Magazine 2014
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
Margaret Fernandes Joseph  
Dalit endru sollada; talai nimirindu nillada” – ‘Say you are a Dalit lift up your head and stand tall.’ This  
line from the Dalit Catholic author, Bama’s Afterword to the first edition of her autobiography ‘Karukku’ in  
000 is echoed in the Roman Catholic Church’s efforts to set right the centuries of injustice meted out  
to Dalit Catholics who form the largest majority of the Christian population in Tamil Nadu who embraced  
Christianity because of its explicitly egalitarian teachings which preached love for all humankind as one  
of its basic tenets.  
The concept and category of ‘Dalit Christians’ and the slogan ‘Dalit is dignified’ was formulated by the  
Christian Dalit Liberation Movement in 1985. The National Convention of All India Catholic Union (AICU)  
first used the term ‘Dalit Christians’ in 1989. Today, the CBCI Commission (Catholic Bishops Conference  
of India) for SC/ST/BC is active in the battle for extending the privileges given to other S.C. converts to  
Christian converts as well so that they are not marginalized by the State and society.  
Through the analysis of ‘KARUKKU’, the autobiography of Faustina Mary Fatima Rani, better known as  
Bama, an ex-nun from Tamil Nadu, this paper will examine the scourge of caste discrimination in the  
Catholic Church and its institutions where Christian belief and practice stand in glaring conflict. The  
social practices of our society have pervaded deeply into Christianity and caste oppression is a lived  
reality. A Scheduled Caste person is considered to be an untouchable irrespective of the faith he/she  
may profess. The upper caste converts to Christianity gave up their religion but did not give up their  
caste practices. Thus whatever else conversion may mean to the ‘dalit’ Chrisitans, it did not change the  
material reality of their situation.  
Keywords : Dalit, Caste Coscioness, Church, Self-discovery.  
Introduction: Roots of Caste in the Catholic Church  
Karukku’ is a personal testimony of the anguish and social injustice experienced by Faustina Mary  
Fatima Rani, better known as Bama, and her fellow Tamil Christian brethren in a society where even  
the Roman Catholic Church and its institutions are tainted by caste discrimination.  
The first major impact of Christianity in India was in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. According to tradition, St.  
Thomas one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ came to the Malabar coast in 52 A.D. and preached  
the Gospel mainly to Brahmin families who were converted to Christianity. The Thomas Christians are  
still conscious of their high caste origins.  
It was more than a thousand years later, around 1500, that aggressive European evangelization took  
place under the Portuguese. It was Pope Alexander VI who in 1493 entrusted the eastern region to the  
Portuguese for missionary activity. The earliest converts in this period were Tamil Paravas, mainly  
fishermen. However, the missionaries who found it easy to convert the lower castes were challenged  
by the zeal to convert the upper castes to their faith for reasons other than material considerations  
which they believed induced the easy conversion of the lower castes.  
The roots of caste in the Catholic Church can be understood by examining the life and work of the  
Jesuit priest Robert de Nobili (1577-1656) and his efforts to propagate the faith among upper caste  
Hindus. The negative impressions and disapproval of the culture of the meat-eating Christian missionary  
had to be countered if Brahmins were to be coaxed into entering the fold. Like St. Paul of the ancient  
period who accommodated local traditions and culture when preaching, Robert de Nobili felt that  
accommodating Hindu customs was necessary to his mission. He called himself ‘Tattuva  
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Potakar’(philosophy preacher) and dressed and lived like a sanyasi, abstaining from meat, fish ,eggs  
and alcohol and eating food cooked only by Brahmins. He marked his brow with sandal paste and  
wore the sacred thread. He claimed that he was a Tuscan Patrician, he was a Brahmin by caste. He  
said that caste had no significance at all and that a convert does not renounce his caste, nobility or  
In 1609 the Madurai Mission founded by de Nobili practised caste fully. There were priests belonging  
to different castes. While Brahmin sanyasis ‘Brahmanasanyasis’ ministered exclusively to the high  
castes, another category of priests, the ‘pandaraswamis’ ministered to the low castes. In “The Condition  
of the Convert”, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar observes, “…these Madura Missionaries, in their anxiety to present  
Christianity to the converts free from any Western customs that might give offence, had tolerated  
among their converts several Hindu customs as concessions to the converts…If there exists caste and  
other forms among Christian converts it is the result of this policy – policy of making Christianity easy.  
