the enclosed map). With a population of about 12,000 it is perhaps the largest parish in the archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore. The parish is 111 years old. More than 30 priests and 55 sisters hail form this parish working in the archdiocese and elsewhere. of the 12,000 about 9000 are Christians belonging to Vanniar community and the
Dalit Christians number about 2000. The rest are Hindu Dalits. Agriculture is the chief occupation of the people. Most of the land is owned by Vanniars and the most of the Dalits are landless agricultural labourers depending upon the Vanniars for their livelihood.
Down the decades, discriminations on the basis of caste like separate feasts, separate Thumba, separate cemeteries, and separate places in the church - have been in practice. The Church that should have been the first to break this kind of discriminations has encouraged such violations of human dignity by mere indifference. Even in the rectory the Dalits have to stand and talk (or they have to sit apart) while the others could sit and talk to the priest. The Dalit Christians have to meekly yield to such discriminations because they are numerically few, economically poor and politically powerless. There have been occasional skirmishes between the Dalits and Vanniars, like the brawl after drinking which led up to the registration of a case under the Untouchability Prevention Act and so on.
As can be seen in the enclosed diagram Vanniars live on both sides of the main street, which is maintained by the Government. Neither the marriage procession nor that of a funeral of the local Dalits could go to the church through the main street. The local Dalits have to use the small lane that leads from their street to the church. This is the "customary route" and this has been the tradition for decades.
As long as this tradition has been observed there was no problem. The problem arises whenever the tradition is questioned, Any uprising has been severely punished. Many attempts by the Dalit youngsters to take the funeral procession along the main route had been thwarted and forced along the customary route. On certain occasion one Louis, a Dalit youngster was beaten up for playing a Dalit awareness song.
16th February 1999:
Mrs. Jeyaseeliammal, mother of Fr AC Irudayanathan died on February 15 and many priests, sisters and lay people, many of them from Mugaiyur where Fr AC Irudayanathan is the parish priest, had come for the funeral on February 16. A few days prior to the death of his mother Fr AC seemed to have made known his intention to take the body to the church along the main route. Seeing the large crowd, and suspecting that some thing would happen the Vanniars rang the church bell and announced in the church public address system that there is a fight between the village and the harijan colony and requested men and women come with weapons. When the headmen of Vanniars asked Fr. A. C. Irudayanathan, which way was he going to take, he gave the answer that they were intending to take the main route. At about 7.00
a.m. a crowd of Vanniars came to the Dalit street with guns and home made weapons and threw stones at the houses in the colony. In fact the shamiana erected in front of Fr Irudayanathan's house collapsed under the impact of the stones thrown by them. This created fear and panic among the Dalits.
At about 9.00 a.m. the parish priest visited the house of Fr Irudayanathan and assured that the procession could go along the main street. But the Vanniar crowd started abusing with filthy and derogatory caste remarks and unloaded a tractor load of stones inside the church compound. They also chased away those who had come for the funeral using filthy language and threatening them with dire consequence if they stayed for the funeral. In the attack that followed more than a hundred people were injured. Even a Rev. Sister from Mugaiyur was not spared in this mad melee.
As the crowd was getting out of control the DSP and the inspectors of police requested the Dalits to give up their demand and take the customary route for the procession.
Archbishop Michael Augustine came there at about 5.15 p.m. The Vanniar crowd sat on the main street and blocked him from going to the church. They started abusing the archbishop and the Dalits using filthy and unprintable words. "How could he (the archbishop) come for the funeral of a pariah? Let us see if he would come for the Confirmation. Caste is more important for us than religion. Even if it is for only an hour we will live and die as Gounders."
The police requested the archbishop to persuade the Dalits to take the customary route. They expressed their inability to control the crowd that was getting wilder. If the archbishop insisted 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.
Unable to go to the church the archbishop proceeded to the house where the body was kept and the crowd closed the gate of the church thus making it impossible to go to the church even through the lane which is the customary route. So the body was taken straight to the dalit cemetery. Things necessary for Mass were brought stealthily and the archbishop said mass in the dim light of the home made torches.
After the funeral, the archbishop held a meeting in the convent. The archbishop declared that he would never again step into the parish church until amicable settlement is reached. After heated discussion it was decided to close the parish. The parish priest who did not join the funeral was asked to come to the convent. He was told to pack up and go to the archbishop's
house at Pondicherry. As the parish priest was also the headmaster of the higher secondary school objected that the school would suffer. He also said that if the archbishop insisted, he was ready to obey but he should not be asked to comE back to the school again.
The next day being Ash Wednesday the Archbishop said mass in the premises of Assisi Hospital run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Pondy Blues) for the Dalit Christians and the Parish priest said mass for others in the parish church
The days after:
Fr. Ratchagar of Cuddalore took responsibility for a peace meeting on 2oth February. But it took place only on 23rd February. The Vanniars seemed to have said that they would ask pardon for what happened on 16 th but would never allow the Dalit procession along the main street.
A meeting headed by Fr P Antonisamy on 3rd March also ended in failure.
Meanwhile as a fall out of the incident at Eraiyur, the Assistant Parish Priest of Mugaiyur (who belongs to Vanniar community) was asked by the people of Mugaiyur to leave the parish. Two other teachers in the school also went away. On 25 th February, DCLM organized a public meeting and condemned the Eraiyur incident. A lot of notices condemning the incident started coming from various Dalit movements and support groups. On 151*h March, nine Dalit priests staged a sit in strike in the archbishop's house at Pondicherry. The archbishop promised some definite decision on this issue by 26th of March. There were also peace meetings at Ulundurpet, the third of the meeting, held on 22"d March was attended by the archbishop. But then, these meetings made no headway.
