Monday, September 25, 2006

Church, Secularism and the Issue of Dalits

Dr John Dayal in conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat

John Dayal has been a Journalist 37 years, writes books and makes the occasional documentary film. He has been actively involved in the civil liberty movement, fought against police atrocities, imposition of the State of Emergency [1975-77], communalism and issues relating to Dalits, Christians and other minorities. A visiting Professor of journalism at various institutions, Dayal has been Chairman of YMCA Media center, Chairman of the governing Boards of various colleges of Delhi University, and was Chairman of the critic jury of International Children Festival of India. He deposed before the US Congressional Committee and European Commission on religious freedom, National Human Rights Commission. Currently, National President of 0 year old All India Catholic Union and Secretary general of the All India Christian Council, John Dayal was co founder with the late Archbishop Alan De Lastic of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, Mr. Dayal was there in Durban to raise the issue of Dalits and related intolerance of Hindu right wingers on the marginalised sections of society including minorities in general and Christian in particular. In a conversation with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, he spoke at length the problems faced by the Christian Church in India and challenges ahead.

VB: Let us start with the latest [September 2006] incident at Loreto Convent School in Lucknow, which is a Catholic school. What is the difference between a Christian School and a Sangh Parivar-run school if miracles are being forced on children? Do you think the school was right in inviting a person from Bengal and project his miracles in front of the children?

JD: This is an issue which is quite alive in the Church because many different facets of dogma, doctrine and civil rights are involved; theology is being questioned, and the jurisdiction of the appellate authority in this matter is being clearly identified. I think this is a matter more for the Catholic Bishop of Lucknow than for the civic administration of that city. Under Catholic Canon Law, he is the supreme religious authority in his Diocese and all religious groups such as the Loreto run their schools, colleges and hospitals with his permission. It is his job to ensure that the Dogmas and Doctrine of the Catholic Church and its social teachings are not perverted or interpreted in a manner that is insidious and violative of the codes and traditions of the Church. Of course, on the sidelines of the mayhem is also the larger question of Catholic education, and the difference between Faith and blind faith or superstition, the difference between what Christians call the Healing Ministry and the magical mumbo jumbo of ojhas and charlatans, the difference between Evangelistic, Pentecost or Charismatic forms of worship on the one hand and the sort of spirits, apparitions, Ouija Boards and ghostly mantras that should be more at home in some tantric’s laboratory than in a Church compound.

Let me begin by saying that the issue of Catholic Education is being reviewed by the Church in all its dimensions -- its social implications, its target groups, the pedagogy, fees structures, obligation towards Dalits and OBCs and the commitment to the Poor. This will perhaps take another year before it is codified and implemented in the more than 150 Dioceses of the Catholic Church which perhaps run over 22,000 academic institutions in the country, from Barmer to Nagaland and from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, through forests, deserts, hills and marshlands where others do not want to go.

What happened in Lucknow was neither religious teaching, even if were to be taken at its worst, nor miracles being forced down the throats of children. A Sangh Parivar school is not recognized as a Minority institution under Article 25 and Article 30. Hinduism is NOT the default religion of the Republic of India for it to be taught in the absence of Christianity, Islam or Sikhism. Sangh Schools have no right at all to teach a specific religion unless they are to teach every religion. It is of course another matter that not only Sangh Parivar schools, but most government run primacy and secondary schools in most villages of Northern India, and even colleges for that matter, are run as if they were orthodox Hindu seminaries in the matter of religious cultural content in the academic environment.

This is not the case with Article 30 Minority institutions such as Loreto convent which have the Constitutional right to be part of their religious community’s obligation to practice, profess and propagate their faith. But in a self imposed code, all Christian schools, Catholic or Protestant, have made it a point that religious teaching will be given only to Christian children, and others will have the option to study moral science or some such subject in the same time. This is something that is now sacrosanct in Christian schools of all denominations even though this may not be the case in madrasas and Sanskrit or Anglo Vedic schools and colleges.

