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Taking Sides with the Poor

Taking Sides with the Poor. An Experience of
Insertion Communities in
Madurai Province

Michaelraj Lourdu Ratinam SJ

 

Brief Biography

 

I

n 1973 I joined the Jesuits of Madurai Province. Music was my favourite subject but I was directed by my superiors to study for a B.A. degree in economics instead of music. In 1981 I volunteered to join an insertion community for two years of regency. This community was PALMERA, the first social action Jesuit community in Madurai Province. Later, I joined the same community in 1987 and worked there till 1993. In 1993 I was one of five Jesuits instrumental in forming a new insertion community called KARISAL at Alangulam, a remote village in Virudhunagar district, to work among the most affected Dalits in the district, and I have been there since that time. Meanwhile, I graduated in Political Science at Madurai Kamaraj University, Madurai in 1988, and Mass Communication at Marquette University, Milwaukee, USA in 2003.

 

Social, cultural, and economical context

 

Indian social caste hierarchy is perpetuated and maintained by the ideology of “pollution by birth,” that is, people belonging to certain castes are considered “untouchables” by others. Today these “untouchables” call themselves Dalits (a broken people). In our state of Tamil Nadu (home of the Madurai province), three major castes (Pallan, Parayan, and Sakkilian) and a number of smaller caste groups comprise the so-called “untouchables” or Dalits. For many years Jesuits were involved in empowering the Dalits in those areas where the Pallars and Parayars are a majority. One such Jesuit venture was PALMERA (People’s Action and Liberation Movement in East Ramnad), an insertion community to serve among the Dalits of what was then East Ramnad district. In the year 1992 Fr. Mark Stephen SJ, province coordinator for social action, was looking for volunteers to start a new mission among the Arunthathiyars, the most disadvantaged people among Dalits. I was one of four Jesuits who volunteered to start a mission for Arunthathiyars in 1993 in the small village-town called Alangulam in Virudhunagar district.

Houses and streets in all traditional villages of India are constructed based on the caste structure of the particular village. It is easy to find out the Arunthathiyar street or settlement because it will always be away from the houses of the so-called high caste, usually at the eastern side which is traditionally used as a space for open toilets or to dump filth and waste. Usually, no one enters these settlements except the high caste men who hire Arunthathiyars as daily labourers, and moneylenders who come, especially on Saturday which is pay-day, to collect interest as high as 200 per cent per annum.

Just by being with them and visiting them often I came to know that Arunthathiyars are very hospitable, and at the same time, very poor. They have just one square meal a day. The other two meals are not, properly speaking, full meals. A study undertaken in 1998 shows that 95 per cent of these people are affected by malnutrition. With practically no land of their own, Arunthathiyars are mostly engaged as manual labour in agriculture farms, in building construction and as scavengers on a day-to-day basis. Though the state prohibits compulsory “caste-based works”, some Arunthathiyars are still engaged in their traditional occupations such as skinning the carcasses of dead animals for leather, making and repairing shoes, cremating the dead, scavenging for the whole village, manually cleaning the toilets, and all work related to dead animals, leather, and filth. In modern times many Aruthathiyars work in matchbox and fireworks industries. These industries employ child labourers and expose the workers to fatal risks and fire accidents, which occur regularly. On the social level they are still considered “untouchables” and are prohibited from participating in social and religious functions celebrated by other castes. Forbidden to educate themselves for thousands of years, their literacy rates are very low. Most Arunthathiyar students today are the first generation to go to school or college.

 

Nature and Types of Activities undertaken

 

At the time I joined PALMERA the problems faced by the Dalits of East Ramnad district were basically related to untouchability and social discrimination. In some places it was also a matter of unequal distribution of both private and public wealth. The PALMERA team was earlier deeply involved in creating political and social awareness by organizing each village as a Sangam (Union). Taking proper and prompt action along with the people in any human rights violation that might happen all on a sudden was the Jesuit team’s greatest contribution. In 1989, nearly after ten years of PALMERA insertion, the people overwhelmingly expressed the need to give priority to the welfare conditions of Dalits. They wanted support for formal education, technical education for the uneducated, and state-owned government jobs. The Dalits’ struggle for freedom and human rights almost cost them their traditional jobs, as many landlords would not hire them, purposely making them starve. The team changed the activities accordingly. Without compromising with the socio-political dimension of the work the PALMERA team began to take up educational and developmental activities as well.