In adopting this policy the Missionaries never thought some day, somebody would ask them, ‘What  
good is Christianity for a Hindu if it does not do away with his Caste? They misunderstood their mission  
and thought that making a person Christian was the same thing as making him a follower of  
Assuming that the caste system was a social given, the Catholic Church followed the policy of  
accommodation and chose to work within the caste system and pursued a policy of conversion without  
detaching the individual from the social context. The missionary’s request for permission to  
accommodate certain caste practices was acceded to by the Bull of Pope Gregory XV, ‘Bulla Romanae  
Sedis Antistes’ dated 1623. External rites like the sacred thread, sandal and ablutis which denoted  
nobility and function were considered tolerable. Thus the Indian church compromised with the caste  
culture of India.  
To understand the overwhelming impact of this adjustment, one must note that of the 20 million Christians  
in India (2% of the Indian population) nearly 70% i.e. 14 million are Dalits. What good is Christianity to  
a Dalit if it cannot do away with caste discrimination and promote the equality of all people? Today, the  
Church is attempting to set right this error of judgement so that the true message of Jesus Christ, the  
liberator of the downtrodden, becomes a reality.  
In ‘ Karukku’ Bama recollects the beauty and ugliness of her childhood in the village and interrogates  
the issues that confront her community from the vantage point of an educated Dalit. She has lived with  
the segregation of the lower caste Christians from the upper castes, each keeping to their side of the  
village. We are told that besides the post office, the panchayat board, the milk depot, the big shop, “the  
church, the school, the convent and the priest’s bungalow were all in places where the upper caste  
communities lived…most of the children attending the school were from our streets…about three  
quarters were Pallar and Parayar but the school the priest built was on Nadar street….Perhaps the  
priest and the sisters chose to live elsewhere because of the filthy conditions here. I don’t know” (88)  
The narrator has “seen, felt and experienced” the humiliation of being an ‘untouchable’ but it is only  
when she is in class three that for the first time she hears people speak of it openly. Her brother alerts  
her to the predicament of her community when she narrates what she believes is a comic incident of a  
respected Paraya elder approaching the Naicker landlord carrying a green banana bhajji in a packet  
tied to a string. Her amusement dries up when her brother tells her that the elder was compelled to  
hold the packet thus because he was forbidden from polluting the high caste landlord’s food with his  
touch. She is shocked, provoked and angry and makes up her mind to follow Annan’s instructions “to  
study hard and make progress in order to throw away these indignities” (18)  
In the seventh class, an innocent happy game goes sour when the coconut she touches accidently  
falls off the tree and she is accused of stealing and made to stand outside the school. Her plea to the  
priest for permission to enter her class is met with a predictably prejudiced reply from the priest, “After  
all, you are from the Cheri. You might have done it. You must have done it” (19) The discriminatory  
treatment by priests and nuns has such a deep impression on the village children that they often  
played at being priests and nuns who came and gave us blows”. Her experience in the Catholic  
school in the neighbouring town when she is in class nine is no different. The warden sister of the  
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hostel cannot abide low caste or poor children and scolds them for no rhyme or reason. But Bama’s  
moment of triumph comes when she stands first in the S.S.L.C. examination and she is not ashamed  
of being looked at as a ‘harijan’.In college too Bama experiences the fact that nuns have different sets  
of rules for the lower caste students when her request for permission to go home for her sibling’s First  
Communion is denied by the Principal who believes that a person of her caste cannot be expected to  
have a celebration. Bama tells us that she challenged the nuns then and later in her life too “because  
of my education I managed to survive among those who spoke the language of caste difference and  
Conversion to Christianity has enhanced the Dalit’s access to education and health facilities. The  
Church educates almost 50 lakh students yearly in India and has 250 developmental societies under  
the aegis of the Diocesan Social Service Society under the apex body Caritas India and Christian  
Auxiliary for Social Action(CASA) The percentage of Dalit Christians in primary schools is 31.2%, high  
schools 15.5%, colleges 10.5%. It is also a fact that the authorities in the church run schools  
predominantly being upper caste, often practices are inherently discriminatory.  
