A Tribute to a liberated AdiDravida Christian


 D. Albert, S.J.

[JC Anthony was born in colonial India into an impoverished AdiDravida family. His father was a cook in the British cantonment. He worked in the Indian Air Force of independent India and then in a civilian defence establishment, followed by decades aiding the social welfare activities of the christian church. He reflects on his multiple identities as AdiDravida, a believing and practicing Christian, Indian, Tamil, and a retired serviceman in his book 'My Adi Roots: Emancipation From Caste Stigma'.

He passed away on 20th May 2021. This article is dedicated to him by his long term friend Fr. Albert Devasahayam.]

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Ordinary lives matter. Such as that of Joseph Cruz Anthony (1928-2021), fondly called JC, an AdiDravida Christian, who comes across to me as a most liberated personality.

I first met JC in Shrirampur, a Jesuit community in Pune Province in early 1997 just before my ordination. Though a stranger, he behaved with such ease and friendliness that I felt awkward with my cold response. When he expressed his desire to attend my ordination in Tamil Nadu, I was at a loss of words; his inner freedom was inexplicable. Little did I know at that time that JC had reached a stage in life where no one, least of all a Jesuit, was a stranger to him and that he could relate to anyone with absolute ease.

From my subsequent interactions with JC, the recurring picture that kept coming to my mind was that of an emancipated person who had shattered the fetters of caste and untouchability. Considering the enormous odds faced by people of AdiDravida origin, JC's life carried all the signatures of an untouchable – forbidding dark complexion, inferiority complex, lack of self-esteem, self-confidence and the wherewithal. Yet, in spite of a hostile system, he overcame his caste stigma.

Recently JC published his memoirs 'My Adi Roots: Emancipation from Caste Stigma' (Bangalore, 2016) in which he has narrated very forcefully and without any bitterness his journey of liberation. Here are a few highlights from his journey. 

Birth and education

JC's ancestors hailed from Mathigiri, now a panchayat town near Hosur in Tamil Nadu. He traces his lineage to his great grandfather who was a temple priest (AdiDravidas had their own temples where Brahmins would not enter though today such temples are being appropriated by caste Hindus). Taking over temples is one way of erasing the history of AdiDravidas. His great grandfather worked as a horse shoe-shodder at the Army Remount Depot established by the British at Mathigiri. When this depot was moved to Ahmednagar, JC's great grandfather shifted his family to Bangalore where JC was born. JC was still small when his father took his family to Ahmednagar where the latter worked as army cook.

While settled in Ahmednagar, JC was sent to St. Stanislaus school, Bandra, for education. In those days, Jesuits used to send promising Dalit boys to English medium schools in Pune and Mumbai. These children not only became successful in life but also grew up to be good Catholics. What marvels education can do to transform the lives of Dalits is proven by JC who unlike most kids from his community was truly fortunate to receive a good English medium education from one of the best schools in Mumbai.

Though the first day in school was a disaster owing to his Tamil accent which earned him a Konkani nickname, it did not deter him from excelling in both sports and studies. He showed leadership qualities by captaining the school hockey team; he was also a gifted cricket player. Singing was another area where he excelled, having been gifted with an alto voice which reverberated through the church on Sundays and feast days.

Memorable years in the Indian Air Force

One of the best periods of his life was his stint in the Indian Air Force. After completing his schooling in St. Stanislaus and perhaps against the wishes of some Jesuits who urged him to join the Society of Jesus and owing to the dire poverty at home, JC joined the Air Force at the age of 18.

In the Air Force, JC was assured of "khaana, kapada, kambal, machardaani aur pagaar." With his salary, he was able to support his parents, educate his siblings and their children. As the eldest son and the only substantial bread winner, he took responsibility for his family. For JC it is a matter of personal joy and satisfaction that in some small way he was able to mitigate the caste disabilities of his family. No wonder, everyone in his large extended family holds him in high esteem and loves him deeply.

Voluntary retirement and social involvement

From his early years, JC had a great desire to work for the poor. But due to economic reasons, he opted to join the Air Force to serve the country and to support his family. After completing his family obligations, he left his service in 1983 and got fully involved in various Christian organisations including the Society of Jesus and the Salesian Congregation to dedicate the rest of his life at the service of the poor.

His first major involvement was with SKIP (Skills for Progress), an all India association of charitable private technical and vocational training institutions. He was the first executive secretary from the Adi community and served this organisation for ten years.Next he served as the member secretary of functional vocational training forum (FVTF), founded with the initiative of MISEREOR to train rural youth in skills. As part of its outreach programme, many youths outside the reach of SKIP institutions were trained in driving, motor mechanics and other skills so that after their training and equipped with a tool kit, they could start their own garages and workshops in their areas.

Another major involvement of JC was with the Indian salesians. For nearly six years he served as the facilitator of COMIDE, an international NGO of the salesians. Along with others, he helped establish development offices in all their provinces based on the principles of Participatory Strategic Planning.Ever since his association with SKIP, he was also involved in the development work of Pune Jesuit Province, particularly in the work of Social Centre at Ahmednagar. Conceptualisation of programmes, project writing and fundraising were his important contributions to Social Centre.

