In Kanyakumari, Dalits face invisible discrimination

Catherine Booth Hospital in Puthery, run by the Salvation Army, a congregation Dalits in Kanyakumari closely identify with –Special Arrangement

Catherine Booth Hospital in Puthery, run by the Salvation Army, a congregation Dalits in Kanyakumari closely identify with –Special Arrangement  


The observation made 79 years ago by legendary British Missionary-Surgeon Theodore Howard Somervell in his memoir ‘After Everest: The Experiences of a Mountaineer and Medical Missionary’ remains valid even today on the status of Dalits in Kanyakumari district.

Regretting that “centuries of Hinduism, in spite of their great mystics, have never given untouchables a chance”, Dr Somervell, who served the CSI Mission hospital in Neyyoor for two decades since 1923, had observed that “caste is firmly embedded in the Indian mind, so much so that many Indian Christians take several generations to throw it off.”

Even though Christianity has empowered Dalits, who are known as Sambavars and relatively well off when compared to their Hindu brothers in the district in so far as they are not subjected to untouchability overtly, they continue to face discrimination in socio-economic and political spheres even six decades after independence.

“Of course, Christianity has liberated them, but not to the extent it could have done. Psychological discrimination continues to plague the Dalits, but not to the extent they suffer in Hinduism,” said Dr James Reynold Daniels, former Principal of the ScottChristian College.

In Kanyakumari district, many of the early leaders of the Church were Dalits and some like John Palmer and Devar Munshi had even contributed to the hymns and lyrics ( Gnanapaatu and Gnana Keerthanai ) regularly sung in churches.

Paul Mani, a Dalit Chrisitian who worked with the Concordia Theological Seminary, claimed that the first Christian Missionary to work in the district was Maharajan Vedamanickam, a Dalit from Tharangambadi. He landed in the district in 1805. “Dalits here face untouchability indirectly. They may not get jobs in Christian institutions. Their children are not given any priority in admission to educational institutions even though there are marriages between Dalits and Nadars,” he said.

Nadar majoritarianism

Dr. Daniels attributed the trend to the emergence of Nadar majoritarianism in the London Missionary Society (LMS). A majority of Dalits joined the Salvation Army after it was launched. The Church of South India (CSI) had ensured special representation for not just Dalits but all minority Christians. We sit together, pray together and attend function. But there is an invisible divide,” he said.

Dr. Somervell also mentions in his memoir how his cook was not allowed to conduct his wedding in a church next door because he belonged to a different caste.

Writer Nada Sivakumar said unlike other districts, untouchability was not blatantly practised in Kanyakumari because of small land holdings. “But they face micro-discrimination,” he says.

“Denial of a role for Dalits in socio-economic and political platforms was explained by the fact that they were never given a representation in Parliament or the Legislative Assembly all these years. Many schemes are out of reach for Dalits because of such a situation,” he said.

While acknowledging the uplifting role of Christianity, Mr. Sivakumar complained that a majority of Dalit Christians retained their Hindu identity for the sake of government benefits. “It comes in the way of people like me enjoying the benefits reserved for Dalits in the Hindu fold,” he said.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 7:01:52 AM |

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