When Bama completes her B.Ed degree and seeks to work in a Catholic School, the nun asks her if  
she was a Nadar and Bama cannot forget the expression on her face when she confesses that she is  
a Parayar, a low caste. Many of the children in her class are Dalits and Bama says, “It struck me  
overwhelmingly that these nuns collectively oppressed Dalit children and teachers so very much; why  
should I not become a nun too and truly help these people who are humiliated so much and kept  
under strict control”(23)She joins the convent and just as she is about to finish her training and become  
a full-fledged nun, a sister tells her that in certain orders, they would not accept a harijan woman as a  
prospective nun and that there was a separate order for them. She laments inwardly “that there was no  
place that was caste free”(25)  
Her indictment of the Church functionaries, the priests and nuns and their manner of disseminating the  
biblical message is hard-hitting. She tells us that she had learnt from the Bible that “God had always  
shown the greatest compassion for the oppressed. And Jesus too, associated himself mainly with the  
poor. Yet nobody had stressed this…Nobody had ever insisted that God is just, righteous, is angered  
by injustices, opposes falsehood, never countenances inequality. There is a great deal of difference  
between this Jesus and the Jesus who is made known through daily pieties. The oppressed are not  
taught about him, but rather are taught in an empty, meaningless way about humility, obedience,  
patience, gentleness”(10) The emphasis on other-worldly gains, the anticipatory future preached by  
the spiritual mentors have kept the Dalit Christians in bondage and Bama tries to pry open the blindfold  
and bring awareness of the dichotomy between the Church teachings and praxis. “It is injustice that  
dances like a demon in the convents, within all the institutions that are run by these people”(106)  
Bama scathingly exposes the hypocrisy she witnessed in the convent. At first she hides the fact that  
she is a Parayar because nuns treated them as “someone suffering from a repulsive disease”(26)  
Bama had entered the convent to help the poor but her request to teach in a school with ordinary and  
poor children is denied and she is forced to teach the wealthy for whom most of the other nuns have  
great reverence. Religious nuns and priests are required to pledge the vows of obedience, poverty  
and chastity and ironically, Bama is reminded that any attempt to disregard the Superiors orders  
would be a violation of the vow of obedience. Life in the convent is one of abundance, the vow of  
poverty a “sham”(77) How wonders Bama can the nuns who have good food, comfortable beds, fans  
and drinking water believe that this is a life of renunciation and poverty? How can they understand or  
empathize with the life of the dispossessed they are supposed to serve? The more she watches the  
power conferred on the title ‘nun’, the more frustrated and dispirited she becomes because they use  
their power to keep the downtrodden in bondage. Everything they said to the Dalit children in their  
care “suggested that this was the way it was meant to be for Dalits; that there was no possibility of  
change. And mainly because of this, those children seemed to accept everything as their fate. From  
dawn to dusk they toiled away in the convents”(103)  
Bama’s whole life has been a witness to discriminatory practices in the church and its institutions. She  
has watched Christmas, Easter , New Year and the Chinnamalai festivals celebrated separately by the  
low caste Parayars and the upper caste Nadars. She has questioned the practice of the poor of the  
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village paying their respects to the priests and nuns by offering them goodies that they cannot ever  
afford to taste themselves, merely because of the blind devotion they are taught. She has wondered  
why they have to offer a ‘pusai’ (mass) in thanksgiving when the case regarding the cemetery is  
declared in their favour and they win over the upper caste Chaaliyar community, when actually it was  
the priest who had betrayed their men who were hiding in the Church and happily watched the police  
brutality without intervening. The parish priest had even refused to help the Parayars with a paltry loan  
of a few rupees for their defence. The Catholic hierarchy is often indifferent to the needs of their  
Parayar parishioners.  