1. Outside influence:
Many think that this single incident has been blown out of proportion by outsiders like the DCLM and the Ambedkar movement and by the Dalit priests themselves. Communal feelings that were dormant and disappearing have been fanned and rekindled by them through the filing of cases against Vanniars and through printed notices sent all over tarnishing the image of the village. There are places in Tamilnadu where worst possible discriminations against human dignity are in practice, the Vanniars argue. Their anger seems to be particularly focussed on Fr AC Irudayanathan for this state of affair.
2. The Dilemma of the Dalit Christians:
The Dalit people, though want to emancipate themselves from the age-old discriminations, are numerically few, economically poor and politically powerless. Compared to the Vanniars the Dalits are a minority. Those who get educated find some jobs and move away to other places. More over they are only landless agricultural labourers depending on the Vanniars for their very sustenance. Above all they have been subjugated for so many generations and for such long time that they have not only come to accept but even feel comfortable with their present condition. Any talk of breaking away from this circle of slavery is seen as a kind of disturbance of peaceful coexistence. "'Leave us alone. We are at peace. You come today; say something and go away. But it is we who suffer the consequences. So leave us alone", is their cry. Thus the will to emancipate themselves is so low that even their saviours are seen as troubleshooters.
3. Role of Priests from Eraiyur:
What is the role and response of the so many priests from Vanniar community who hail from this village? Are they behind their kith and kin supporting their view of discrimination against the Dalit Christians? Could they play an active role in solving this problem?
As for solving the problem they seem to be indifferent, standing aside and watching the developments - watching perhaps the next move of the archbishop. Would he yield to the demands of the Dalits to close the parish church?
Almost all the families in Eraiyur seem to have some one as priest or sister. Surely these priests and sisters could make a difference and make Eraiyur as a model village where caste based discriminations are abolished once and for all. But do they themselves believe in the equality and fraternity is a big question. It is suspected by Dalit Christians that the Vanniar Christians won't be so adamant without the support of the Vanniar priests in general and priests of Eraiyur in particular. In fact one young priest of Vanniar community, an assistant in a nearby town is suspected to be closely involved in the instigation on the Vanniar side.
4. What is the archbishop doing?
The one person singled out for harsh criticism in the whole scenario is Archbishop Michael Augustine. He has been targeted both by the Vanniars and the Dalit Christians, more by the latter. He has been the subject of direct and heartless verbal abuse, penchant writings with crude epithets and even a cartoon depicting him as a donkey. Both the sides accuse him of siding the opposite side. The Dalit Christians accuse him of not taking
any action against the Christian Vanniars for fear of the Vanniar priests who are in good number in the archdiocese.
Certainly the archbishop is under great stress. He has been trying hard calling both the parties quite a few times for peace talks in order to work out on an ami63ble solution that keeps eluding. One reason for this failure of the talks (and the adamant attitude of the Vanniars) might be that the priests of Vanniar community could be backing their community in this issue. ( Things have come to that level that even priests identify themselves not as priest of Christ, but of certain castes). What the archbishop could do is to throw this problem to the open forum of the priests of the archdiocese. The very process of discussion by the priests could be also a process of conversion and involvement on the part of the priests. The archbishop need not feel left alone fighting a lonely battle against this problem for which he is not the cause.
The Eraiyur incident should not be seen in isolation. It is just a tip of an enormous iceberg of caste discriminations prevalent in the Church. In almost all the dioceses these discriminations continue to exist in some form or the other. They range from separate places in the church, separate feasts, and separate cemeteries to jobs in the church-run institutions and admissions to seminaries and religious houses. In all these years the Church has not seriously crusaded against such anti-Christian practices. If at all there were attempts, they were only at the level of declarations that were vague about their implementation. Real implementation at the parish and village levels had not been attempted. On the contrary, some of the attempts in the past were even thwarted by priests belonging to upper castes. For example, some non-Dalit priests did not read the pastoral letter of Archbishop Casimir of Madras-Mylapore.
In Eraiyur the demands of the Dalits that the main street leading to the church be thrown open to the Dalits, that there be a common thumba and a common cemetery and that the parochial feast be celebrated by all the communities are not unjust demands. They are very much in the 10-Point Programme to which the Tamilnadu Bishops committed themselves almost a decade ago.
Thus in no way the Church has seriously attempted to help the Dalits in the restoration of their human dignity. These people who form the majority of the Christian population, as they become more and more aware of their deprivations, feel more and more frustrated and disillusioned at the Church. It is sad that those who should have been the champions of human rights and dignity are in fact the zealous guardians of caste and communal discriminations.
The lukewarm stand of the Tamilnadu Church becomes all the more glaring especially in the background of the celebrations of the Year of the Father and of the Great Jubilee 2000 of the Birth of Christ who came to bring salvation to all. Has salvation of Christ come to the Dalit Christians? What has been the role of the Church in this area? How far would the Church help the Dalit Christians to regain the human dignity that is the integral part of salvation? Without any serious attempt on the lines of equality and fraternity among the Christians, the call for the jubilee celebrations sounds pathetic and shallow.
TNBC Commission for SC/ST/BC
Deepam, Post Box 146
TRICHY - 620 001
Fr A Philomin Raj