In KARISAL the Jesuit team decided to tutor school students in the evenings for the following two reasons: teaching the children seemed to be an easy entry into Arunthathiyar settlements; secondly, the children badly need education, and evening study is likely to reduce school dropouts and child labour. The KARISAL Jesuit team decided to plan activities in consultation with the people themselves. After a number of meetings and consultations with the Arunthathiyar people themselves, KARISAL came into legal existence as a registered society in 1997. The activities recommended by the committee were: supporting formal education for students through evening studies and hostel facilities; providing basic technical training for the uneducated, poorly educated and girl drop outs; providing basic health facilities and training to overcome malnutrition in the target area, and imparting social and political awareness among youth and women through workshops and seminars.

The KARISAL Jesuit team decided to take up the needs expressed by the committee and, with the help of a few donors and the Madurai province administration, put up two buildings: one to provide boarding and lodging for the school students, and the other to accommodate the technical training girls as well as a small health centre to provide basic medicine and treatment. While supporting infrastructures were constructed at KARISAL centre, the Jesuit residence remained in the same rented house and the simple lifestyle continued. Regular village visits and organisational meetings were planned to empower the Arunthathiyars socially and politically. Contacts were built with other social groups in support of the Arunthathiyar cause. We also introduced other activities, such as use of folk arts and street theatre, audio-video technology, and learning and writing skills for social justice, to support the basic plan.

 

Reflections on insertion community experience

 

All my insertion community experiences are part of a simple way of life: simple but nutritious food, sharing rooms, walking or cycling to villages along with the villagers, eating the evening meal in whichever village we were visiting, wearing simple dress so as not stand out from the rest. Once, when I visited Masillamani and Arockiaraj in the village they were staying, a boy came rushing to me and said, “Sir, the other sirs who are living here have four spoons for serving food: one for rice, one for curry, one for vegetable, and one I do not know for what. You must be really rich”. I asked him how many he had at home. He replied, “In most of our houses we have only one big spoon to serve every thing at mealtime”. I understood the meaning of poverty that day.

I feel that promotion of justice starts from taking sides with the poor as Jesus did. Taking sides to me means a close friendship with the poor. Such a friendship is realised only in our availability to the poor. We have our own schedules and timetables. The poor may need us at any moment because their troubles shoot from anywhere and at any time. This availability is very essential to creating the relationships, friendships and confidence so crucial for a meaningful ministry.

Once, when I had been visiting in the village and teaching the students only two months, I was given a night meal. As we ate a young girl in the family asked me,

 

“Which branch of our caste do you belong to?”
(There are two branches – Jaana and Thaasari – among Arunthathiyars).

 

“How do you know that I belong to your caste?”

 

“You must be from our caste because nobody else would eat any food, especially beef, cooked in our houses. Since you eat it, you must be from our caste.”

 

She continued to believe that I was an Arunthathiyar until she came to know about my origin later. Identifying with the poor is basically partaking of their meals with them. That is why our Lord chose the last supper. Eating with them means a lot to Arunthathiyars. They never let a guest go without a meal. I realised that I had not only to receive them in the place where I live but also visit them with care and concern.

It was during my regency that I realised that I needed to listen to them rather than preach. I know very well that formal education would help Arunthathiyars in the long run. But how do I handle a person who convinces me, saying that the economic benefit from child labour is very vital for the child’s existence? Do I wait for a change in the political or economic system that would take care of child labour? Or should I do something for these children? Or should I make the parents work for a solution to this problem? I realised that I needed to know more about what to do in such circumstances and that I had to suspend some of my convictions, conclusions, and certainties. I needed the humility to accept the voice of God in the people and wait for His will to act.

Community or group decision-making process has helped me understand other team members. Moreover the collective decision-making puts on me a moral pressure to be involved in the ministry in the way agreed upon at the group meeting. Certainly there will be areas where an individual can give room to his originality and subjectivity without altering the vision and the goal of the mission. I was part of many heated discussions in the team’s decision-making process, full of challenges regarding strategies, clarifications on methodologies, pointing out of mistakes and omissions, and finally a fitting action plan at the end.