A 1989 survey of social discrimination against Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu by Fr.Anthony Raj S.J.  
confirms that caste hierarchy is reproduced in Christian village communities in the organization of  
service (around agriculture, the life crisis rites of death etc.) and of public spaces (in churches, schools  
or processions of saints) which imposed exclusions or ignominious service on Dalit Christians. They  
are excluded from upper caste churches, have separate chapels, separate seating arrangement,  
separate queues for receiving Holy Communion, separate liturgical services, separate cemeteries  
and funeral biers. For fear of Dalits claiming equal participation in the celebration of the feast of the  
parish patron saint, parish councils decide not to collect financial contributions from Dalits. Not only  
had the Church failed to compensate for the social oppression of its Dalit members but it was also  
within’ the church itself that Dalits experienced discrimination. Priests and nuns were not only guilty of  
discrimination but also lent support to the exclusions imposed by upper caste parishioners. As. Fr. Raj  
reported, “It was the clergy – not society who my Christian Dalit interlocuters held responsible for  
reinforcing caste in the church, enacting a self-deification before the voiceless”.  
Bama’s soul-searching had left her with the feeling that she had been deceived by the nuns and  
priests, that “they are all hypocrites and frauds”.(102) She cannot play act any longer and in 1992,  
after seven years as a nun, she is determined to exit this “counterfeit existence.” (120) She leaves the  
order to spend her life “ usefully working for the liberation of Dalits” She is convinced that though the  
path she is choosing does not have the security of institutionalized Christianity, “the Lord will show her  
the way”(136) and that “Dalits have also understood that God is not like this, has not spoken like this.  
They have become aware that they too were created in the likeness of God. There is a new strength  
within them, urging them to reclaim that likeness which has been so far repressed, ruined, obliterated;  
and to begin to live again with honour, self respect, and with love towards all humankind.” (109)  
Karukku’ holds up to intense scrutiny the injustice Bama faced because she was born a Dalit and as  
she leaves the convent she says with determination, “We must crush all these institutions that use  
caste to bully us into submission.”(28)The first step she takes is writing her autobiography with the  
encouragement and support of Fr. M. Jeyaraj of IDEAS, a Jesuit priest who was influenced by Liberation  
The beginnings of contemporary Dalit Christian activism are to be found in the critique of caste led by  
Catholic clergy. It was in the 1970’s – 1990’s when caste became the subject of theological reflection  
and social action. David Mosse in his article ‘The Catholic church and Dalit Christian Activism’ traces  
the Jesuit Dalit priests’ protest against their own marginalization in seminaries and in their ministry in  
the 1980’s. Returning from his doctoral studies Fr. Anthony Raj S.J. was the first to give public expression  
to Dalit Christian anger against a ‘Church with outcasts’. He became a role model. In 1985, Fr. Raj,  
along with other Dalit Jesuits and a group of Dalit N.G.O.’s promoted the formation of a state level Dalit  
Christian Movement in Tamil Nadu, later renamed Dalit Christian Liberation Movement (DCLM) to  
address caste discrimination in the Church. There were several liberal bishops who backed the  
movement. The initiative brought pro-Dalit institutional change in admissions, pastoral and social  
initiatives and reorganized their ministries with the Dalit commission (1990) as the link and monitoring  
unit. The Catholic bishops of Tamil Nadu announced 1990 to 2000 as the ‘Decade of Dalit Development’  
and drew up a 10 point programme to eliminate discrimination in worship and cemeteries, promoting  
Dalit vocations, encouraging Dalit leadership in church organizations, giving preference to dalits in  
scholarships, admissions to training institutions, focused social service and supporting their claims  
from the state. The programme was overseen and monitored by diocesan ‘Dalit Commissions’. Yet the  
change in perception has been slow in spreading. Even though Dalit Christians constitute 70-75% of  
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the Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu, only 6% among priests and nuns are Dalit. Similarly, there are  
about 8 (5%) Dalit bishops among 155 Catholic bishops in India.  
