Making a difference: Born to fight

Rev. Dr. P. Antony Raj shares stories of his struggle as a Dalit activist

Updated - July 27, 2011 03:25 pm IST

Published - July 27, 2011 03:24 pm IST

VOICE OF THE VOICELESS: Rev. Dr. P. Antony Raj. Photo: Soma Basu

VOICE OF THE VOICELESS: Rev. Dr. P. Antony Raj. Photo: Soma Basu

I am a self-made man and second to none,” declared Rev. Dr. P. Antony Raj recently during a seminar in the city. “You may call it cultivated arrogance but I have learnt the hard way.” His assertion is only natural, considering that life — which only handed him misfortune, isolation, abandonment, poverty, discrimination and humiliation – has been a battlefield for him for 67 years. Even today, on occasions, he is forced to ask himself, “So what if I am a Dalit?” But he soldiers on.

As a boy, born in a poor family of coolies in remote Meendully village in Tirunelveli district, when he failed in Class 8 exam, he thought “everything is over.” Fortunately, his elder brother put him in an orphanage, where he renewed his love for academics and went on to complete his Ph.D on “The social bases of untouchables in Tamil Nadu” from Chicago. Yet, when he returned to his village to share the happy news in 1987, caustic remarks from villagers about his caste hurt him no end. “But to give up hope is suicidal,” he says.

The bitter thought — “Am I not human?” — constantly nagged him and marked the starting point of his quest for personal freedom. Using Dr. B.R.Ambedkar's book “Annihilation of Caste” as a manifesto for liberation of Dalits, he decided to take on life the same way – “educate, agitate and organise”.

A study assigned to him by the Society of Jesus busted the myth that there is no caste in the church. His data showed that the Church of Christ, which preached equality for all, segregated and discriminates against Dalit Christians, literally from the cradle to the graveyard. Yet another research on atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu indicated that as long as Dalits accepted their ‘lowly' status, they were allowed to live in peace, but if they questioned the unjust practices, they became victims of vandalism.

The findings made Father Antony realise that the caste divide was deeply rooted in society and launch the Dalit Christian Liberation Movement in 1989, with the objective of getting justice for Dalit Christians from the churches and state governments. His role, however, was misconstrued as creating law and order problem within the church and he soon stepped down, only to form the Dalit Integration Federation with the aim of forging unity among Dalit leaders and masses.

An avid reader of Leftist literature, Father Antony realised how social reformers across the globe strengthened their movements by relying on institutional support. With the intention of giving an organisational support to his efforts, Father Antony formed a trust and by the year 2000 built a campus called Mandela Nagar, where today stand two institutions of great significance – Dr. Ambedkar Cultural Academy and Ceyrac Medical Foundation – spread over 20 acres. The latter provides medical care to the poor in villages while the academy runs evening study centres, summer camps, a teacher training institute, and provides for higher education for Dalit girls.

In the past ten years, the campus has helped hundreds of poor Dalit girls — many of them orphans — from the seven districts of Madurai, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga, Ramnad, Tirunelveli, Thoothookudi and Dindigul overcome the social, cultural and psychological barriers, which Father Anthony describes as “a step towards Dalit liberation.”

“Total liberation is possible if we quicken the process and bolster the Dalit movements,” he says. It is his dream to start a university exclusively for Dalit girls and expose them to higher education in arts and science, engineering, law, agriculture, business administration and IT. “Only if they get an opportunity will they reach the promised land where there is no bondage or servitude. They will be the fearless children of modern society, who will be able to assert themselves,” he says.

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail to somabasu@thehindu.co.in to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)

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