What happened in the Loreto convent was not a religious teaching. It was an assembly session for a section of the girls and what was on `show’ of I may call it that, was a special form of prayer practice. Time was given to some rickshaw driver turned prayer man to show his style. It turned out to be some hotch potch of Charismatic, tantra, siddhi and pure magic.

I make a difference in this and what happened next. Fainting by tiredness is not uncommon among school children, and even among police personnel, who have to wait long hours for some VVIP politician to come and unfurl the Flag on Independence Day, or during the visit to town of a Prime minister. Hysteria is also not common among girl schools.

But the preacher’s claims that he was possessed by the spirit of Jesus Christ, is bunkum. It is part of our faith that Healing is done in the name of Jesus. We believe he was born of a human mother, died and was buried, that he rose again and after some days, was raised to the heaven. Please remember that Jesus appeared many times to his disciples after this death and resurrection – always as he was when he was alive, complete with wounds that we call Stigmata. He did not the, and does not now, take possession of human bodies. That may be the work of the devil or some spirits, but not of God. The prayers that heal in the name of Christ and the Holy Spirit do not involve possessions, Omens and such like.

Because this is against our doctrines and articles of faith, therefore it is a matter for probe by the Bishop as to why such a thing happened in one of our Catholic schools.

The nuns meant no harm and for that matter, even this ojha really meant no harm. He was just showing off.

VB: Now, an issue of superstition has been totally communalized by the goons of Sangh Parivar as they came in large number, targeted the school staff and broke windows and furniture of the school. What is your response? The Parivar says that they would continue to protest against the alleged proselytisation of the children.

JD: Who can argue with Fascists? No one. They communalise and turn violent. For his own political reasons, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, for days does nothing to get the criminals arrested. Mr Yadav is no friend of the Church, and even less so of English-medium Convents and boys schools run by the church. If he wanted to , he could have shown to the Sangh thugs that the rule of law still ran in the State of Uttar Pradesh.

Mr Yadav’s silence did much to generate the hype against the Christians. The Hindi language television, and newspapers such as the Times of India and particularly its Lucknow edition, did much to add oil to the fan. This is quite the norm now, unfortunately, with the media conniving at such violence—which by the way turns public attention away from crucial issues such as why the guilty of various anti Muslim riots still run free in the country..

I hope sometimes in the future, the governments at the centre and in the states will find the moral courage to stand up to the Sangh Parivar in similar and other matters.

VB: What suggestions would you make to missionary schools in India when they deal such sensitive issues so that the Hindutva goons do not get benefit of their apolitical activities?

JD: In popular parlance, the term missionary school has come to mean schools run by the Church or by private Christian citizens. If they were really missionary schools [which perhaps they were when they bean a century or more ago], they should leave the urban elite and the rich of the metropolitan areas, and go open their schools in rural and tribal areas, or in the slums of the Dalits sand the villages of the landless.

But if they decide to also serve the urban middle class and rich, such schools have to make up their mind if they want t remain teaching shops selling elite labels with fluency in English as their USP, or their unique Selling Proposition. The rich buy their education, taunt the Nuns and fathers [other than at Admission time, when the same rich man can be seen groveling at the Principal’s door], and then stand watching in silence as some other Sangh thugs go about smashing school furniture, beating Priests and once in a frequent while, aping the odd Nun or two.

VB: Christians by and large remain highly apolitical community except for the north eastern region where the real politics is played by the tribal leaders. Has this indifference to politics damaged socio-political condition further? Is there any plan to get the community involved in some political understanding?

JD: This is of concern to the community and the Church leadership, at last. We in the All India Catholic Union, patently Catholic lay group, the ecumenical non-denominational all India Christian Council and similar Civil society organisations are deeply worried at the implications of a people who remain illiterate in the realities of life, or who think politics, political realities and activism is not for people who profess the Christina faith.

Christians cannot remain aloof from the world. To that extent, Christianity is a deeply political faith as it seeks change, it professes love for the poor and the marginalised, not for the rich. It worships no gods of wealth and war, nor does it have in it place for might and grandeur.