In November, 1999, an open memorandum was issued by DCLM to Pope John Paul II apprising him of  
the condition of Dalit Christians. On 17 November, 2003, Pope John Paul II addressed a group of  
Bishops from India ,”They (Christians of SC origin) should never be segregated from other members  
of society. Any semblance of caste-based prejudice in relations between Christians is a countersign to  
authentic human solidarity, a threat to genuine spirituality and a serious hindrance to the Church’s  
mission of evangelization. Therefore, customs or traditions that perpetuate or reinforce caste division  
should be sensitively reformed so that they may become an expression of solidarity of the whole  
Christian community.” In 2004, Bishops of Tamil Nadu acknowledged continued caste discrimination  
in the Church institutions and reasserted the opposition of Christianity to casteism setting in place a  
new action plan which included teaching against untouchability in prayer and catechism texts and  
making reservation in admissions and appointments compulsory and proportionate to the Dalit  
population in the diocese. Awareness of the discrimination against Dalits and the resolve to fight it  
became an important agenda of the Catholic Church in Tamil Nadu. Christian Dalit seminarians, novices  
and others were able to articulate caste identities which a decade ago, nuns like Bama had to conceal  
for fear of ostracism in religious institutions.  
Writing ‘Karukku’ was a means of confronting the demons within and of healing wounds. By becoming  
the ‘saw-edged karukku’ herself, Bama challenged her oppressors and inspired the downtrodden. In  
her Forward to the 2011 edition of the book, Bama observes that ‘Karukku’ has been a comfort to many  
who like her have suffered the pain of marginalization and caste discrimination and that it has given  
them courage and helped them to love life once again. Instead of being beaten down they have united  
to find liberation. Their battle has been actively supported today by the Catholic Bishops Conference  
of India Commission for SC/ST/BC. Bama and others like her have challenged the Church to fulfil its  
mission of preaching the good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and letting the  
oppressed go free. (Lk 4:18)  
Bama. Karukku. Trans. Lakshmi Holmstrom. New Delhi. Oxford, 2012. (all quotations from the text  
are from this edition)  
Heredia, Rudolf. Changing Gods : Rethinking Conversion in India. Penguin, New Delhi, 2007.  
Louis, Prakash. ‘Caste based Discrimination and Atrocities on Dalit Christians and the Need for  
Reservation’. Indian Institute of Dalit Studies Working Paper Series, vol. II, no. 4, New Delhi, 2007.  
Louis, Prakash. ‘Dalits and Priestly formation’. Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection. Vol. 64,  
no. 2, 2000. pp 121-131.  
Michael, S.M. ‘Dalit Encounter with Christianity’. Rowena Robinson, Joseph Marianus Kujur (eds.)  
Margins of Faith : Dalit and Tribal Christianity in India. Sage, New Delhi, 2010. pp 51-74.  
Mosse, David. ‘ The Catholic Church and Dalit Christian Activism in contemporary Tamil Nadu’.  
Rowena Robinson, Joseph Marianus Kujur (eds.) Margins of Faith : Dalit and Tribal Christianity.  
Sage, New Delhi, 2010. pp 235-262.  
Richman, Paula. ‘Dalit Transformation, Narrative, and Verbal Art in the Tamil Novels of Bama.  
Manu Bhagvan and Anne Feldhaus (eds.) Speaking Truth to Power : Religion, Caste and the Subaltern  
Question in India. Oxford, New Delhi, 2008. pp 137-152.  
Let Justice be Done to all Dalits! Booklet published by CBCI Commission for SC/ST/BC. New  
Delhi, 2011.  
Ms. Margaret Joseph : Associate Professor, Dept. of English, SNDT College of Arts & SCB College of  
Commerce & Science for Women, Mumbai