By A. Savarirajan, *Translated from Tamil by Sr. Robancy A Helen Ph.D
Sengamedu is a mission station of Mugaiyur parish in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry-Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, south India.
The village has the Church of Our Lady of Assumption, which is 110 years old. The church is situated in the territory of Sithathur. The parishioners of Sengamedu belong to three different communities. There are 20 Dalit Christian families.
The Feast of Our Blessed Mother takes place on May 31 every year. The Dalit Christians pay the Church Support Fund for the feast, but the car procession is prohibited in the areas of the Dalit Christians.
The Dalit Christian teachers teach catechism, assist the priests in the Mass, and lead the choir, but there are three entrances in the church. The Dalit Christians have their entrance. The pathetic situation is that they cannot openly demand their rights.
It has become an age-old custom to demand the rights of the Dalit Christians from the priests.
When we approached Father Pictchai Muthu, the then parish priest, in 1984, he responded by saying, ‘Let us see, if we all come together only, we can have the feast; otherwise, no permission would be granted.’ And he stopped the feast. Years have passed, and our dreams have not been fulfilled.
My mind was agitating continuously. Is it a sin to be born as a Dalit? I was depressed. It is painful that, in the name of caste, cruelty takes place in the churches. I was anxious that the church did not pay attention to it. I was then in charge of the youth wing of the leftist party.
I shared this with comrade Suresh Mohan, the then Secretary of the Indian Communist Party, and asked him for a way forward for our rights. He looked at my anger and anxiety and smiled.
“It is difficult, but the car procession will come to your street,” said Mohan. I asked him how it was possible. It won’t be healthy if the political party intervenes in church matters. But if the archbishop of Pondicherry-Cuddalore intervenes, we can get a solution. Go and give a petition to the archbishop, he added.
“We have sent many petitions. We have been cheated,” I said. The archbishop advised me to organize the Dalit Christian families of my village, name it Sengamedu Dalit Catholics Protection Group, and start my fight legally. Upon his guidance, we formed the group, covered our heads with black cloth, and declared fasting on May 27, 1997.
Father AC Irudhaya Nathan, the then parish priest, could not open his mouth as he was a Dalit. We sent the invitation to all the Dalit leaders; even the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) was invited.
The agitation started. The day was Sunday, and the Holy Mass started in the church. The police also gathered with the action force. Our people and our village are in a state of panic and unsteadiness.
When the villagers saw the police, they pacified me, saying they neither wanted the protest nor the car procession in their area. Since I am a member of the Communist Party, the police targeted me and were ready with the vehicles to arrest me.
At that moment, we started reciting the Holy Rosary and went to the church. The police were shocked. “We thought they would shout slogans, but they are praying,” said the police. With the police security, we started our fasting, covering our heads in black.
Thirty people, including my uncles, were teachers but did not have any experience in the demonstration. They did not know how to speak using the microphone, yet the protest was going on, reciting the prayers and singing the songs of Mother Mary.
The people who were invited to the protest did not come; they avenged it.
There are many NGO founders in our parish. There are Dalit leaders and teachers. No one came forward. I proudly reflected on the unity of the Dalits and the commitment of DCLM.
When the Holy Mass was over, the dominant caste people attacked Father AC Irudayanathan in the church because he was a Dalit. The priest was in tears. The police tried to save the priest, and he faced the situation bravely.
We can’t tolerate this anymore. It is enough. We would go only if the car procession is allowed on our street. I started my speech vehemently.
The police became alert. The revenue inspectors arrived in a fraction of a second at the battleground. It was encouraging to see the arrival of M.S. Fernandes, the then Union Councillor of Mugaiyur.
When he started his speech, the police became furious. Dr. P.M.D. Arockia Samy and St. John Bosco School correspondent D.J. Antonyraj arrived at the spot. The Hindu Dalits also supported us, and the crowd increased the number to 500 unexpectedly.
The protest became tense as police forces and the revenue department joined in. Tripartite talks began at 3 p.m.
The dominant caste of Christians refused the car procession to our streets. After three hours of peaceful dialogue, they came to the consensus that we, the Dalit Christians, should celebrate the feast and take the car procession to our streets, but they decided not to participate in the feast.
The two parties signed. The flag-hoisting started on May 29 and we celebrated the feast of our Blessed Mother on May 31 with the car procession. More than a thousand people participated in the car procession in Mugaiyur village under the guidance of the priests. It was a historic one.
The Dalits of independent India saw the spectacular sight of the Our Lady of Assumption statue on their streets. The majority of Dalit Hindus knelt on the streets carrying candles and bowed down to tears of joy.
We were tired to see that the 20 Dalit Christian families pay the Church Support Fund to celebrate every year.
Father Velankanni Savari Doss, the parish priest, tried to make peace with both communities to celebrate the feast.
The attempt failed. The feast was stopped again. In this situation, the dominant caste Hindus tried to usurp the common pedestal where we have been hoisting the flag of Mother Mary for more than centuries, saying that half of the land of the Church belongs to them.
The dominant caste Hindus, with the help of the RSS, started the Hindu-Christian riot. The dominant caste of Hindus is rich and numbers more than 5000 people. But the Dalits are daily wagers.
The Christian youth from the dominant caste community approached me, saying that if this situation went this way, the Hindus would snatch the flag-hosting platform from us, and if you tried, we could save the flag-hosting platform of the church and grandly celebrate the feast every year.
The educated youth realized the situation of the time and put forward the idea that we should work together, and again, from both communities’ perspectives, peace talks were held with the present parish priest, Father Edward, who permitted the festival without any objection.
As never before this year (2023), the festival of Mother Mary’s feast and the car procession were held peacefully without police protection. The car procession was taken to all the streets.
The same community that rejected me for being a Dalit invited me to lower the flag and congratulated and thanked me after finishing the Mass in the presence of the priests and the people.
The important thing here is not that I was thanked and appreciated. But the important thing is that they all realized this and came forward in unity. This is the progress that we have made.
The cooperation and perseverance of Father Edward, our parish priest, have encouraged us.
Later, even when a particular caste of Hindus acted like road blockades to seize the flag-hoisting platform of the Church and attack the Christians, we faced legal problems. We dialogues under the the leadership of the District Collector and recovered and protected the flag-hoisting platform of Our Lady of Assumption from the clutches of the dominant caste Hindus.
No one is a politician in my family, clan, or heredity. I became a communist.
It comes to mind that the caste abuses I experienced: A wealthy person will not give to whoever is hungry and will not let go.
(The author is from Sengamedu, and he is the Villupuram District Secretary of the Indian Communist Party.)