Christ himself was a catalyst of change – social, ethical, spiritual and of course political. Christianity has been at the root of civilisational growth.

The Indian Christian community is only now waking up to its role as the political conscience keeper of its age and of its nation. The gathering support to the Dalit movement is a visible example of this.

VB: While Christian community and its leadership have now initiated dialogue with the Dalits, it is still the biggest challenge for the common man to link them with the Dalits. The upper caste priests are not really favorable to the idea of Dalits sitting with them. How will this influence of Varna system be eradicated from the minds of the Christian religious people.

JD: This is quite true. The scourge of caste, as Mahatma Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar and Nehru noted, exists in the DNA of Indian society. It crosses the mebranes of the Hindu relgion to permesate all other resident faiths, Islam, Chritianity, Sikhism and Jainism incouded. You may ban the practice of untouchability by enacting some legidlation, but the anhilation of caste, as Ambedkar wanted, seems an impossible dream. Those in power, and the power brokers realise that they would have lost their base and their existence if they were to outlaw caste. We have to deal with this.

VB: You have been raising the issue of Dalit Christians. There has been resentment among the Dalits for they fear that if the Christian Dalits a quota, they would lose their own quota. Secondly, the current government has not taken any specific step to do the same. You have met the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi? What promises have they made to you and have any of them been activated so far?

JD: Dalits professing the Hindu faith despite their situation in society, need have no fear from Dalit Christians getting the same Scheduled cast status with its accompanying protection of law, more important to us than the mere access to a few government jobs. As it is, barring those in the scavenging departments of municipal corporations., most other jobs still remain far from the reach of Dalits. Christian Dalits are perhaps only hairs-breadth better off than their brothers in the Hindu faith in terms of education..

VB: Some of the Christian groups are still flirting with Hindutva. They are not isolated one. The common linking theme seems to be anti-Islamic tendencies. What do you think on this and what are you doing to make a better understanding of Islam among the Christian community.

JD: This is among the minor successes of the Sangh propaganda for sixty years. Many victims of Hindutva still look at Islam through RSS goggles. The same unfortunately is true for Muslims who can target Christians little understanding that it is the Sangh or some other vested interest which is twisting news and facts to provoke communities against each other.

VB: What steps have the Catholic institutions have taken to bring Dalits to mainstream? I mean institutions like St Stephens have open opposed the idea of affirmative action in their recruitment. YMCAs and other such institutions are churning out more Arun Shouries and Chandan Mitras. How do you face this paradox of Christian Institutions? What should be done so that at least Dalit Christians get their due in their own institutions?

JD: There is a conscious effort now that we cannot just pay lip service to the Dalit cause without putting our money where our mouth is. Elite institutions are becoming more sensitive to this. But mathematical parity, I agree, is still far away. Unfortunately this is so also in government run education centres of higher and professional learning, including medicine, law, military colleges etc.

VB:: How does the AICC see the global war on terror? What step would you take so that the image built of the Muslims by the Indians and International channels do not get deep into the mind of your community? Don’t you think that such stereotyped image of the Muslim community is fed in the mind of the new young which would ultimately be dangerous for the youngsters of the community and may bring them to the Hindutva’s propagandists in the ‘secular media?

The Church in India has defended and supported the Palestinians while also recognising the Jews’ right to a homeland, and now that Israel is a nation, it right to secure borders.

The matter is geo political, not religious. The Indian church is among the first to speak against the nuclear bomb, the bombings of innocent Iraqi children by the US and the Israel war on civilians in the guise of seeking out terrorists.

We do make distinction that in India there is no clash of civilizations. Islam and Christianity are both minority religions, both equal victim of the Sangh ideology.

The Indian Church needs to, and indeed does make, common cause with secular Hindus and marginalised communities.

