Nun becomes savior of Dalits in Tamil Nadu

By Robancy A Helen

Dalits are the so called untouchables of the Indian society. They are still treated untouchables in the Church, and in society. The government too treats them unequal. They are considered Dalits among the Dalits.

The washer men community who are called Thurumbar in Tamil are forced to wash the cloths of the Dalits, who were once considered unseeable. They live outside the village limits mostly in huts without ownership of the land where they live and do the traditional slave jobs like washing the dead body, washing the menstrual cloths of the girls who attain puberty, and bearing the torch during the procession of the deities. In return for these works they used to beg house to house at night and get their food.

Even now some washer-men families beg at night in return of their work. Thus they live inhuman life and without human dignity. Most of them live in utter poverty and they are illiterates. Their children who grow in this hostile situation experience the same and lack education and self-esteem.

The history and the story especially of Dalit women have been a story of oppression by the triple headed, centuries-old monster of caste, class and gender. To be born into an untouchable caste is the worst misfortune that can happen to a woman. Such a woman is a non-person, often with no right to property, no guarantee for her right to life, liberty, and reputation and to free exercise of her powers, talents and choices.

Sister Alphonse is a Dalit nun who joined the Franciscan Sisters of St. Aloysius Gonzaga in 1974. She committed herself to work for the washer men community and faced severe obstacles to fulfil her religious vocation. When the Dalits were denied entering into religious life, the Gonzaga congregation was started mainly to promote the Dalit vocation.

To live for God is not only to close oneself in the convents but it is also to live like Christ. Sr. Alphonse realised that the true prayer is working for the people in need especially the Dalits who are discriminated even in the Church. Though her initial life in the convent was unable to adjust, she was faithful to the call of her religious vocation.

When she was a child, she accompanied by her grandfather to the meetings with the great social reformist EVR Periyar, she developed the concept of social justice. When she was asked to marry her close relative, she chose to be a nun; she thought to offer her life for Christ and to society.

Many troubles and difficulties came along the way but she stood by her vocation as she understood God was leading her life. Over 44 years ago the convent life was so restricted compared to the present times. The nuns were not allowed to go out of the convent. The Gonsaga congregation was mainly started for the Dalit women as the Dalits were not allowed to enter into the religious congregations.

The Dalit nuns were discriminated by the Church heads. They were not supposed to prepare the altar or to cook for the bishops and high caste priests as they would pollute the environment. The Dalit nuns were given food in separate plates and given communion after everybody received it.

Sr. Alphonse was brave enough to raise all the unjust practices happened around her. One day when she went to purchase vegetables, she saw lot of people protesting for some land issues and there she sat in protest among the people till the evening. That was her first experience as a nun to be with the people.

People also welcomed her in their homes. There was a time when she started realising her call as a religious. If we are not for the poor and the down-trodden, our religious call does not give any meaning at all. She was asked to study nursing in Pondicherry by her congregation. She refused to go for higher studies due to a bad experience she faced in the past.

She got a special permission from her congregation to work among the washer men community in Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. She conducted a research on the condition of the Dalit women there.

She went and stayed among the Dalits in dhobi family. She became one among them. She ate what was provided in begging from house to house. At night she was given dinner in the family where she stayed. She dressed like the women of that community.

Though the family did not have enough facilities to make her stay comfortable, they provided the best they had. At times the family were worried about her safety in the area. It was not a place for a nun to stay there.

There was a custom when these women are married, they had to go and spend their nuptial night with the so called dominant caste village leader. This particular incident took place in a village called Palayanoor, Triuvanamalai district, Tamil Nadu. If the Dalit women refused they were denied food from the dominant caste people.

Her interest towards her work with the Dalit women of the washer men community made her to produce a documentary called ‘Echam Micham’ which means left over; so to say that the Dalit bridegrooms have to have physical intimacy with their brides only after the village leader. Also they can have only the leftover food begged from the dominant caste people. This attitude continued among the Dalits with the concept that “If I go to him to satisfy his lust, food will reach my house, if I refuse to go to him to satisfy his lust, sadness will reach my house.”

Dalits faced exclusion by the dominant castes. When Sr. Alphonse came to know about this atrocity, she tried to abolish this custom. While doing so, she was threatened by the Caste people.

She had to face a lot of troubles in her journey towards empowering the Dalit women. They did not allow her to work among the Washer men community. She was beaten up and police cases are filed against her. She went to jail many times. Her health suffered yet she did not stop her works.

While working for this community, she managed to educate the boys and girls. As a result, a boy and a girl found their religious vocation and admitted for their formation. This community once considered unseeables now gets back their dignity and their rights because of the noble work of Sr. Alphonse and Fr. Valan, a Salesian priest.

Recently Sr. Alphonse had to intervene in shutting down a liquor shop which was in front of a school. She went and staged a protest singlehandedly. The officials came and tried to convince Sr. Alphonse to stop it but in vain. At the end the liquor shop was closed.

She is a simple woman in appearance but strong in her convictions. She is an inspiration for many religious women and social workers. Though she faced caste discrimination in the Church and the Society, she continues her noble work.

Sr. Alphonse was honored with seven state awards and three national awards for her tireless service.

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