Just seven months after our insertion at Alangulam the new Provincial made his visitation to KARISAL and practically requested us to abandon the insertion process. The reason was that there were no compelling answers to the questions asked by the new consult members of the province: Why should four priests waste their time in such useless work and ‘irreligious’ circumstances? It was the Holy Spirit who spoke through us to the Provincial that day. At the end, Fr. Provincial said that he would let us go on for a year as we were all collectively convinced and united in the insertion. A narrow understanding of Jesuit priesthood and social reality is the reason behind such objections. Of course the results in the social transformation ministry are not revealed like mark sheets in universities and colleges. The social action ministry is full of activity, tension, process, and action. But the change is very slow and you need special social skills to measure the change that takes place. Both in PALMERA and KARISAL there were changes for the better. The political and social balance in PALMERA area now is wholly different from what it was before PALMERA came into existence. People who have themselves changed vouchsafe that PALMERA played a key role in the changes. Two research studies made on KARISAL activities reveal that there has been a rapid rise in the literacy rate among Arunthathiyars in the target area. I was convinced that once I knew, after group discernment, that I was doing the right thing, I would go ahead without counting the cost and waiting for a reward. The same Fr. Provincial after four years declared in a regional Jesuit gathering that the KARISAL Jesuit community was really doing something closer to what Ignatius wanted us to do than any of our other communities.

 

The future of insertion communities

 

There is a big question in my mind: are insertion communities relevant today? Were they dropped because there were no volunteers? Or were they dropped because they were not relevant to modern times? I do understand that insertion communities may not become a permanent structure as they need to change according to the needs of the poor. I see in KARISAL and PALMERA, a total change has taken place with the communities in response to the type of activities undertaken. At the same time, one cannot underestimate the role of PALMERA or KARISAL as insertion communities in the process of empowering the poor. Indeed, every new social action ministry has started with, or been supported by, an insertion community. I still feel the insertion community definitely has a role to play in a country like India under the following conditions.

The choice of the target people and the area is very important for starting an insertion community. Are our target people the poorest among the poor? Is the area of operation our choice or the choice of the people who suffer? Have we made any study identifying the poorest among the poor? Are we interested in the poor who do not even have access to reach us, or the poor who come to us? Have we ever searched for the people who suffer the most? Have we ever visited the people who are most oppressed? Answering these questions will guide us in determining the type of social action ministry we need to do. Reaching out to the least should be the basic guideline in selecting the target people and the area of operation. While Indians find places among the richest in the world, it is also a fact that the gap between the rich and the poor is becoming very wide. The number of poor people who are marginalised and oppressed because of caste, unequal distribution of wealth, power, and money, and globalisation, is continually on the rise. An insertion community where no one has yet gone is the best way of starting the social action ministry in India.

For maximum effectiveness the insertion community should be composed of volunteers. The volunteers should believe in Jesus, the poor, and God speaking through the poor. They should also believe that all of us are equal before God, and yet God will take only side with the oppressed poor and the sick. These volunteers should plan and evolve their vision, goal, strategy, and the target people much ahead of living as a community.

The success of an insertion community depends mainly on the “Action-Critical Evaluation-Reflection-Planning-Action” cycle. Each element in the cycle is to be taken very seriously and all our activities should follow this procedure. It is likely that we often miss this exercise with our target people because it is very difficult to do physically and calls for a strong will. Openness to evolving strategies with the target group must be an important criterion to start any social action mission.

The lifestyle of an insertion community should be the one that supports the social action ministry undertaken. It was a revelation to me that many among the target people see lifestyle not simply as a means for living but as a value expressing our social reality. The lifestyle of an insertion community should therefore be such as enables the poor to reach us without any difficulty.

After all these years of living in insertion communities I feel very happy and peaceful deep inside. I feel satisfied because I have had the chance of participating in the life of Jesus through poverty, humility, hard work, and detachment. I thank the Society for allowing me to experience this. Not once has the fact of being in an insertion community left me rejected or dejected. Instead, I have found in it a strength to share with others whatever I have and to empty myself for the sake of the poor.

 

Michaelraj Lourdu Ratinam SJ

Karisal Centre

Vembakkottai Road

Alangulam 626144

Virudhunagar District

Thamizhnaadu – INDIA