VB: Some years ago a delegation of Christian clergy initiated a dialogue with the RSS chief Mr. K.S.Sudarshan. What will be the implications of these dialogues? Will it not give the Hindutva right-wingers a certificate that they represent the entire Hindu society including various non-Brahmins upper caste groups and backward communities?

JD: Without casting an aspersion on the Church leadership, by accepting a dialogue under the coercion of National Minorities Commission, the Church has made itself vulnerable on many counts, chief among them is the charge that they have entered into a bilateral barter with the RSS with its vested interests in Institutional and properties at the top of mind and not with the interest of the communities and people. So far both the Catholic as well as the Protestant leadership have not been able to come up with any better explanation except that a dialogue is good by itself and that it was good to remove misgivings that RSS might have about the Christians. For whatever details are available from the press reports it is quiet obvious that on its part RSS has continued its barrage against Christians on the issues of conversion. Under pressure of RSS, the Church groups, have also turned against what they call, fringe groups or evangelists groups who they pinned the blame for aggressive evangelization, harsh language or antagonizing Hindus. Under the same pressure of the senior Church leaders have thought it fit to ‘disown’ popular lay activists saying that only Bishops are authorised to speak for the Church. This of course open up an entirely new debate on role and empowerment of leity and role of Bishops in secular and political issues. To come back to main issue, the dangers that emanates from such dialogues are the following:

1. Betrayal of the secular Hindus: The vast Hindu community has never accepted the RSS to be either its representative or spokesperson. In fact, contemporary political history prove that majority of Hindus reject the Sangh theology and its political doctrine that is why the BJP even at its peak was not able to gain more than 180 seats.
And it has to depend on regional chauvinistic parties to cobble a coalition to come into power. By talking to the Sangh Parivar before we have explored the dialogue with religious counterpart in Hindu society, we may have contributed to the marginalisation of secular religious voices in the society.
2. The Church inability to separate Hindutva from Hinduism: This is a direct result of Church’s failure to have dialogue with non-Brahmins Hindus. The same is the issue of inculturation, we happily adopt the culture of Brahmins but are reluctant to assimilate the worship forms of OBCs and Dalits. Perhaps it comes naturally for a Brahmanical hierarchy to see an ally with another brahmanical political ruling group. Naturally, the Church leadership fails to understand that Hindutva like Nazism, Zionism or even Talibanism, is an ideology and not a religion but has to be challenged by the ideological strength of progressive secular civil society. In fact the Church leadership is confronting ideologically with the socially presentable language of Christian Priests who is reluctant to challenge the Sangh Parivar on its role towards women, OBCs, Dalits, Muslims, Sikhs and neo Buddhists.

VB: Why have the Christians always been defensive on the issue of conversion and foreign funding? Don’t you feel that rather than having a dialogue with RSS, the Church should have engaged in a dialogue with dalits, OBCs and other secular people?

JD: The Church is not defensive. I would have liked the Church to challenge the right of Sangh to ask this question at all. In this day and age and with the police controlled by the upper caste police, it would be impossible to use either coercion or inducing other than the Sangh Parivar. It is also important to remember that conversion as after are attraction towards a better spiritual and physical expression as it is a desire to escape from a state of oppression which has lasted for 3000 years. Institutaionalised and organised Church have also evolved highly structured religious processes, which inhibit their activities in the area. The Catholic Church is still active in tribal and dalit areas but not among the OBCs. Many of the so-called mainline Church are crippled with corruption, lack of vocation and dynamic leadership. Further, there is no evangelistic activity in their calendar apart from their Church service every Sunday.

I think the Church should assert its supremacy and talk about the constitutional provisions for religious freedom. It must also have a dialogue with all Church groups including the evangelist on evolving a new language for evangelisation which is utterly sensitive, politically correct and clearly carries the liberty message of Jesus Christ. Any compromise on right to evangelise is a violation of an individual to covert him/ her.

VB: What are the main things for the Christian community to ponder over in the last fifty years of our Independence? The backward communities who are now the political stronger group says that Christians were in the forefront to oppose reservation meant for them in 1990. How can there be a dialogue with Dalits and backwards.