Emancipation from caste

By nature, JC was very sensitive to his identity as AdiDravida and knew its oppressive nature. How oppressive one's low caste identity can be was taught to him at an impressionable age not from something others inflicted on him directly but from what centuries of caste segregation and socio-economic suppression had done to his psyche – the loss of self-respect and self-esteem resulting in a strong inferiority complex. A nightmarish experience of his will illustrate this. When he was in school, his grandfather planned to visit him but this news filled him with dread instead of happiness. He was afraid his grandfather's caste would be obvious to others from his dark skin and attire. Being unable to bear the burden of his elite classmates discovering this ugly truth, he felt a compulsive urge to prevent his grandfather from entering the school so as not to be seen by his classmates. JC says he can never forget this bitter and cruel experience. Who can?

JC's experience is not peculiar to him at all. Inferiority complex is the typical consequence of being an untouchable, and its victims will go so far as to disown even their parents in the presence of their upper caste peers. Many a time, such victims once they are better off will distance themselves from their own people and will not lift a finger to help them.

Was the Church free from the perversion of caste discrimination? What I gather from his memoirs is that there was some form of 'social distancing' when his family was living in Ahmednagar cantonment 'lines' away from elite catholics. However, what grieves JC the most about the Church vis-à-vis caste is summed up by Harsh Mander in his preface: While the Church "does not believe in caste, it never actively fought caste discrimination. It remained a quiet bystander."

Apparently, even St. Stanislaus was not free from discrimination; certainly one cannot call it 'caste discrimination', but discrimination all the same. The school boarding had three categories of boarders according to their paying capacity. JC was placed in the third category which was required to do all the menial jobs in the campus as 'a lesson in self-help'. It did leave a mark on him "as being less than others." So was the case with such an inconsequential thing as altar service: though a regular altar server, he could stand no chance to serve Mass on Sundays and feast days because of, guess what - his complexion!

For a person like JC, hailing from the Adi community and used to the ugly contours of caste and untouchability, the Air Force turned out to be a haven of freedom. Everyone in the Air Force had his or her own religion and caste, but no one wore them on their sleeves and let them rear their ugly heads as divisive and oppressive forces. According to JC, the Air Force was an antidote to the caste cleavages that one saw in civilian life.

Liberation of JC from the material, mental and spiritual slavery of caste took place over a period of time spanning his whole life. Three factors played crucial roles in his emancipation apart from the cumulative effects of experience, education and employment.

They are as follows:

(a) Pride in one's roots: After much struggle to understand his identity as AdiDravida, the most excluded, despised and oppressed caste in the caste hierarchy, JC realised that his community had a chequered history that could trace its origin even prior to the so-called Dravidian race, and that its present wretched condition was the result of injustice inflicted by others. The term 'Adi' gave him "a sense of emotional connectedness and pride, of being of ancient or indigenous origin." It erased the psychological damage caused him and his community.

(b) Shattering the myth of caste superiority: Emancipation for an AdiDravida means in practical terms calling the bluff of caste superiority. It is to realise that caste superiority is a fraud built on the myth of superior intelligence and capability of some over others; caste privileges and entitlements are steeped in this fraud which is still at work today.

JC found liberation by shattering this myth. He says, "In my perception only one in a hundred persons may be exceptionally higher or lower in such qualities. The other 98 (sic) have equal intellectual prowess." JC proved beyond doubt during his school and Air Force days that he was second to none in intelligence and performance; whether in studies or sports or music or engineering skills, he was quite outstanding. Pretty much the same can be said about other Adi youth some of whom represented India in the Olympics. Moral: what Dalits need are opportunities and level playing fields which should be the new name for charity.

(c) Christian faith: Without doubt, JC's Christian faith played aseminal role in his emancipation from caste stigma. He found in the Christian sacrament of baptism the answer to the madness of caste and the fatalistic beliefs of karma and rebirth. In baptism he discovered true rebirth that affirmed a life of freedom and equality.

According to JC, baptism is the biggest gift of Christianity. He says it "has set me free and made me responsible for the actions in my own life. It has motivated and strengthened me to overcome my mental subjugation to the fate syndrome so evident in my own family, friends and community."

Conclusion

From the year 2004, JC has been living in his ancestral village of Mathigiri. Now in his twilight years, he still endevours to help his people. With his extensive contacts with donors, he has been able to raise funds to dig wells, repair houses, educate children, and train women in employment generation schemes. He is also busy writing a book on his thoughts on baptism and caste.

JC's greatest achievement, by any reckoning, is his own emancipation from the oppressive tentacles of caste and untouchability. In spite of being an AdiDravida, he can stand erect and hold his head high. That is the legacy he hopes to leave behind.

~~~

 

D. Albert, S.J. is a Jesuit priest engaged in pastoral care in Satara, Maharashtra. Also a friend and admirer of J. C. Anthony.