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India’s Christian Untouchables

Christian Dalits fight for equality in their communities and nation

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Upon arriving in Pappala, a 75-family village in Kerala’s southernmost district of Trivandrum, Father John Ariekal takes a call on his cell phone, which has been ringing incessantly for several minutes. The Syro-Malankara Catholic priest engages in a brief but intense conversation. Hanging up, he relays the terrible news.

A nun who advocated for low-caste communities in eastern India had just been murdered. In recent months, she had led protests against a large coal-mining company that tried to evict local low-caste residents.

“A revenge killing for her efforts to bring the offenders to justice,” says Father Ariekal, “and no one’s been arrested.”

The priest takes the news with relative calm. As secretary of the Dalit Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, he knows well the dangers of working on behalf of India’s downtrodden castes and tribes.

The village of Pappala is entirely Dalit, a Sanskrit word meaning “broken” or “oppressed.” Better known as “untouchables,” Dalits are a mixed population consisting of several castes that together constitute the lowest and most disdained group in India’s ancient caste system.

“I go to visit only,” says the priest.

“I’m proud to say I know their mentality. I know the pulse of this low-caste community. Most of the fathers [before me] failed to connect with them. They saw their caste, not their face.”

Word of Father Ariekal’s arrival spreads fast. Villagers gather at St. Thomas Syro-Malankara Catholic Church to welcome him. He consecrated the church in 1999.

“They will come one by one,” he says.

“Soon, everybody will come.” Indeed, a line starts to form before Father Ariekal, who greets each villager with warm embraces. Laughter fills the air.

“They have no money,” says the priest.

“That’s why they say to me: ‘We have nothing but loving hearts to give you.’ ”

Suseelain Kamalain, a 55-year-old day laborer, eagerly waits his turn to meet Father Ariekal. The man wears a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, exposing his skeletal frame and sinewy muscles. A red cotton scarf — typical attire among India’s working poor — is draped over his bony shoulder. His wide grin reveals a broken front tooth. And around his neck hangs a cracked crucifix.

For Mr. Kamalain, today was a good day. That morning, he found a job at nearby warehouse loading cement, for which he earned 100 Indian rupees (about $2). In his hands, he holds the fruits of his day’s labor: three fried bananas wrapped in a newspaper and a plastic bag containing two boxes of toothpaste, four and a half pounds of rice — which when mixed with a little fish curry, will feed his family for three days — and candles for the altar in his home.

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