JD: According to 10th five years plan, Christian community is the poorest of the poor in India. Apart from a few well off people in the coastal belt of Bombay, Goa and Kerala, the rest are extremely poor. We don’t have an artisan class which can earn its own living. We don’t have an entrepreneur class to exports commercial opportunities. Because there has been no work among OBCs barring part of Kerala, Karnataka there are no Christian with any land holding. Other than the tribal, while the urban Christian is basically a salaries employee in government or private sector, in the rural areas they are landless peasantry or agricultural labor. This by the way gives the final lie to the propaganda that Christians have been converted out of inducement. Prime task for all the Christian social scientists is to uplift the marginalised and OBCs. Despite the Church running various educational institutions, it is not true that Church rejected Mandal but elitist sections of the Church never understood the social engineering aspect of Mandal. Secondly main Mandal engineering has its most potent impact in the non-tribal Bihar and indogangetic parts where Christianity is lowest both in evangelical fervor and numerical strength. In the south barring the classical hostility with Marxist in Kerala over the issue of private colleges, Christian Activists have been a part of the aspiration of socially and politically mobile groups in Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Kerala.

VB: Several Christian groups said that caste system exists in every religion and every region and hence it needs to be addressed globally. By saying so they have given a big support to Hindutva. If it exists in every religion then why condemns BJP or for that matter the Hindutva. What was the reason that the Dalit activists themselves rarely raised the religious basis of their discrimination during the Durban conference against Racism?

JD: I disagree with the formulation of the question that casteism or Manuwad, a brahmanical hierarchy of the sort that we are talking about is endemic to religion. In India while all other religions have their own class structure or even function based discrimination because of ruling and priestly classes. On the other hand, Dalit scholars have conclusively proved that Manuwad is intrinsic to classical Hinduism would have to undergo various internal restructuring if the concept of caste were to be knocked at. It is because of this that Gandhi also attacked the concept of untouchability as evil but supported the concept of Caste System as Dr Bhagwan Das has proved from his meticulous writings of Gandhi. Caste and its social fall out or social infirmity has erased out the barriers of religion, region and even race. I have myself questioned the reluctance of some Dalit camps in attacking Manuwad frontly. Perhaps there is some anxiety that by attacking Hindutva & Manuwad, we may alienate middle class friends and society in India particularly OBCs. My own position in Durban was a frontal attack on Hindutva as ideological framework against Dalits and other communities. I personally feel it does not dilute the focus on Dalits as victim of Hindutva, which believes in hierarchical system with Dalits at the bottom of their social order.

VB: What is the role of Church towards the marginalised communities? Will they give them a fair representation in their institutions or Churches?

JD: The struggle of Dalit rights within Church became an integral part of over all Dalit struggles. Social institution of caste has crossed the religious membrane, so you see the caste-based Churches in South India. Despite all the tall claims, it is just 10% of total clergy belong to Dalit community and out of total 180 Catholic Bishops there are only 5 Dalit Catholic Bishops. It is an untenable situation and distracts for more visible solidarity for Dalit cause. Many of our schools in metropolitan cities have become elitists and barring a few exception like St Josephine evening College in Banglore, most of our schools cater more to social and political upper caste elite than to Dalits. This situation is crying out for an early corrective solution.

VB: Christian missionaries in the entire South Asia are facing victimization. In Pakistan they face the notorious blasphemy law; in Sri Lanka and Nepal they faced violence. How far the Indian Churches and Christian community reacted to all this?

JD: Both the Catholic Church and Catholic laity movement have been in the forefront of highlighting the tragedy of Christian in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Srilanka where they are victims of violence on both sides. We have protested vehemently and carried out the international campaign to save the victims of draconian Blasphemy law of Pakistan. We also campaigned for the release of missionaries in Nepal. But as a small missionary in India, our own strength is limited and therefore we have been working for secular society. We are very active in general human rights groups and form a vocal part of emerging Christian community of India and South Asia.